Andy Phan sauntered up to a pingpong table about 7 a.m. at the senior center in Monterey Park. Quickly, he shooed away two other players.
Phan, 76, is one of the center’s best. He’s known for an aggressive power game and a spin shot with a nasty, unpredictable bounce. Some of the guys at the center have taken to calling him the “Tornado,” a name he embraces gleefully.
He challenged a man in a yellow jersey, and as soon as the rally began, Phan’s opponent took five steps back.
“Long jun cho,” Phan jeered in Chinese — for dragon spin shot. “As soon as I hit it, he’s done! He’s got nothing!”
A few eyes rolled at the tables across the room, but the man in yellow was a good sport. “Hau cho,” he shouted — for “good ball.” He lunged and missed. Phan’s eyes crinkled.
Table tennis is a popular pastime in America but it’s serious business in China, which has won 24 of 28 Olympic gold medals in the sport since 2008.
At the Langley Senior Center, where most of the retirees are Chinese, senior citizens play 12 hours a day, five days a week.
Doors open at 6 a.m., and on a recent morning, the room quickly came to life with the staccato click of pingpong balls on wood. Gray-haired men with calf muscles as big as softballs bellowed as they slammed forehands and backhands. Women giggled like schoolgirls as their shots sent opponents diving.
The competition is fierce and it definitely can get rowdy. Police have responded to at least two disputes in the pingpong room.
Framed Chinese calligraphy hanging on a wall counsels peace: “Be deferential to each other” is the approximate translation of one phrase. “Don’t get mad, live longer,” another advised.
As rosy sunlight spilled through the windows at 8 a.m., all 10 tables have been taken, and a dozen more senior citizens have lowered themselves onto the chairs lined up against the wall, dodging whizzing balls as they wait their turn. Some players wielded filthy drop shots. Others slammed serves with high arcing strokes, stomping to mask the sound of the paddle against the ball, which can reveal the shot’s spin. At one table, the main weapon was guile.
“Aiyah, don’t beat up on a girl,” a pouting woman protested. “Why are you hitting so hard?”
Then she crushed a forehand and sent her opponent lunging to no avail, a wicked cackle issuing from her lips.
The Langley Center Ping Pong Club was founded in 1987 or 1988, depending on whose memory you trust. It began as the Senior American Chinese Table Tennis Club — just two tables in a small room where retirees also shot pool.
Soon, it grew to six tables, and the center gave the club one of its largest rooms, and installed a non-skid wood floor to cut down on falls. Biannual tournaments drew hundreds of players from all over the Southland — rec-room hustlers, teams from neighboring senior centers and basement-based table tennis clubs.
Points, wins or losses don’t matter much here. Players track one another’s ages more closely than they do the scores of games. Older competitors command more respect.
They speak with admiration of the 90-year-old woman who keeps pace with a 65-year-old man, or the 87-year-old who in the past frequently placed in the tournaments.
“This guy beats me whenever he wants, and he’s 68,” said Ken Cheng, 55, pointing at another player. “This guy’s 75 and he beats me about half the time.
“But he’s retired, so he has more time!” Cheng added, and laughed, a deep, booming sound that filled the room.
When the center reopened at 6 p.m. after a two-hour break, a different crowd of regulars showed up. Most of them belong to the Trinity Health Club, an informal group that started in Tak Wong’s Monterey Park basement.
Now, play was more regimented. Wong, who would only give his age as being in his mid-70s, patrolled the tables with his hands folded behind his back, asking for more follow-through on backhands and better footwork. Each table had ball sleeves affixed to the edge so that players can keep rallies flowing.
Vincent Liu, 72, said Trinity club members focus on fitness. He pointed out that tracking the ball’s lightning movements improves hand-eye coordination. Liu, who takes cold showers and jumps rope every morning to stay sharp, plans to play until he turns 90.
A couple at Table 4 rallied fast and frenetic, all backhands. A mixed doubles match drew spectators to Table 3, where one player tossed the ball so high during his serve that it nearly hit the ceiling. A man with a mop of gray hair flubbed the return and screamed in frustration, throwing his head back and spinning in a circle as he spanked himself with the paddle.
Players alternated between games and gathering balls, using custom-made ball rakes fashioned from tennis ball cans, plastic tubing, broomsticks and tennis racket string. Wong designed the rakes, and labeled them in Chinese: chian bae bang, or “humble sticks.”
“To teach humility!” Wong said.
These days, Phan, a Chinese immigrant from Vietnam, might start a few more sentences than he finishes. He responds to most questions about the past with an upraised hand and a querulous protest: “I’m too old!”
But behind a pingpong table, his muscles move in a way his memory cannot, and his game leaves opponents bathed in sweat. Many things fade with age, but Phan’s competitive fire remains.
Pingpong has always been a game for all ages, and players compete internationally into their 80s. The youngest person to win a national table tennis championship was Ariel Hsing, at 15. In 1997, Marty Reisman won the United States National Hardbat championships at 67.
Langley players have placed in regional and national senior Olympic events. Shu Kwan Woo, 60, once took 6 points off Glenn Cowan, the pingpong player who represented the U.S. during Pingpong Diplomacy, the fabled table tennis tour through China and the U.S. that helped normalize relations between the countries during the 1970s.
Club members have traveled to Las Vegas, Anaheim and Utah to play. They would tell stories, but they can’t remember them anymore. Langley’s secretary, Wen Chor Chang, has thrown away most of the club’s records.
What he kept he put in a wrinkled envelope, and after a recent hitting session, Chang, Phan and two other longtime players sipped coffee from paper cups and sifted through old newsletters and tournament score sheets. They bickered over the particulars in Cantonese, their conversation full of boasts and fuzzy details.
Old photos ringing the pingpong room best document the club’s history.
One from 2008 shows the club leaders in matching black polo shirts hoisting an enormous, custom-made trophy that they imported from Brazil for $500 to celebrate their win at the biannual tournament. Phan is kneeling, a blocky cellphone in a case at his hip, his back straight. Next to him is Tony Mar, 82, one of the club’s co-founders.
Mar started playing after he stopped working at the age of 57, and he said picking up a paddle invigorated his retirement years. He helped organize annual banquets at Golden Coast Buffet in Monterey Park and picnics for club members.
“Well, we had a pretty good time,” Phan said. “I made a lot of good friends.”
Many of the club’s original members have died. Golden Coast Buffet closed a few years ago, and the annual banquet went with it. In 2010, more than 120 people competed in the biannual tournaments. The next year, 95. In 2012, there were 80 players. It hasn’t been held since.
“We are old now!” Phan barked. “We were afraid we’d forget to show up, and then what would happen?”