In praise of ping pong


Once considered a sport that is played by geeks, table tennis has become a trendy game

It is just another ordinary Tuesday night at the gym in high-rise Fusionopolis and I'm in the changing room getting ready for a big macho workout when I hear the guy next to me apologising profusely to someone.

He looks like he lives in the gym. There are hard muscles on a V-shaped body and he even has the famed "Merman" lines.

"Sorry I'm so late, bro," he tells his gym buddy who, like him, looks to be also in his early 30s.

"Man, I waited more than 40 minutes for you," complains Mr Gym Buddy.

"Er... I was playing ping pong in the office," confesses the Merman sheepishly. "And you know, once you start playing, you can't stop!"

It's official. The hipster revival of table tennis may have started at least three or four years ago in trendy Berlin, London and New York bars that were opened by A-list stars such as Susan Sarandon and Damon Albarn. But now, in 2014, the sport seems to have firmly taken root in corporate Singapore.

Just the other day, I was being shown the dead-trendy new employee social hub at the swanky new offices of DBS Bank in Marina Bay Financial Centre. There's a Starbucks there and a local food outlet run by a social enterprise, but when I opened the door to a mysterious-looking room, true enough, I found three ping pong tables inside.

In our own Straits Times newsroom, we have a pool table that converts to a table tennis table in a matter of minutes. And I reckon that more than 90 per cent of the time, our resident spinmasters have opted for the bat over the cue. There's even talk now of a friendly with The Business Times.

It's all been a bit of an unexpected surprise for someone like me who grew up playing what has always been a thoroughly unfashionable sport.

It was my dad who first taught me how to play on one of those public ping pong tables you used to find in the void decks of HDB blocks, but not anymore.

Like an exiled martial arts pugilist, I honed my skills largely in secret on the evenings when my dad got off work early. After all, I attended a Christian boys' primary school, where all that everyone did for fun was play football, football and more football.

It was only when I graduated and went to Catholic High - a thoroughly "Chinese" secondary school - that I got to play the sport with more people and in earnest. And even then, it was always a sport that separated the geeks from the jocks.

At recess time, the jocks would be out in force on the basketball court, shirts off and growling manly instructions at one another. Us geeks, on the other hand, would be huddled at the ping pong tables out of the sun, water bottles and half-eaten curry puffs stacked neatly near the net, talking excitedly about last night's episode of Wonder Woman as we exercised some awesome wrist power of our own.

As we grew in strength and stature, we insisted only on Stiga nets and orange Nittaku balls. We upgraded our Double Happiness bats, going from the cheaper pen grip to the sturdy handshake grip.

We endlessly debated the thickness of rubbers way before our sexual awakenings, pondering the prowess of models such as Cloud & Fog 3, designed specially for "modern multi-stroked long-pimple players who enjoy surprise attacks mixed with confusing defensive play".

Some years later, as an undergraduate in Britain, I even got to represent my college in table tennis.

But this was way before the hipster revolution made the sport even vaguely trendy and I was picked primarily because I was among the small handful of Chinese students who could play - or more accurately, would consent to be seen playing.

This sort of historical context is important today, especially on the odd occasion that I take my place at the table and face new opponents in the office.

For there is a certain swagger - what the Chinese would call "sei" - when a former Chinese school geek steps up to serve the ball. The brow is furrowed and the body twitches and contorts in exactly the same way each time the fiendish spin is delivered.

And when a smash goes awry, there is a marked difference in the reaction of an ACS or SJI hipster who is trying to get better at the sport, from the practised Chinese High or St Nicholas hand who feels that twist of despondency knowing he or she used to be able to pull it off.

In that sense, ping pong has become, for me, one of the more surprising and interesting social markers of our time.

But it is more than a social marker because it is also a great social leveller.

A posting on the Tumblr feed Dads Are The Original Hipsters says it all: "It is one of the few games where the athletically un-endowed can dethrone the gym-jockeys and shame-slam them with sniper-shot precision." Case in point: Sarandon is rumoured to have left acting star Tim Robbins for her nerdy young ping pong teacher Jonathan Bricklin.

Ping pong is also a sport that doesn't require rigorous training, special locations or expensive equipment. Both the very young and the very old can play ping pong, dressed in tuxedoes, pyjamas or whatever attire they might be in.

Someone once shared with me a Facebook post from a guy who was thrashed soundly by a one-armed ping pong player who chain-smoked cigarettes as he was demolishing his hapless opponent.

When I graduated from university, I started work at a government ministry where directors, deputies and assistants assembled like clockwork at six o'clock on most evenings to play table tennis in a tiny space in the corner of the office.

For a young babe in the woods like myself, it was the most definable part of the workday when otherwise intimidating bosses and sometimes antagonistic fellow department heads took off their jackets and ties and became real people. It was jolly good fun as well and I always left the table smiling and invigorated.

This is why there is an increasing amount of business literature out there that says office ping pong increases employee morale and corporate productivity.

Scientific studies have shown that the sport activates various portions of the brain simultaneously by requiring both thought and physical alertness at the same time. Dr Daniel Amen, a renowned member of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, has found that table tennis stimulates brain function and develops everything from tactical thinking skills to hand-eye coordination.

It's strangely high praise for what has always been one of life's simpler pleasures, but I'm glad it has led to more opportunities to break out the Jiawei in me.

Anytime you want to, ping me.