Badminton, Anyone? I'm Referring to the 200-Mph Variety

Somewhere in the memory bank, I see the birdie wafting in the sunlight and myself swinging a racket and hearing that plink when the two meet. It was a sunny Nebraska day. We were laughing and had no cares. Others were playing croquet not far away. An ice chest of sodas must have been nearby. Maybe it was someone's backyard; maybe it was the church lawn.

Somewhere, I played badminton.

The experience is so distant and fuzzy as to be dreamlike. You couldn't prove by me that the game hadn't been banned from the United States sometime in the 1960s, not to return.

Now it's a new millennium, and this is Orange County. The locals love sports and have produced baseball and football players, Olympic swimmers and at least one immortal golfer by the name of Tiger. Not content with that, we've claimed international tennis stars Lindsay Davenport and Michael Chang. We've got a major league baseball team and an NHL hockey team.

Badminton, anyone?

I thought not.

So imagine the surprise at driving down Katella Avenue, within shouting distance of the Pond and Edison Field, and seeing quite by chance the facade of the Orange County Badminton Club.

A mirage on a hot summer's day?

And then imagine walking inside and seeing a world I didn't know existed and a game I hardly recognized.

And then learning the story behind it.

It's late in the afternoon and about a dozen teenagers are playing badminton, both doubles and singles. They're playing the game at lightning speed, doing things with their rackets to that poor shuttlecock I didn't know could be done. Lob shots, drop shots, smashes at speeds (I later learned from a Web site) approaching 200 miles an hour.

They're preparing for next week's U.S. Open Badminton tournament, with competitors from 18 countries. The local club is known as one of the best venues in the country and will be hosting its sixth straight U.S. championship.

Montri Chew comes out to greet me. He's the son of Don Chew, a Thai immigrant whose passion for badminton and frustration at not having a place to play in Orange County inspired him to build his own 12-court gymnasium that fronts his graphics design business in Orange.

Montri Chew tells me the United States dominated badminton in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Then, as tennis continued to grow and other sports claimed Americans' time, badminton settled into the backyard game I remembered.

I suggest to Montri Chew they can't possibly be making money with a badminton club.

He nods. "Our CPA laughs at us," he says.

I ask if the sport is an anachronism.

"I don't think it is," Chew says. "To American audiences, that may be the case, but not around the world."

Don Chew shows up later and says that, of course, he could make more money leasing out the gym space.

To do so, however, would betray a slice of his heritage.

It turns out that Don Chew, who immigrated to America from Thailand in 1972 and is now 60, once was a punk. He doesn't use that word and I didn't ask him what the Thai word for it is, but he says, "Badminton changed my life. I was a bad boy; I was in a gang."

When he returned to the game as a teen, he met a different crowd. He learned the values of patience and discipline and hard work--virtues we Americans once could honestly associate with our sports passions.

In Orange County, the sport is played mostly by Asians whose countries still revere the game. Mike Chansawangpuvana is Don Chew's nephew and a 17-year-old senior at Villa Park High School.

He was working out Wednesday at the center, getting ready for next week's competition. He came to America as a toddler and has been playing badminton for the last few years.

When people learn he's a badminton player, he says, "It's a mixed reaction. Some say, 'Wow, cool.' Some laugh at it."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the gym, Mike Wolfe of Huntington Beach is warming up with his wife and two others. He's a retired firefighter and an accomplished badminton and racquetball player.

"The backyard brand of badminton is what people know," Wolfe says, "so few people see the real badminton."

I have now seen the real game and realize I can't play it. Why put the "bad" in badminton?

But in a modern sports world checkered with uncouth millionaires and petty scandals, I plan to make my way to Orange next week to watch competition that harks back to a simpler, purer instinct.


Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821; by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626; or by e-mail at

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