In 1939, six Chinese American male basketball players from San Francisco temporarily escaped the Chinatown ghetto and saw the country. For two seasons, this professional Chinese American basketball team, known as the Hong Wah Kues, played basketball on the barnstorming circuit around the United States and Canada. Playing approximately one hundred games in eighty days, they competed against local teams and other traveling teams such as the African American Harlem Globetrotters, the white ethnic Bearded Aces and the Native American Sioux Travelers-Warriors.
Described by the newspapers as “the tiny oriental rug cutters,” the gendered and racial spectacle in the media coverage of these traveling men’s basketball teams were used to reinforce the subordination of African Americans, Chinese Americans and Native Americans. While the Chinese men were depicted as disembodied and sneaky, the Native American men were reduced to a “noble” male warrior spirit and African American masculinity was framed as overly embodied, hampered by supposed innate laziness. In contrast, white masculinity was portrayed as a balance of body, mind and humanity.
My research draws from stories like the Hong Wah Kues and examines
basketball in San Francisco’s Chinatown from 1930 to 1950. The project
features five different stories—a playground, a championship amateur women’s team, the Hong Wah Kues, and a pair of brother and sister sports icons. While these stories speak to Asian American history in several ways, this work takes the specific experience of Chinatown basketball to explore the broader theoretical question of how inequalities are reinforced and mediated through sport. The research analyzes the links between sport and power by looking at how race and gender are constructed through basketball.
Sport is a fascinating area of study because it is everywhere. From young girls playing street hockey in the suburbs of Pennsylvania to kids kicking a soccer ball on the beach in Bali, sport is a global phenomenon. Since athletics are accessible and omnipresent, they are often seen as free of politics and symbolic of democracy and meritocracy. Supposedly, athletes can leave their race, gender or socio-economic class in the locker room and just compete, free from politics and power dynamics.
Despite the popular myths about sport, many scholars have shown athletics are deeply embedded with politics. Academics, such as Pierre Bourdieu, Michael Messner and C. L. Cole, have argued that athletics do not just reflect society but also shape it. My research explores the question of how sport is used to strengthen and contest structural inequalities.
The key aspect to the research is highlighting the relationship between structural domination and individual agency. While the Hong Wah Kues were orientalized in the mainstream media, the tour created an opportunity to temporarily sidestep racial barriers and move outside of their segregated existence in Chinatown. By traveling to the Northwest, the Midwest and Canada, the Kues learned how whites viewed Chinese and how Chinese were positioned with respect to highly segregated black-white relations and Native American-white relations. Through this physical mobility, they gained a sort of epistemological mobility into the
multiracial landscape of the United States. In a sense, the same medium that objectified the Hong Wah Kues also created space for them to assert themselves as second-generation Chinese American men in the highly segregated late ’30s. While playing basketball did not eradicate political and economic inequalities, it was a space to imagine and practice freedom temporarily.
This research began while sorting through a shoebox of photos and letters at my grandmother’s house. A tattered postcard sent in the late ’30s from one of the Hong Wah Kues to my grandparents was as a point of departure to examine broader themes such as the political function of embodied cultural practices. Students taking Pitzer Asian American Studies classes, such as my sport sociology class, use hidden stories to explore and revise social theories such as Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s racial formation, Chela Sandoval’s oppositional consciousness or Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony. Connecting an everyday story with an analysis of contested power dynamics is at the core of Asian American Studies and amplifies Pitzer’s values of anti-oppression/diversity, academic excellence and social responsibility.
—Kathleen S. Yep, assistant Professor of Asian American Studies and Sociology