Ping-Pong Diplomacy - San Francisco, 2011

July 13, 2011, 6:19 p.m. (ET)

"Ping-Pong Diplomacy”—it started, you may remember, with the 1971 visit of the U.S. Table Tennis Team to China that, as Premier Chou En-lai so famously said, “opened a new page in the relations of the Chinese and American people." In commemorating the 40th Anniversary of this historic event, a Group from China visited Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Yorba Linda, CA  from June 30th through July 9th, 2011.

As I was in Washington, D.C. , playing “Mr. Sally” to my wife who, at Constitution Hall for the Annual Meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution, was being named DAR District Director of Long Island, I had to miss the U.S. Open in Milwaukee.  And as three years ago, in the Sept.-Oct., 2008 issue of the USATT magazine, I’d reported on “Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Rematch,” held at the President Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, and (though I was there again this year and though, thanks especially to Nixon Foundation President Sandy Quinn, it was again highly successfuI) I didn't want to repeat myself, so I’ve concentrated here just on my experiences in San Francisco.

On my direct flight from New York that arrived earlier in San Francisco than expected, I was traveling with a fellow Ping-Pong Diplomat from 40 years ago, George “The Chief” Braithwaite, and his longtime friend Luz Brissett. We went straight to our historic-minded and quite classy hotel, the St. Regis (recall John Jacob Astor’s 1904 Gilded Age landmark St. Regis in New York), where we’d arrived just in time for a scheduled appearance with San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee. Quickly we joined up with our other 1971 Diplomat on this trip, Judy Bochenski Hoarfrost, her husband Dan, USATT CEO Mike Cavanaugh for whom no job was  too big or too small, and the Chinese TTA and Chinese Olympic Committee (COC) Delegations we’d be sharing a day and a half with before moving on with them to Yorba Linda.   

In addition to some new Chinese diplomatic faces, super-star Champions from the near or distant past  who, as Judy Hoarfrost said, would be “keeping the spirit of Ping-Pong Diplomacy alive with us” were:  Liang Geliang, who from 1971 through 1977 had been a six-time  Team , Men’s and Mixed Doubles World Champion; Lu Yuansheng, now CTTA Vice-President, and as far back as 1975 a member of the winning Chinese Men’s Team and more than 20 years later China’s winning World Women’s Team Captain (once on a bus Lu had taken my hand, was stretching my fingers and showing me wrist exercises that I looked grateful for but didn’t really think would help me to hold any faster to a hoisted martini); Zhang Yining, famously retired after winning various World Women’s Singles and Doubles Championships and two Olympics; Zheng Huaiying (World Mixed winner in 1973); Liu Guozheng (winning World Men’s Team member  in 2001), and, most prominently, China Table Tennis Association President/China Olympic Committee Vice President Cai Zhenhua, who in 1983 when, as in 1981, he was again World Men’s Singles runner-up to Guo Yuehua, played our U.S. Danny Seemiller a memorable five-game Singles match.

Among others in the Chinese Delegations I have occasion now to remember were Team Manager Liu “Karen” Yi who worked for the CTTA International External Affairs Dept. (embarrassingly, I couldn’t on my arrival place her, though she’d been helpful to me in the past). Pan Zhiwei, Deputy Director, COC Secretariat, who ‘d studied at Indiana University in Bloomington, as I did (I gave him a copy of my Ping-Pong Diplomacy book, and in return he gave me the appropriate diplomatic gift of a Mouse Pad “faced in a tapestry of satin fabric”). Another Pan—Pan Qi, from the PRC Consulate. Ever-friendly Journalist Dou Yujia. And Kang Kang Huang who, representing Table Tennis World, was the first to approach me with questions, and apparently so wanted  a copy of my book (“How much does it cost?”) that I gave her one of the few I had with me.

After the CTTA, COC, and USTTA delegations had a box lunch together at City Hall, it was time for a Welcome from Mayor Lee who later sportingly played table tennis for us (and, bravo, did a good job of keeping the ball in play). Also at City Hall, our Judy Hoarfrost gave a well-received speech—with highlights as follows:

“…This 40th Anniversary USA Tour is a very special time for us veteran Ping Pong Diplomacy players to share old pictures and stories and to continue our friendship while sharing the legacy of Ping Pong Diplomacy with the younger generation. For the athletes, four decades ago and now, Ping Pong Diplomacy has always been about bringing people together to transcend political, national, and cultural barriers.

