The story of Wataru Misaka, Tiffany Chin and Larry Kwong, three Asian athletes who fought racism and discrimination every day and still managed to make history in North American sports.
The Man Who Broke the Color Barrier in the NBA: Wataru Misaka
“Go home Jap, you don’t belong here” words that would result in someone losing their job today, but in the 1940s that was the equivalent of a good morning to Japanese-American man, Wataru Misaka. Mr. Misaka was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1947, making history as the first person of colour to wear an NBA jersey. After playing a mere three games and scoring a total of 7 points, he was cut without explanation. Many believe that he was cut because of his race but Mr. Misaka believes that it was a pure basketball decision, stating that he was released because the New York Knicks had too many guards already.
Before Wataru Misaka was breaking down barriers in the NBA, he was an all-star athlete who led the University of Utah to its only NCAA championship in 1944. The following day, Mr. Misaka returned to Salt Lake City where he was drafted to serve in the United States army. He was assigned to the 442nd infantry, which was mainly men of Japanese descent. Due to his capability to speak Japanese, he was later sent to Hiroshima, his family’s hometown, to interview the victims of the Hiroshima bombings.
Many see Wataru Misaka as a hero, one who not only broke the colour barrier in the NBA but also served his country with honour, dignity and integrity. But to some, he is just another Jap. While playing at the University of Utah, Wataru Misaka faced racism in every moment of his life. He was often introduced and described as “Hawaiian-Born”, despite being born in Utah. They did this to shield him from the Anti-Japan sentiment. This would only be the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Misaka often mentioned people crossing the street once they noticed him, being served last at restaurants and being told to, “go home” when playing at different arenas. Despite this, Mr. Misaka kept a positive outlook on his situation. He considered himself lucky because Japanese-Americans living in Utah were not in internment camps unlike those who lived elsewhere. That statement puts life as a Japanese-American at that time into perspective, he was lucky that he was not subjected to mass incarceration for no reason other than the colour of his skin. It also puts Mr. Misaka’s accomplishments into perspective; shortly after Japanese-Americans were released, Mr. Misaka made history.
The Figure Skater Who Broke Ice: Tiffany Chin
Tiffany Chin turned heads when she won the free skate at the 1984 US nationals. Shortly after, she shocked the world again when she won back-to-back bronze medals in the 1985 and 1986 world championships. Tiffany Chin made her debut in 1982 as a 14-year-old Chinese-American figure skater. Many doubted her abilities simply because of her race. She quickly showed society that she belonged there just as much as anyone else and went on to win the US junior nationals as well as the World junior nationals. At the young age of 16, Tiffany Chin amazed the world when she placed fourth at the 1984 Winter Olympics. While her list of accomplishments may seem impressive, no amount of medals could change the fact that she was Chinese in a White-dominated sport. Mrs. Chin recalled an incident in which a young girl said, “You’re really good, but you know you’ll never be a champion. Figure skating champions have blonde hair and blue eyes, and you don’t have either.” Every time Mrs. Chin hit the ice, she was reminded of every time that she was different from the other figure skaters. Despite this, she preserved and never gave up on her dreams.
“I had many role models coming up as a skater. One of them was the U.S. champion, Tiffany Chin. I identified with her Asian American heritage. That connection made an impression that I could be like her.” This line was spoken by Olympic gold medalist, two-time world champion and the 1992 US national champion, Kristi Yamaguchi. Kristi Yamaguchi is just one of many Asian-American figure skaters who felt empowered and inspired by Tiffany Chin to pursue their dreams. Half of Team USA figure skating delegation in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics was composed of men and women of Asian descent, a record according to the federation. Tiffany Chin broke the ice and truly paved the way for great figure skaters like Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan. Tiffany Chin empowered and inspired countless individuals to pursue their dreams and fight against racism. The legacy of Tiffany Chin not only lives on in every Olympic figure skater but every young boy or girl with the dream of reaching the highest level of their sports.
The First Chinese-American on the National Hockey League: Larry Kwong
Larry Kwong blazed trails in 1948 when he was the first person of colour to ever lace up his skates for an NHL team, the New York Rangers. Larry Kwong was born June 17, 1923, in Vernon, British Columbia, Canada. He fell in love with hockey after playing on the frozen ponds in his neighbourhood. He eventually worked his way up to the major leagues. Mr. Kwong demonstrated passion and perseverance both on and off the ice. On the ice, he was a fierce, 5’6″ center who could skate circles around his opponents. Despite this, from a young age, Mr. Kwong experienced racism in every possible way. At the young age of nine, when travelling through the United States for a hockey tournament, despite his Canadian birth certificate stating he was born in Canada, he was denied entry into the US because of the colour of his skin. When he led the Veron Hydrophones to both the 1939 British Columbia(BC) Midget championship and the 1941 BC Juvenile championship, his success was mentioned but only after his race. “China Clipper” or “King Kwong” was what the media and other players called him. He was never just a young talented hockey player, he was always a young talented Chinese hockey player. Regardless of how many goals he scored on the ice, he was always the Chinese boy. He never felt like he belonged.
Mr. Kwong’s love for hockey allowed him to push through both the racism and disapproval from his family to get his first NHL debut with the New York Rangers. On March 13, 1948, late in the third quarter, Mr. Kwong checked in for one shift and shortly after, he checked out. The following day he was back on the New York Rangers farm team. He later said, “How could you prove yourself in a minute on the ice?” He never had the chance that he worked his whole life for all because of the colour of his skin. Mr. Kwong’s accomplishments in just one shift on the ice were truly remarkable, considering all the racism and prejudice he faced. Just a year before his major league debut Chinese-Canadians were given the right to vote in Canada. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned the entry of Chinese people into Canada, ended that same year. When you consider all of the racist laws in place at the time, it only makes Mr. Kwong’s accomplishments look more impressive.
Despite all of the racism and discrimination Mr. Kwong faced, he never gave up on his dream of playing hockey at a high level. After his one shift in the NHL, Larry continued to play high-level hockey. He played in the Quebec Major Hockey League for seven years. During the seven years, he played against many players who would go onto play in the NHL. In terms of NHL level talent, Mr. Kwong spent time playing on the Valleyfield Braves, coached by Toe Blake, 11 time Stanley Cup winner. After spending time in Quebec, Mr. Kwong went on to play Hockey in Europe for another seven years. His most notable season was the 1957-58 season in the British hockey league, where he scored 55 goals in 55 games. The discrimination and racism would most likely discourage most from chasing their dreams, but Larry Kwong wasn’t most people. He was a trailblazer, a legend and an inspiration to all of us today. Although he never had the opportunity to prove himself in the NHL, he gave countless Asian athletes the opportunity he never had. Larry Kwong overcame unimaginable obstacles and made it possible for future Asian athletes to succeed in North American sports.
The obstacles that Wataru Misaka, Tiffany Chin and Larry Kwong had to overcome are unimaginable. However, through persistence, passion, dedication, determination and a lot of hard work, these three athletes made history and inspired countless future generations of Asian children living in North America. Whether it was Wataru Misaka, who broke the colour barrier in the NBA, Tiffany Chin’s legacy which lives on in every Asian-American skater today, or Larry Kwong who made NHL history in one shift, Asian Americans can hold their heads high. These Asian athletes fought racism and discrimination every day until they were considered human beings. Wataru Misaka and Larry Kwong made history at one of the worst times to be Asian in North America. Asian-American stories may not be reflected in any textbooks, but we will always remember the sacrifices those before us made. Let the stories of these brave men and women not only serve as inspiration but as wood on the fire in the continuous fight for equality.
Edited by Tyler Nguyen & Lindsay Wong