It began, as ‘ping pong’, as an after-dinner entertainment for upper-class Brits.
And while most of us know it as a wet-weather school-holiday diversion in the garage, it is also a highly-competitive professional sport that played a small but influential role in easing Cold War tensions.
It’s 1971. The Vietnam War is at its height, with the communist North Vietnamese slowly but surely wresting control from the vastly more powerful forces of the United States. The war was becoming increasingly politically unsustainable in the States, as it was becoming apparent that bigger, faster and more expensive technology could not win a low-down dirty war of attrition.
North Vietnam was supported to an extent by neighbouring mainland China. It was a complex relationship. Both were communist countries (and remain so today), and China had been directly at war with the US in Korea during the 1950s. But China and Vietnam were also traditional rivals.
The United States had supported non-Communist Taiwan since 1949, when the Communists under Chairman Mao seized power in the mainland. There was very little diplomatic contact between the US and mainland China, and ordinary citizens were simply banned from any contact, business connection or tourism.
Meanwhile, at the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, Glenn Cowan missed his team bus.
Cowan was the kinda-hippy lead player in the US team, and the last bus leaving the training hall was the Chinese team bus. Cowan cadged a seat on the bus and was treated with suspicion by the Chinese team, except for Zhuang Zedong, a three-time world champion. Zhuang and Cowan struck up a halting conversation through a translator, and Zhuang presented Cowan with a gift as a memento of the unusual meeting. Cowan later reciprocated with a t-shirt bearing a peace symbol and the words ‘Let it Be’. Groovy!
After the Championships (China’s mens’ team, including Zhuang, wins Gold), and in the spirit of ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just get along!’, Cowan expressed an interest in visiting China, and, unexpectedly, Chairman Mao said “Come on over, I’ll put the jug on”. (Quote this blog in a history assignment at your own risk).
So in April 1971 nine American players, four officials, and two spouses stepped across a bridge from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland and spent a week playing friendly matches, touring the Great Wall and Summer Palace, and watching a ballet.
In the States President Nixon couldn’t stand to lose face and invited the Chinese table tennis team to visit the United States. Both visits were highly-publicised political events. Other people figured out that if it was good enough for table tennisists, it was good enough for them too, and insisted on the right to make similar visits. The diplomatic embargo ended, trade relations started and the rest is history.
Which leads us obviously and directly to Liberty Goes Large, next Friday 29 November at the Malthouse.
For, just as table tennis is a highly-competitive game with surprisingly deep roots, Liberty Brewing Co. is a highly-competitive brewery with hidden talents.
It took Zhuang Zedong several years to win four gold medals, but Liberty collected five golds in just one night at the Brewers Guild Beer Awards last month. Two were in highly-competitive beer categories – NZ-style lager went to Halo pilsner, and Yakima Monster won International Pale Ale. Liberty also collected top spot in Packaging, in Champion Medium Brewery, and in Champion Exhibitor (ie, best average score).
Next Friday will see ebullient Liberty Brewer (and secret Haiku writer) Joe Wood bring the trophies to the Malthouse for a well-deserved celebration in the Craft Beer Capital. Joe will bring merch to give away and host a tap takeover with 11 Liberty beers and one cider. There will be a hot wing challenge. And there will be, in the confined confines of the ‘house, a table tennis tournament.
History might be made.
Here’s the taplist:
Yakima Monster APA (Guild Trophy winner)
Halo pilsner (Guild Trophy winner)
Oh Brother pale ale
Knife Party WCIPA
C!tra Double IPA
Darkest Days oatmeal stout
Jungle Juice unfiltered WCIPA
Uprising West Auckland pale ale
Divine Wind Japanese rice lager
Knife Pilsner (seasonal)
Big Apple cider
Friday 29 November – Liberty Brewing Goes Large. Meet brewer Joe Wood for hot wings, table tennis, merch give ways and a tap takeover.
Thursday 5 December – Malthouse Hot Luck. Soul Shack chicken in the ‘house. Launching Malthouse/Fortune Favours collab brew Session Impossible. Merch giveaways.