“I was just 15 years old when I went to China. I was a member of the U.S. Team to the World Championships in Nagoya, Japan. It was my first international competition and my first time outside of North America. It was an exciting World Championships, especially because it was the first time the Chinese team would play international competition since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. We all looked forward to seeing them with great anticipation, for to us they were the gods of table tennis, and their absence from competition created an even greater mystique…So, near the conclusion of the tournament, when our team received the invitation from the Chinese delegation to visit China, I was very surprised and eager to go, full of curiosity.

“…China in 1971 was a completely different world from my life in the USA at that time, and certainly very different from China today. We were there eight full days. Of course the highlight of the trip was meeting Premier Zhou Enlai at the Great Hall of the People. We also went to the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Chinese opera, to Tsinghua Technical University, an Industrial Exhibition, and to a model commune. We ate great Chinese food and enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of our hosts. Chinese girls taught me two songs, ‘The East is Red,’ and ‘Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman.’  We learned about China’s communism and read Mao’s little red book. We saw the political slogans and posters of Mao on every building.

“And of course we played Friendship Matches…I will brag to you now that I won three out of four of my matches in China. But I was fully aware that this was a ‘Friendship First, Competition Second’ gift to me.

“I am grateful to the Chinese players and the CTTA for all they have done for our sport. They have led us through their example of outstanding play, coaching, and development. They have shared their expertise with the rest of the world [and in particular, as they said here in San Francisco, have strengthened the ties between the U.S. and China].

“…Ping-Pong Diplomacy does not just apply to the U.S. Table Tennis Team’s trip to China in 1971 and the Chinese Team’s reciprocal visit in 1972. Ping Pong Diplomacy [and here and in her ending that follows Judy anticipates much of what the Chinese would be repeating in their speeches] also applies to the role of all sports bringing people together in peaceful interactions that they might gain perspective and understanding, and learn to appreciate one another.

“Through the legacy of Ping Pong Diplomacy, we carry forward to the new generation a new ‘People’s Revolution’—one that carries a worldwide message of peace, love and cooperation.”

We now move on to another Welcome and more opening remarks—this time at the Sports and Diplomacy Forum held at the nearby San Francisco Public Library. This Forum was coordinated by the ASIA Society (Northern California center), with its Executive Director Bruce Pickering saying a few words, and also by the Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee (BASOC), with remarks from its President (and 1980 Swimming Olympian) Anne Warner Cribbs.  Anne, assisted by BASOC Director of Marketing Helen Mendel and Volunteer Sally Demoss, had tirelessly lapped days of repeated preparation, getting everything as right as possible for the Delegations’ visit here. Other brief speakers were USOC  Director Suzanne Lyons, USATT Chairman of the Board Peter Scudner, and of course Cai Zhenhua (who, much in demand, was called on to speak everywhere we went). Then it was my turn, as USATT Historian, to present a  “Historical Perspective” of Ping-Pong Diplomacy. But that speech I’m leaving as a close to this article.

There followed in that same Koret Auditorium at the Library a Panel moderated by Dr. Robert Kapp, a former Professor of Chinese History at the University of Washington, who, fluent in Mandarin, was particularly good with interlocking comments that helped the non-English-speaking Chinese—Cai Zhenhua, Liang Geliang, and Zheng Huaiying—convey their thoughts. Other speakers were Mikael Andersson, who promotes the ITTF’s Education and Training Program, here as a last-minute substitute for ITTF President Adham Sharara; and Triple Jump Olympian Willie Banks, President of the U.S. Olympic Alumni Association. Caught by surprise, since they expected a question and answer format, were Judy and George who nevertheless had ex-temp things to say. This time I’ll concentrate on George’s response.

He promptly reversed the “Friendship First, Competition Second” mantra—saying that first comes the sport’s play, the tough competition, after which, no hard feelings, comes the sportsman’s show of friendship. This harmony is connected to George’s decades-long belief that Table Tennis can’t prosper in the U.S. so long as Individual play is emphasized. What’s needed—and he himself has tried to make dream become a Northeast reality—are leagues, leagues, and more leagues. Intense weekly matches galore. Perhaps, said George, it’s possible for an aspiring U.S. player to attend, say, 12 tournaments of significant stature a year, but even if one has the wherewithal to do that, it’s not nearly enough to develop world-class strength. In the beginning  of international play in the 1930’s, ‘40’s, 50’s, said George, the emphasis was on the individual. But then the world moved to leagues and the U.S. didn’t, and got left behind.

