Chinese American Sports

Written by Albert Deng 

During the 1920s, sports flourished all over Chinatown. Due to the unavailability of physical activities such as fishing, many teenagers of the period found entertainment in sports. Teams were formed and the children planned meetings out of their busy schedules to go to the park and practice. Though some family members disapproved of such get-togethers, the children continued to play without notice. Many of the teams were randomly formed as Johnny Young recalls, “We asked people if they wanted to join up and then they joined up and then we just started playing together.” Tyrus Wong remembers the local Low Wah baseball team, “We had one Chinese that was really tall. We called him ‘city hall’ because that was one of the tallest buildings in LA. But he was a very smart guy.”

In the beginning, sport teams in Chinatown had little help in getting equipment. Many of the athletes had to use discarded or worn-out equipment from former teams to practice. Kenny Ung recalls that, “when we first started, we used discarded equipment from the old Chinese team. The bats were cracked; we nailed and taped them together with wiring tape. After we got through with taping the ball, I would say that it must have weighed a half pound more than the original ball.” Due to the lack of recreational areas in Chinatown devoted to sports, many of the youth were forced to go to lesser than safe areas to practice. Johnny Young remembers, “We practice in Downey playground mostly.  Hazzard Avenue playground in Boyle Heights. In fact, David had his four wheels stolen from his car.”

Their opponents were not limited to Chinatown as Johnny Young recalls that the Wah Kue basketball team “played against Christian groups…and some Japanese teams. And when we got older we used to travel up to San Francisco and play there and maybe stop in Fresno and play them.” Many of the sports teams of Chinatown faced discrimination and racism first hand. Though they faced prejudice initially, they began to change the minds of the spectators as they gained respect from their games. Sponsors began to support the team, along with help from city officials, and spectators began to yell words of encouragement and congratulations rather than racial slurs. Kenny Ung remembers, “The spectators sometimes called us ‘Chinks’. The younger people who played ball with us were okay. The older people thought we still wore pigtails. They would yell at us from the stands. However, by 1930, they were applauding us when we played a good game.”[2] (Additional research by Annie Luong).

As these Chinese Americans came of age, they served in the US armed forces and helped on the home front in the Second World War. Fighting for the country of their birth, many returned from the war with a strengthened sense of themselves as Americans. While they were certainly not immune from the racism that their parents’ generation had faced, for many Chinese Americans service in World War II helped further solidify a sense of belonging to the country of their birth. In short, the decades of the 1930s and 1940s saw the development of a Chinese American youth culture and social network quite distinct from that developed by earlier generations of Chinese Americans. The essays and video clips in this section explore the various youth activities that Chinese Americans in Los Angeles participated in during this pivotal period in time.

Quoted in George and Elsie Yee, ÂThe 1927 Chinese Baseball Team,” Bridging the Centuries: History of Chinese Americans in Southern California (Los Angeles: CHSSC, 2001).