Remembering Peter Cua

By Michael Babuin, PhD, P.G. | June 11, 2014, 9 a.m. (ET)

Peter CuaPeter Cua – innovator, statesman, Liha ambassador, historian, and father of the post-modern global Liha movement passed away June 10, 2014 in Manila. 

Peter only in his early 50’s at the time of his passing was a driven leader who discovered something that all of the rest of us had forgot – or more likely, never learned. I had the pleasure of meeting Peter (online at first) in early 2009. But for most people – they might remember Peter from his commanding presence at the Grand Rapids US Open in 2010 where he led a delightful delegation of Filipinos who traveled thousands of miles, half way around the world to share something very special with the rest of us. At the US Open, there was a procession, a guest soloist who sang the Philippine National Anthem, (Dr. Oscar Santelices daughter), and several speeches broadcast on the PA system. The audience in attendance at the US Open was a bit in awe of the festivities.  What was going on was - Peter was ‘beating the liha drum’ by teaching us about a variant of table tennis commonly practiced in the Philippines called ‘Liha’ which uses sandpaper table tennis rackets, 38 mm balls,  and slightly different rules. He was the world’s premiere salesman, cheerleader, promoter, and ambassador for telling the story to everyone and anyone who would listen. In fact, he was so passionate about Liha and the deep connection between it and the cultural ties of the US and Philippines which spawned liha, that following the US Open he embarked on a 30-day cross country greyhound bus tour to various points in America to meet with clubs all across the United States to spread his message.

What we learned from Peter was that in the late 1800’s the American military came to the Philippines as part of efforts related to ending the Spanish-American war (in 1898) by overthrowing and removing the Spanish from the Philippines who had colonized the islands since 1521. That event marked the demise of the Spanish colonization period and the advent of the American colonization era.  The key point here is that the Americans brought in early boxed sets of Parker Brothers Ping Pong sets into the islands and while troops completed warfare and entered into a stabilization and peacekeeping role, they interacted with the native Filipinos played sports, games, and shared cultures. Many of the sports introduced into the Philippines were American sports – baseball, football, and yes – table tennis. The local teachers called Thomasites spread education and American cultural elements into the country and from that point onward primordial table tennis was a very popular sport. The rules adopted then in 1898 (while not necessarily the Parker Brother rules) still reign today in the Philippines. The sport retains itself because of its simplicity, cheap equipment, and ease of setting up a make shift table almost anywhere.

The thing Peter loved to tell us the most is that the early style of play with a sandpaper racket that we often see in books and early films from the 1920’s and 30’s featuring chops, attacks, skilled drop shots, have been preserved not just in form by todays ‘Lihadors’ but also the equipment has been preserved – anyone can learn to chop the ball with an inverted smooth rubber, sponge racket, but how many people can control chops and attacks using a sandpaper racket and play at an elite level? It is a completely different game and sport.  Peter pointed this out to me and it is quite true, accurate, and relevant. This style of play using only a cheap $1 sandpaper racket, has been lost in the USA and everywhere else in the world for decades – but in the Philippines it still exists, or should I say, it strives and flourishes!  What we have forgotten and what the world had forgot, has been retained and preserved all these years thanks to the people of the Philippines. This is something we should never forget because it is our legacy, our roots, and part of our culture in table tennis that we share as two countries. Ironically, not only did America forget this story linking our cultures in an every so unusual way over the generations but so too, did the people of the Philippines. Fortunately, Peter Cua re-discovered this through research and brought global attention to it over the last several years. 

Moreso than this…our culture is permanently inter-twined with that of the Philippines.  As a country we aided the Philippines during their rule by the Spanish, then in World War II when the Japanese invaded the Philippines we came back and won the islands back for the people of the Philippines, and eventually helped them govern themselves. Peter Cua taught me this. As a visitor to the country you can see American influences everywhere – in the infrastructure of the roads and utilities, in the television, the language, in fact throughout their entire culture. Peter showed and taught me all of this and more. 

When I was there visiting in 2012, I witnessed the mixing of the cultures at Corregidor Island where General McArthur’s troops fought off the Japanese troops in World War II. Today there are memorials to our troops as well as to the fallen Filipinos who gave their lives for freedom. There even is a memorial on Corregidor for the fallen Japanese as well.

What Peter really taught me the most is that by seeing the people in the Philippines, witnessing their daily struggles, sharing their culture, friendship, enthusiasm, zeal, and love of life can you only then, begin to understand how our two countries are permanently bound together in friendship and in deep cultural ties.

This is also true for Liha sandpaper table tennis between our two countries whereas thanks to Peter, we now know where it came from, and more importantly we now realize that the people of the Philippines preserved it for all of us, for all of these decades. As such we now know that the United States owes a great debt of gratitude to the Philippines – and an equally great debt of thanks to a dear friend and a very special man -  Sir Peter Cua. 

Peter Cua
Mr. Peter Cua, Chairman of the Board of USATT Dr. Mike Babuin
and Chinese Coach Lu Yuan Sheng at the 2011 US Open