Excerpts from Hoop Dreams

by Al Young
A. Magazine February/March 1996

Headlines called them "clever," "peppery," and "shifty." One newspaper described them as a "group of tiny Oriental rugcutters." Of their playing, another paper enthused, "The Chinks flashed a snappy and deceptive passing attack."

"We weren't in town long enough to protest what was written about us," recalls Chauncey Yip, 77, a member of the Hong Wah Kues, an all-Chinese basketball team that toured the United States more than half a century ago.

The team was formed in 1939 by a white San Francisco accountant, William Porter, who decided to jump on the basketball barnstorming wagon and sponsor the first all-Chinese touring basketball team. After holding tryouts at a local YMCA, he hired a coach, paid the players $250 a month, provided transportation--a six-seat, 1939 Pontiac sedan--and sent them on their way.

The six-member team, made up of former San Francisco high school all-stars, [] during a three and a half month tour through the Midwest and Canada, [] played nearly 100 games. "Boy, that was rough," recalls George Lee, 78, the team's center and, at 5-foot-10, one of its biggest players. "Most of us were just out of high school, and we weren't going to college, so we thought we'd see the country."

It was Porter who named the team the Hong Wah Kues, "Brave Chinese Warriors." Mostly playing local all-star teams, the Kues won about 75 percent of their games, dazzling opponents with their speed, ballhandling, and shooting skills. "We were always the underdog, going against guys [who were] 6-4, 6-5 every night," says Lee, whose playing name was Lee Bo Chin. "The crowd loved us, because out in the Midwest, they didn't see too many Chinese."

Without question, the crowd favorite was Robert Lum, whose playing moniker was Lee Wah Quong. At just 5-3, Quong stunned crowds with his dribbling and shooting exhibitions, rivaling the wizardry of the Harlem Globetrotters. Sure enough, the Kues soon caught the eye of Globetrotter owner Abe Saperstein, who booked the Kues for Globetrotter doubleheaders. "I'd say we played the Globetrotters about ten times a year," Lee says. When the Kues played on the Globetrotters' card, exotic hype was the name of the game. Colorful silk warmups were a must. The programs carried their Chinese playing name. And, of course, the players were instructed to speak Chinese to each other during the game. They were a hit.

"When the war came, some of the guys got drafted and some of them got married," says Lee, the Kues' player coach for their final season. "We all went our separate ways." The end of the team's short history in 1941--months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor--marked the end of the Golden Era of barnstorming basketball.

Copyright 1996 Metro East Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.