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Playing Rough and Tough: Chinese American Women Basketball Players in the 1930s and 1940s

During the still hours of a 1930s morning, a group of teenage girls trudged up the steep hill to the local playground in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The chain-link fence rattled as they shoved their fingers and feet into the holes and quickly scrambled over it to avoid being seen. This was the one day of the week when they were free from school and their jobs. On the asphalt, they could be uninhibited. They could play basketball, full court, and with boys. Rachel Lee recalled that “most of the time we won, let’s put it that way.” Another player explained that “[we were] rough and tough [She laughs].” Unwelcome on their school teams and with few options to play in Chinatown, Chinese American women used the only public playground in Chinatown to create a sense of community during the 1930s and 1940s.4 The women basketball players faced many challenges coming from working-class families and living in racially segregated Chinatown. Besides low-paying jobs and crowded housing conditions, they grappled with distorted depictions of Chinese American women in the mainstream media and racial prejudice in daily life. In addition, they encountered restrictive expectations for women in the mainstream community and within the Chinese community. Yet, through basketball, they formed a sense of belonging as athletic Chinese American women. Using oral histories of the Chinese Playground women basketball players, this article analyzes how they defined their version of femininity through sport. In doing so, it highlights how women from marginalized communities counter social inequalities. Basketball was used to carve out an empowering space against the context of poverty, racism, and the multiple forms of patriarchies in their lives.