Ping-pong diplomacy

By Liao Fangzhou Source:Global Times Published: 2015-1-4 16:28:01

Story of New Zealand table tennis champion

New Zealand's 62-year-old former national table tennis champion Yvonne Fogarty visited Shanghai last December for the first time in 40 years. Only this time, she was not with her table tennis teammates, but with her husband, the writer Tony Eyre.

Eyre won an award at the government-supported writing competition Shanghai Get-together 2014 with a page-turning story that charts Fogarty's Chinese adventures in the 1970s.

Eyre borrows the title of the prizewinning story, Friendship First, Competition Second, from a popular slogan China adopted in the 1970s when sporting exchanges were part of foreign policy initiatives. The best-known of these initiatives, namely "ping-pong diplomacy," took Fogarty to China.

The book chronicles Fogarty's two visits to China, first as a member of the New Zealand national table tennis team to play a series of matches in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in 1974, and then at the invitation of the General Administration of Sport of China to receive six weeks of training by leading Chinese coaches in Guangzhou in 1975.

New Zealand former national table tennis champion Yvonne Fogarty, her husband Tony Eyre, and Fogarty's Chinese coach Wang Shuyun pose at an award ceremony in Shanghai. Photos: Courtesy of Shanghai Library and the couple

"It is also a story about the friendship between Yvonne and her coach in Guangzhou, Wang Shuyun, over 40 years," said Eyre at the award ceremony in Shanghai. Wang traveled from Guangzhou to attend the event.

Eyre narrates how Fogarty finally received a reply from Wang seven years after she sent her first letter to Wang in an attempt to regain contact with her. At the time, the political situation in China made it difficult for people to communicate internationally.

The story highlights the two friends' unexpected reunions at the World Veteran Table Tennis Championships in Melbourne, Australia in 1994 and in Auckland, New Zealand in 2014. "And like old times, Shuyun coached her old pupil from the sidelines as Yvonne took to the table once again," Eyre wrote.

The couple comes from Dunedin, Shanghai's sister city in New Zealand. Eyre heard about the writing competition at the local public library and decided to participate.


A special story

An accountant by profession, Eyre has been writing regularly for magazines and newspapers for four years. "Yvonne had a special story. I would have encouraged her to write it, but as a writer I thought the competition is an opportunity for me to tell that story," Eyre told the Global Times.

Fogarty said her husband has a good way with words and she was very happy for him to write the story in the way that he chose. "You should have enjoyed the pleasure of digging into the story," Fogarty smiled at Eyre.

Eyre did. A lot of Fogarty's memories were quite dim, so Eyre tracked down newspaper articles, scrapbooks, diaries and photographs to draw them out. "Even the places Yvonne visited - I needed to track down where they were if she didn't know," Eyre said.

During Fogarty's 1974 stay in the city, she played the Shanghai table tennis team, visited the Shanghai Double Happiniess Table Tennis factory and Long March People's Commune, and saw an opera based on the battle of Shanghai.

Fogarty has a strong impression that she was part of a spectacle when she and her teammates jogged down Nanjing Road. "Foreigners were a rare sight. Everywhere, people were staring. Not anything was worrying. It was just amazing attention that you got all the time," Fogarty said.

"All the bikes going, looking out the window and seeing people doing tai chi in the mornings and everyone could hear the music was playing. It was an incredible scene of uniformity," Fogarty added.

The changes

She now works as an international student advisor at Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin. She has many Chinese students who told her she should go back to China and see the changes.

"I was not sure if it would be that different, but it really is," Fogarty said. "It is just a modern city now. When you look more deeply there is the old China, but all the shops, all the ways of being, it's just unbelievable."

The couple visited the city together and appreciated the grandeur of the architecture in the Bund area, including the Fairmont Peace Hotel where Fogarty stayed in 1974. "It is very incredible to be here, just a circle of life in a way," said Fogarty.

Looking back at the impact of her Chinese experiences, Fogarty said the second time was especially moving for her because she was on her own as the only female trainee. She calls it a soul-searching time. "I didn't have all the normal distractions. I was just playing table tennis, which was very challenging. I had to dig quite deep."

The couple has four children. Fogarty coached all of them in table tennis, and the two boys won tokens in provincial games.

The writing competition, which has been held three times, is hosted by the State Council Information Office, the Shanghai Municipal Tourism Administration, the Shanghai People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, and the Shanghai Library.

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