Wednesday, 13 February 2013


My obit of Zhuang Zedong, the Chinese table tennis great who was at the heart of Richard Nixon's 'ping-pong diplomacy', is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon.

It is pretty much as I wrote it, but it was hard in such limited space to convey the drama of Zhuang's life, or indeed to read between the lines about both his activities when he was Madame Mao's favourite, or after the fall of the Gang Of Four. Certainly Fu Qifang and Rong Guotuan's suicides while in prison under sentence of death have to be looked at with some scepticism. How Zhuang felt about those he had been close to as he rose through the party apparatus is an interesting question. But certainly the story of his approach to Glenn Cowan, and its global effect, as well as of his own rise, downfall, and return, are the stuff of cinema.

I had written a little bit about H. Roy Evans, the Welsh head of the International Table Tennis Federation, as a sidebar for the piece; and only a brief mention made it into the obit. But Evans had already taken a delegation of Canadian table tennis players (which included one American) to China before Cowan and his teammates went, and if you look at the history of the ITTF's world championships, up to and including Pyongyang, you'll see how Evans worked to build bridges to Eastern Europe and what might be called the 'non-aligned' nations, particularly in Asia. I knew Roy from my days at ABC Sports, and he was one of the most fun of all the blazerati to meet during the conferences and congresses we attended, particularly in the hotel bar. My favourite story involved his being rejected at a luxury hotel into which the federation had booked him--this may have been in Pyongyang, but my impression of his description of 'luxury hotel' argues against that--and only after a long argument with much translation was it discovered that the hotel had been expected a Japanese guest, a Mr. Obe, because the federation had booked him as H. Roy Evans O.B.E.

Glenn Cowan never made it big, despite his appeal as the young hippie who'd gone to China and talked with Chou En-Lai. In fact, he was something of an attraction in Beijing, attracting large crowds who would keep their polite distance and stare. Later, he suffered from psychiatric problems, exacerbated by drug use, and later in life hustled paddle-tennis games on Venice Beach, often homeless. He was institutionalised for a time before he died of a heart attack in 2004. Perhaps the movie needs to be a joint tale.

A couple of notes: The actual kung-fu move Zhuang patterned his backhand after is called the 'one inch punch'. I found it interesting that Zhuang shared his first names with Mao, Ze-dong, or Tse Sung in the old transliterations. Rong ( or Yung Kuo Tuan) was actually born in Hong Kong, which in itself may have been enough to stir suspicion during the Cultural Revolution. And of course, after that tour of Bejing, Zhuang and Cowan never met again.

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