Chinese Table Tennis Club

Ping-Pong paradise lurks within a Chinatown alley.
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Chicago Chinese Table Tennis Club members do battle on Ping-Pong tables.
By Jake Malooley. Photographs by Andrew Nawrocki. |
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Joining the Chicago Chinese Table Tennis Club isn’t easy. Mainly because it’s awfully tough to find. At its listed address, 215 West 23rd Street, there’s nothing more than a shuttered storefront, a former handbag shop, with brown paper plastered on the windows. On the left, a narrow passageway leads to the building’s back alley and a slightly ajar door. Inside the club’s cramped, spartan confines, stony-faced older men swing paddles and sweat over a couple of green Ping-Pong tables, firing rapid shots that turn the ball into a nearly imperceptible white blur.

The distinct rhythmic crack of celluloid spheres against wood tables is the only sound until Phil Wong, the cheerful caretaker of the 20-year-old club, pulls himself away from a game of Chinese chess to apologize for the tucked-away location. “It is a little private,” the bespectacled 64-year-old says with a wide smile. “But if you’re a table-tennis enthusiast, you’ll find us.”

The club’s members (currently numbering around 25) each get a key to the building for 24-hour access; they pay dues of $35 per month. “That’s just enough to cover the rent and keep the lights on,” Wong says. The retired accountant is used to a frugal approach to the sport, one of China’s most popular. As a nine-year-old in Hong Kong, he says, “We’d use chalk to draw a table on the ground and two bricks would hold a wood plank. That was the net. We didn’t have any money then, and we still don’t.”

As the name suggests, the Chicago Chinese Table Tennis Club’s members are mostly of Chinese descent, seasoned amateurs who started playing long before their hair turned gray. “We cater to higher-level players,” Wong says. “The beginners—I usually send them to Chi-Slam on Chicago Avenue. Our players can’t enjoy themselves if they’re baby-sitting.”

The predominance of skillful Chinese-Americans makes member Leon Levy somewhat of an oddity: He’s Caucasian, lives in Lincoln Park and was, admittedly, very rusty when he joined a year ago. “I’m one of the few members who doesn’t speak Chinese,” says Levy, sporting a sweatband, shorts and a polo shirt—all in navy blue. The 67-year-old businessman plays three sessions of table tennis before work each week as an alternative to hitting the treadmill. “Running bores me to death!” he says. “I need competition.”

“This is how I get my exercise, too,” Wong adds. “Chess for the brain. Ping-Pong for the heart.”

Call Phil Wong (312-636-1010) to inquire about joining the Chicago Chinese Table Tennis Club.

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