Moreover, if the Sport in the U.S. is to gain the new membership—men, women, children— it needs to prosper, leagues for players of all levels is the way to go. The key to success is to set up strong State Associations with people who know something about marketing concepts. Money, venues, players, and geographical connections are all needed.  But sport after sport has found its way with leagues, why can’t we?

Maybe in the future. But for the evening of July 5, 2011, all delegations found their way to San Francisco’s City Club (along with it seemed a couple of hundred other people) for a wonderfully gregarious Reception hosted by Consul General Zhansheng Gao, People’s Republic of China.

Might as well comment now on the July 6th evening  too, before I begin to move this article to its completion. After an afternoon Coaches Clinic featuring Lu Yuansheng and two of his CTTA players, Zhang Qiang and Lai Jiaxin, all members of all Delegations left for Palo Alto and an excellent dinner at Ming’s restaurant. This was the second feast of the day for our U.S. veterans, for we’d already had a Ming Emperor’s sumptuous multi-course meal (forget the word lunch) at the R&G Grill, which Chinese Chamber of Commerce President Rose Pak who’d joined us proclaimed her favorite restaurant in Chinatown. And no wonder—we shamelessly downed duck, shrimp and walnuts, spareribs, a rice dish, greens, sea bass, brisket of beef with turnips, ice cream, and whatever else I don’t at the moment remember. Then, that evening after dinner at Ming’s, we were off to Stanford University’s Maples Pavilion for a series of exhibition matches skillfully organized by California Hall of Famer Dennis Davis.

Following Greetings from Consul General Gao, CTTA President Cai Zhenhua, Ms. Cynthia Gire of the U.S. State Department, and Palo Alto Mayor Sid Espinosa, veteran Braithwaite played veteran Liang a match and, oh, “The Chief” had trouble with the way the ball was bouncing—or was it Liang’s rubber? As for veteran Hoarfrost, she played, one at a time, veterans Zheng Huaiying and Yang Jun, and (Did she really have those two big meals almost back to back?) was chasing after the ball as if she were still 15. Following that, U.S. Women’s National Team and Cadet Team member Prachi Jha went on court against Chinese Junior National Team member Zhang Qiang and returned smiling, just as composed as before.

Next up:  China’s Lai Jiaxin vs. 33-year-old  Barney Reed, whom I remember 22 years ago beating me at a tournament in Westfield, N.J.  Barney, of course, added, for which we’re grateful, his usual serio-comic touch to the proceedings.  But, hey, talk about FUN, ITTF Hopes Team members Kanach Jha and Kunal Chodri radiated wonderful-to-see enthusiasm and energy in their matches against Liu Guozheng. Then another interesting Junior/Senior match-up with our U.S. Champion Ariel Hsing exchanging strokes and would-be points with one of the most famous women players in History, Zhang Yining. And now to sign off from the Pavilion, some patterned exhibition play—again between different generations of players, Liu and Lai.

All in all, it had to be an enjoyable time for the many spectators.

Earlier that day, the U.S. veterans did get some exercise by walking up and down a section of hilly Chinatown streets, starting off opposite the Hilton Hotel, on a site that had once been the gateway to Chinatown. We couldn’t have had a more interesting guide—she was Sue Lee, Executive Director of the Chinese Historical Society of America, established in San Francisco, Jan. 5th, 1963. (See the “clinker” brick on that building from the 1906 fire?...See the Methodist church there with the pagoda on top?) Turns out that 90% of the Chinese population to arrive in the U.S. during the first large wave of immigrants in the 19th century, including Sue’s grandmother later in 1924, came from the Pearl River Delta Region. Passage from Hong Kong to San Francisco at that time was $55. Think you could have helped out a few people, do you?

Sue took us to her extensive Museum on Clay Street that houses “one of the country’s largest collections of artifacts tracing the history and cultural legacy of the Chinese in the United States.” (Current exhibit: the famous paintings by Jake Lee that once hung in Kan’s famous celebrity-attended Chinatown restaurant, then were lost… and found.) We learn of the many “Chinese laborers in the development of the fishing, railroad, mining, and agricultural industries in the American West, and how badly they were treated….In 1892, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It prevented people of Chinese descent from becoming citizens…and [generally speaking] from immigrating to the U.S. at all. Many families were split with wives and children stranded overseas. It would take until 1965 before U.S. President Lyndon Johnson abolished this Chinese Exclusion Act.”

