Sometimes I tire of playing at the same old clubs, leisure centres and schools. They are mostly warm, accommodating and adequate places but not particularly unique.
I had a theory a while back that a hidden society resides outside of the orthodox ETTA umbrella and leagues; people loving the game, playing whenever they can – during lunch hours, after work, necessary ‘scraps’ and ‘ding-dongs’ because table tennis affords us a monarchic state of mind.
Where would I find such a world though – tables maybe not accessible to the general public, venues mightier than Meadow Hill’s “large shed”? I work in Manchester and so given China’s relative peerlessness in the game over the last 20 years (a Wang/Zhang dynasty of late), I immediately thought of Chinatown.
The area is bordered by four streets: Charlotte to the north; Portland (east); Princess (south); and Mosley (west). The plan was to visit a few restaurants inside this half square mile cordon – see if a world of basement-playing stars actually existed.
Once within it – this mini-20th century Chicago to my mind, full of bustle and character – I entered the premises of the first restaurant that took my eye. New Emperor, perhaps understandably, was not an auspicious start to my tracking down the hidden tables in this section of town. “No, no, no,” came the startled response from the waiter or manager with other things on his mind.
Hunan, China City, Happy Seasons, Little Yang Sing, China Buffet and BBQ all followed (in what order I cannot recall). At last I stumbled upon people with a low score on my ‘startled-ometer’, those willing to assist in whatever capacity without the automatic assumption that I was mad.
The big, bespectacled man at Happy Seasons kindly crossed out the restaurants that had closed – farewell New Hong Kong, Dragon City and Pan Asia. The pretty manageress or accountant at BBQ offered me a seat, a smile and a brief history of the area (Ping Hong in 1948, Manchester’s first Chinese restaurant).
So sixty-five years on – surely there was something beyond the dim sum and bamboo shoots. The trail hotted up with my visit to Great Wall. “Speak to Bonnie. Yang Sing. Princess Street.” I scooted over there. Sure enough, they have a ‘Ping Pong Cha’ evening once a month. Not the earthy, underground TT I was looking for, but a small result for my endeavour.
By Jeff Weston