Juan Pablo Sánchez Beltrán, born in Valencia in 1962, Telco and Economist by studies and profession, is a great lover of history, traditions, and culture in general, and of China in particular.  In these fields, he has published several articles in the journals of the HMiC of the UAB and of the Confucius Institute at the UV, as well as authoring the books “Pequeñas recetas para grandes causas. Recetario de cocina china” (ACIC, Valencia, 2006) and “Ma Yan llora por que quiere ir a la escuela” (ACIC, Valencia, 2009).

While surfing the net the other day, we came across an article about jai-alai in China, written by Juan Pablos Sánchez Beltrán in the Spanish edition of the journal of the Confucius Institute, which is to be found at the University of Valencia.

As the Confucius Institute website explains, this body is a network of public, non-profit centers promoting the knowledge of the culture and language of China throughout the world, with 26 headquarters in Spain and Latin America.  This institution was founded by Hanban, the Office for the Teaching of Language and Culture at the Ministry of Education of China, and it has centers all over the world.

We’ve spoken so many times about this style of pelota vasca throughout the world, but we’ve mostly focused on the Americas.  And that’s why we really like this article, because it gives us a chance to learn something we didn’t know: that the “fastest sport in the world” (the world record for this sport is 305 km/h or 190 mph, as recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records) was in China.

We’d like to thank Juan Pablo Sánchez Beltrán for his work gathering all this information; the Confucius Institute journal for publishing it and giving us permission to share ite; and the Shanghai Euskal Etxea (which we have spoken about before) for their collaboration in preparing it.

This article about jai-alai in China was published in the Journal of the Confucius Institute (Revista Instituto Confucio) number 7, volume IV, July 2011 (.pdf of the journal).  This journal has a website full of interesting articles you can read here.


Jai alai courts in China

Basque handball, or jai alai, courts, called frontones, were a symbol of modernity throughout the world in the first half of the 20th century, including in China. The one in Shanghai had capacity for 3,000 people and 4,000 employees, along with a stable team of Basque pelotaris.

Empleados del Italian Forum de Tianjin (Foto cortesía del Shanghaiko Euskal Etxea)
Employees of the Tianjin Italian Forum (Photo courtesy Shanghaiko Euskal Etxea)

An article by Juan Pablo Sánchez

In 1887, pelota vasca (1) player Melchor Gurutzeaga injured his wrist in Buenos Aires, Argentina while playing the variant called joko-garbi (2), which led to him inventing a long wicker basket he tied to his forearm to compensate for the sequelae of his injury when throwing the ball.  This artificial prolongation of the hand gave greater speed to the ball, making Basque pelota more spectacular, as well as easier, faster, and showier.  These baskets meant greater atxiki, or ball retention, longer courts, and thus even larger audiences.  That was how cesta-punta (3) o jai alai (in Chinese 回力球 huílìqiú) modality was born.

That same year, in San Sebastian, a summer holidaying town of the Spanish bourgeoisie and nobility at the time, the first modern jai alai court (in Chinese 回力球场 huílìqiúchǎng) with a capacity of 1,500 people was opened.  Its success in cesta-punta matches was so great that it became an official sport in the 1900 Olympics in Paris.  Later, at the 1904 Universal Expo in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, a jai alai court was built to show off this Basque handball sport in the United States, while at the 1924 Paris Olympics, it was shown as an exhibition sport.

The game of jai alai  became popular as a sign of modernity, as it combined a spectacle sport with betting, and courts, or frontones, were built all over the world to allow young pelotaris (4) to play; most of them were from the Basque Country, but with time local players appeared.

In 1901, in Havana, Cuba, on the corner of Concordia Street and Lucena, a Jai Alai Frontón was built, and received the popular name “The Palace of the Shouts”, and in 1920, another was opened in the Cuban city of Cienfuegos.  In 1906, the first frontón was built in Lima, Peru, and was updated in 1930 for a more modern one.  The first of its kind in the United States was opened in 1926, specifically in Miami, Florida; a great many would follow it.  In 1929, the Frontón México opened at the Palacio de la Pelota in the Mexican capital, while the Palacio de Frontón Jai Alai opened in Tijuana in 1947.

In Asia, the Casino Español de Manila, Philippines built a court in 1917, and after betting was legalized in 1939, another one was built on Taft Avenue in the same city, while in 1967, a new one was built in Cebú, in the Philippines; Jakarta did the same in 1971.  In China, there are records of a Basque handball court in the cesta punta modality opening in 1929 in Shanghai and Tianjin, while Macao opened its own in 1974.

Estado actual del Frontón Auditorium de Shanghai (Foto de meckleychina en Flicker)
Current condition of the Frontón Auditorium in Shanghai (Photo by meckleychina on Flicker)
The Shanghai Frontón

The Shanghai court was called the “Central Auditorium” (中央礼堂 zhōngyāng lǐtáng) or “Jai Alai Auditorium” (回力央 huílìyāng), though it was also known by the French name “Parc des Sports”, as it was on the corner of what was then Joffre Avenue and Avenue du Roi Albert in what was then the French Concession (5) (currently, those would be Huaihai Zhonglu 淮海中路 and Shaanxi Nanlu 陕西南路 Streets).

The Shanghai jai alai court was promoted by French banker Felix Bouvier and run by Haig Assadourian, an Egyptian of Armenian descent.  In 1928, Bouvier had already had built a dog track with a capacity of 50,000 spectators on the corner of Avenue du Roi Albert and Rue Lafayette (currently Lafeidelu 辣斐德路 at Jinfuxing zhonglu今复兴中路), which also had a running track, a boxing ring, and a dance floor (today, the Jinwen Flower Market is at that location).