Ah, well. So History’s interesting to me, does it matter to ping-pong players?

 To some…I’m sure.

From one Historical setting, then, to another, and now I move to my conclusion.

As a member of the U.S. Group that “opened the door” to China, I was asked to give at that Library Forum on July 5th a 15-minute speech on the history of “Ping-Pong Diplomacy. “  I identified myself, then showed the audience the photos of the front and back covers of my Ping-Pong Diplomacy book . That’s Vol. V in my History of U.S. Table Tennis, which consists of Part I: “Ping-Pong Oddity” (the U.S. Team in China in 1971) and Part II: “The Grand Tour” (the Chinese team in the U.S. in 1972) Front photo:  Chuang Tse-tung and Glenn Cowan are exchanging gifts.  Back photos: Chuang and the leader of our U.S. Group to China, USTTA President Graham Steenhoven, are playing a “Friendship First, Competition Second” match; and Steenhoven is later talking with U.S. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Then , after I’d introduced my diplomatic colleagues, George Braithwaite and Judy Bochenski  Hoarfrost, I gave the following speech (to a generally interested but pretty much uninformed audience):

“Ping-Pong Diplomacy” came about because representatives of two great powers—the People’s Republic of China and the United States—came together at the Nagoya, Japan World Table Tennis Championships in 1971. The exchange of gifts between China’s Chuang Tse-tung and the U.S.’s Glenn Cowan—that may have fostered the unexpected invitation to the Americans to come to China Easter weekend—caught the world by surprise. Including the uninvited U.S. media. Suddenly our Team members were recruited as the most amateur of foreign correspondents. Ridiculous—but, since no U.S. group had been in China for more than 20 years, the world had to know what our untrained eyes were seeing.

“Cameras, tape-recorders, notebooks, instructions for telephoning Moscow or Tokyo were thrust upon us. We were being paid by magazines and newspapers for our efforts, but it was burdensome—George Braithwaite quipped, with more than one noose of responsibility round his neck, that he might open a camera shop. Of course almost immediately wiser heads prevailed, said, “This rag-tag U.S. Group’s gonna be the world’s media? No, no, it was too much for us, we weren’t equipped for it. And so rather quickly the professionals came in.

“But George kept at least one camera going for as long as he had film—in shorter and shorter supply as our week progressed. Photos for a lifetime—they had to be taken, if only for self. Perhaps Life photographer Frank Fischbeck, said to have taken 4,000 photos in accompanying our Team, would be understanding and sympathetic. Outside Shanghai on the last leg of our China trip, both George and Fischbeck happened to go into a commune home at the same time. George asked Frank friendly-like to please take a picture of him inside this home. Frank obliged—he took a straightforward shot of George, then, rapidly, one at this angle, then one at that angle, then he moved a few steps to the side and took another picture, and then another, and then he bent down and took another, and another. In all, he took seven shots with George’s precious film while George, shocked, could only watch dismayed.

“Oh, yes, what disdain the professional had for the amateur.

“Coming out of this commune home, our attention was called to a farm-courtyard ahead of us. Fifteen-year-old Judy Bochenski, later Hoarfrost, was there, standing by an animal. It may have been a water buffalo; she may have been petting it—whatever. The girl and the Chinese beast—it was a must photo-op for our Group’s George Buben. But as he was actually in the process of taking his lifetime scrapbook picture, Fischbeck moved quickly, directly in front of him to take his own photo.

“‘Heyyy,’ said Buben, ‘you SOB, you’ve ruined my picture!’

“‘Look,’ said Fischbeck, ‘don’t be silly. I’m doing a job. You’re just here.’

“JUST here? In China! George, Judy, Tim were…just here?

“That was a long time ago. Much has been forgotten since 1971, but Ping-Pong Diplomacy has survived. Documentaries have been made, are still being made. Every year, and especially at the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, grade-schoolers through graduate students have wanted to do interviews, write papers on Ping-Pong Diplomacy.

“Indeed, a 40-year history of it I’ve been asked to speak on this afternoon! But don’t worry—I’ve come to know my limitations.

