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ONE MAN'S SEARCH FOR THE TAO OF YAO.

Byline: TOM HOFFARTH

It's a somewhat dreary, overcast Saturday afternoon in Chinatown, which only adds to the general frustration of trying to find a decent parking space somewhere between Hill and Broadway.

But in another way, with the light rainfall sprinkling down between the breaks of sunlight, it creates a peaceful, meditative mood for anyone taking a stroll among the landmark blocks of restaurants, supermarkets and souvenir shops that have operated for years right down the hill from Dodger Stadium.

In just a few hours, and just a few miles away, the Lakers will tip off the NBA playoffs against the Houston Rockets. But something here is definitely missing.

Isn't this the Year of Yao?

Shouldn't we be feeling a little Ming-mania?

Why is it impossible to even trip over a piece of evidence that the 7-foot-6 cultural icon is about to embark on the next important step of his young professional basketball career, which could end up making him even more bigger than life to 1.3 billion people a world away?

According to the Chinese American History Museum, more than 400,000 Chinese Americans reside in Los Angeles County these days. Although the rapid growth of this demographic has made suburban San Gabriel Valley cities such as Monterey Park and Alhambra the most common places to settle, many continue to use this downtown L.A. subdivision as their ``entry'' community because of the way it has sustained the strong social, spiritual and cultural base of their heritage.

It's not as if we expect to stand five-deep on the sidewalk watching a Yao parade go through the main drag. But you'd think among the feng shui wind chimes, silk parasols, Shanghai dragon T-shirts, jade bracelets, Buddha snow globes, 2-pound bags of dried sea cucumber, Jet Li posters, bamboo back scratchers, toy combat chucks, shiatsu sticks, plastic Ninja swords, Madhuban incense cones, box kites, matching ivory vases, two-fold cotton shirts, plum blossom cheongsams and Hello Kitty backpacks, maybe there'd be one, simple Rockets No. 11 bobblehead for sale.

The middle-aged man behind the counter at K.G. Louie Co., one of the many places to shop for trinkets, thought for a second when asked if there was anything with Yao's image.

``Interesting, but no,'' he said, nodding. ``We probably would if he was a Laker.''

An elderly clerk at the Niming Books Co. barely looked up from his magazine to dismiss an inquiry about any Yao literature or video on his shelves.

The 30-something waiter at the Via Cafe who just brought over the bowl of steaming noodle soup looked genuinely confused when asked if he even had heard of Yao. You know, the basketball player?

``Oh, yes!'' he said. ``Very tall, right?''

They know Yang Chow has the best slippery shrimp and Mon Kee is the place to go for lobster in black bean sauce. But no one around here is up on current events?

The local media doesn't help. Saturday's Chinese Daily News has a picture and story about Yao and Shaquille O'Neal - way back on page B-23, after the news about Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees facing the Boston Red Sox. The Zhong Guo Daily News didn't have anything (or at least anything we could identify as Yao news).

It's funny, because on Yao's official Web site (www.yaoming.net), there's a diary entry from March 2003 after the NBA season ended that says, ``I can't wait to go home to China. The Chinatowns in the U.S. don't compare to home, although I would say that the L.A. Chinatown is my favorite.''

Although, after the Rockets' first trip to Staples Center last November to play the Clippers, Yao wrote that he found ``some good Chinese food at a restaurant I really like in Santa Monica.''

Two blocks away, over at the Alpine Recreation Center, things start to make a little more sense in the pursuit of all that is Yao.

The 2004 Chinese American Athletic Association Basketball Tournament is under way. There are divisions for men, boys and girls. Dozens of teams with names such as the Flaming Dragons and Tea Spirit and Orient Express are playing basketball games, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., each weekend in the two indoor gyms. Not to mention the on-going action on the outdoor courts.

Someone named Steve Kun established the non-profit organization 26 years ago as a way to bring Chinese Americans together in sports, and he maintains a Web site (www.chineseballers.com) to keep the organization upon schedules and news.

Kevin Tsai, a 16-year-old from Pasadena, and Alan Hsu, a 17-year-old from Temple City, stand near the doorway of the main gym watching the action as two female referees call a men's contest.

``Maybe the reason you don't see so much about Yao (down the main streets of Chinatown) is because they're the adults who don't watch much basketball,'' Tsai said. ``People our age, we play it. We know him. We've followed him. He's made an impact.''

So then you two will be watching TV later to see how Yao does against Shaq?

``Naw,'' said Hsu, taking a drink from a soda he got from McDonald's - one of Yao's newest endorsements. ``We have a game at 8 o'clock.''

CAPTION(S):

5 photos, box

Photo:

(1) no caption (Pope John Paul II)

(2) PHIL MICKELSON

(3) LARRY ELLISON

(4) TREVOR ARIZA

(5) no caption (Frank McCourt)

Box:

Sunday PUNCH
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 18, 2004
Words:905
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