The Shanghai jai alai court was opened on February 7, 1929 with the presence of Basque pelotari José María Arancibia Berasaluze (alias “Petronio”), among others, and little by little, more pelotaris from the Basque Country joined up, until there was a small colony.  In 1932, the arrival of José Garate was an all-out event, as he had previously won the gold medal at the Basque pelota exhibition at the 1924 Paris Olympics.  He played in Shanghai until 1939.

The Shanghai jai alai was remodeled in 1934, and was upgraded with air conditioning and a total capacity of 3,000 spectators and 4,000 employees.  It also had a stable team of Basque pelotaris who were hired for a whole season, and they even started publishing a magazine, La Cesta, dedicated exclusively to the sport.

The decline of this sport started in 1937 when Shanghai was bombed by the Japanese army, and even though the matches continued to be played during the Japanese occupation, the fanbase continued dropping, until it finally closed for good in 1944, as the Civil War got worse.

The building was renamed “Zhonghua” in 1944, and in 1975 it became the Luwan District Gymnasium.

Mei Lan Fang (梅兰芳) en el Forum de Tianjin sosteniendo una chistera.
Mei Lan Fang (梅兰芳) at the Tianjin Forum, holding a ‘chistera’.
The Tianjin Frontón

The Tianjin court was called the “S.A.I. Forum” (Italian Forum, 意大利的回力球场) and it was located on Via Marchese di S. Giuliano in the Italian concession (6) (1901-1947) of Tianjin.

The construction of the Tianjin frontón was led by businessman V. Fumagalli, with the support of Count Ciano (Gian Galeazzo Ciano, son-in-law of Benito Musolini) who knew him from his time as the Italian consul in Shanghai (1931-1932).  The SAI Forum, designed by Italian architect Bonetti and Swiss architect Kessler, included a spectacular lighthouse-style town which can still be admired today.

The Tianjin court was opened on September 20, 1934, and in it, among many greats, played José María Iriondo Urquidi (from 1934 to 1938).  His son, José María Iriondo Azpiri, would be born there in 1936, and as he also became a pelotari, in a certain way, he is the first Chinese pelotari in history.

The amazing frontón building was remoded by Guan Songjian to house the People’s Great Theater, and it is still located on today’s Minzulu St. (民族路) in Tianjin, though today it houses the famous Marco Polo Club (马可波罗俱乐部).

Estado actual del Forum de Tianjin, en la actualidad el Club Marco Polo (Foto Panoramio)
The current façade of the Tianjin Forum, now the Marco Polo Club (Photo Panoramio)
The Macao Frontón

The court in Macao was built much more recently, in 1974, though cesta-punta matches are no longer played there.  Currently, the building is preserved on the Estrada Pelota Basca (modern-day Amenzane Avenue) in Macao and houses the Jai Alai Casino (回力娛樂場), which is a hotel and gambling hall which is famous for, among other things, its Pachinko machines (7).

Folleto del Frontón Forum de Tianjin (Cortesía de José María Iriondo Azpiri)
Tianjin Forum Court pamphlet (Courtesy José María Iriondo Azpiri)
Conclusions

The jai alai courts were a symbol of modernity that spread throughout the whole world in the first half of the 20th century, including China.  Today, many of them have disappeared, but many others are preserved, though with other uses, or indeed are still running.  When the Chinese frontones closed, many of the pelotaris emigrated to the Philippines, which had good commercial relations and was close; from there, many went on to Mexico or Cuba, and later Miami.

The presence of Basque players in Shanghai was well set by Spanish vice consul Julio Larracoechea, who published the novel Ramonchu in Shanghai: the Presence of a Spaniard in Asian Lands in 1941.  It deals with the arrival of a Basque pelotari named Ramón Aldabe at Shanghai and his experiences there.

Thanks:

To José María Iriondo Azpiri and to Íñigo Pons at the Shanghaiko Euskal Etxea.

Notes:

1. Pelota vasca (in Basque: pilota) is a traditional Basque sport that consists of throwing a ball against a wall such that when it bounces the opponent can receive it and pass it back. It’s practiced mainly in the north of Spain, specifically the Basque Country, Navarre, and La Rioja, and to a lesser degree in Castile, Aragon, and Valencia. It’s also practiced in France and in some New World countries where Basque emigrants took it with them, such as Argentina, the United States, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and even to Asia, specifically the Philippines and China (where the cesta-punta form has been played since the 20th century).

2. A way of playing pelota vasca which uses baskets, or “chisteras” which are smaller than the ones Gurutzeaga used, and which do not have a place to hold the ball.

3. In cesta-punta, unlike the other specialties, the ball is not returned directly with the tool, but rather it is first taken from the basket and after giving it some energy throwing it back at the wall; this must be one fluid movement. Cesta-punta is normally played on a 54-meter long court and in pairs.

4. Given its Basque origin, the athlete who plays it is a pelotari. Generally two players, or two teams, are required to play, along general lines in a frontón taking turns hitting the ball against a wall, or frontis, until scoring a goal.

5. The French Concession is a historical area in the south of the city of Shanghai that received its name after the Second Opium War (1856-1860), when the French occupied that sector of the city as part of the rights they had obtained after winning the war, along with the English, against the Chinese. At that time, the French Concession was governed by the Government of Paris as if it were a part of France, with its own laws and autonomy.

6. On September 7, 1901, a concession inside Tientsin, which was how the municipality of Tianjin was called at the time, was ceded to the Kingdom of Italy by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). On June 7, 1902, the concession was taken over by the Italians and administered by an Italian consul. In 1935, the Italian Concession had a population around 6,261, including around 536 foreigners.

7. Pachinko is a type of game that is quite similar to flippers, which combines a modern video system with classic pinball.

(Published on the website of the journal of the Instituto Confucio)