“In 1972, the Chinese on making their reciprocal visit to the U.S. were honored guests at various cities round the country, exchanging speeches and exhibition play, as in a dialogue between respected hosts and guests, and of course they met President Nixon in the White House Rose Garden.

“USTTA International Committee Chair Rufford Harrison had been the recipient in 1971 in Nagoya of China’s Sung Chung’s query, ‘Would the U.S. Delegation like to come NOW to China?’ Answer: You betcha.

“In 1984, that same Harrison and his wife Marty accepted an invitation from President Ronald Reagan to attend a White House Dinner in honor of Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang. You might call that a ’12-year-Diplomacy’ remembrance.

“In 1997, the Chinese came to the U.S. to both the East and West Coasts for a 12-day 25th Anniversary celebration recalling their 1972 visit. President Nixon’s daughter Tricia was a guest of honor at the opening Reception at the U.N. in New York, and Henry Kissinger gave a speech beneath the enormous tapestry of the Great Wall that the Chinese had sent as a gift in 1984. There followed in California a Friendship exhibition at Stanford University.

“Then Harrison, ’71 Diplomat Connie Sweeris and her husband Dell, and Judy and Dan Hoarfrost visited China, and Judy wrote up her experiences for our U.S. table tennis magazine (experiences so different from those she’d had 25 years earlier).

“Five years later, Harrison (sort of cloak and dagger-like) accompanied Kissinger, his wife, and bodyguard to China for a 30th reunion.

“In 2006, our U.S. Delegation, while on a 35th Reunion Tour in Beijing, Shanghai, Changshu, and the famous “water town” of Zhouzhuang (which Tour for American readers I did a 6,500-word article on), were given gifts of fashionable Hongshanshu clothing. It was fun to watch Judy and others of our Group take on modeling chores and do classy fashion-show runway walks.

“A few months later, in Guangzhou, at the Oriental Resort, there was more Ping-Pong Diplomacy, and our USATT CEO Mike Cavanaugh signed a contract with the Li Ning Co. to outfit our U.S. Teams.

“In 2008, while again in China, our U.S. Group visited Zhou Enlai’s birthplace. Quite apropos, for it was the 110th Anniversary of his birth—this famed Premier who 40 years earlier had so graciously welcomed us in Peking’s Great Hall of the People.

“And in 2008 at the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda (which we’ll soon be returning to), we remembered that President who played such an important role in Ping-Pong Diplomacy.

“Again and again during these 40 years, at home and abroad, we Americans have met friendly Chinese whom we’ve long had cause to respect. Among them: Xu Yinsheng, Li  Furong, Zhang Xielin, Zhuang Zedong, Liang Geliang, Xi Enting, Li Henan and Liguo Ai, Zheng Minzhi, Zhang Li and Li Zhenshi, Xu Shaofa, Guo Yuehua, and Cai Zhenhua. Now there are new groups of Chinese Ping-Pong Diplomats to be respected.

“Of course respect is best when it works both ways…. Perhaps the people in this room think George, Judy, and Tim, after 40 years of dramatizing Ping-Pong Diplomacy, speaking about it, writing about it, are something more than “just here.” And rightly so. For we represent what Life magazine’s on-the-job but now long-gone professional Frank Fischbeck does not. With us resides a personal Friendship link, and a very powerful symbolic one, between two representatives of major world powers.

“‘Make the Past serve the Present and foreign things serve China,’ said Chairman Mao. But that’s not the whole story, is it? There’s a Diplomacy complement, a dialogue to that. True, I have served China, am serving it now. But China has also served me. It opened the world of international table tennis and foreign fellowship to me. I was 40 when I went there for the first time. I have doubled my life and learning, have written much. And how did it all start? I remember it now almost as if it were occurring again—in China, for a week. But what a life-changing week it was. For now I could write about our Group’s little odyssey, or oddity—and since the 1970’s that China book I wrote, that’s spawned quite a few others, has had a vertical audience. The readership grows, oh, very slowly to be sure, but it grows, as does Ping-Pong Diplomacy itself, like those redwood trees the Chinese and Americans planted in tandem in Changshu.

“Until finally, now, I am here, and George and Judy too. At this moment, just here. And yet—how did it happen?—you in the audience are here too. Just here.

“World-wondrous, isn’t it?