Parks and Rec to install Tuj Lub courts

Chia Yang demonstrates the spinning of the top in the traditional Hmong sport of Tuj Lub. The sport is gaining traction in the Twin Cities, and St. Paul Parks and Recreation will be installing two courts at Duluth and Case Recreation Center. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
Chia Yang demonstrates the spinning of the top in the traditional Hmong sport of Tuj Lub. The sport is gaining traction in the Twin Cities, and St. Paul Parks and Recreation will be installing two courts at Duluth and Case Recreation Center. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Traditional Hmong sport could grow

A traditional Hmong game with spinning tops might be coming to the East Side this summer.

St. Paul Parks and Recreation announced it would be exploring construcing two Tuj Lub (pronounced Do Lu) courts at the Duluth and Case Recreation Center later this summer.

The sport, which involves a sawed-off golf club with string tied to it, a spinning top, and a playing court, sometimes draws comparisons to bocce ball.

It’s a nostalgic sport for many Hmong men, who played it back in Southeast Asia before migrating to the U.S.

They are hoping to see it maintained as a tradition. And they may be in luck, for there are about 15 competitive teams in the Twin Cities, and some of the players are in their 20s or younger.

The two St. Paul courts, along with three that may land in Keller Regional Park, will constitute some of the first Tuj Lub courts in the United States.

The only existing court can be found in Westminster, Colorado, says Brian Murphy, landscape architect for St. Paul Parks and Recreation.

A number of local politicians have voiced support for installing Tuj Lub courts in the Twin Cities, including DFL state Sen. Fong Hawj, who represents the East Side, and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.

Brad Meyer, spokesperson for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, said the courts are coming as part of the city’s 2015 budget process.

Mayor Chris Coleman, as well as several council members had heard feedback from the Hmong community expressing a desire to have the courts in the city, and $40,000 in city funding was allocated in the 2015 budget for the courts.

“We have a good opportunity to expand this little-known sport,” Murphy said.

Once installed, the courts would be within easy access to the many Hmong people who live on the East Side. The Duluth and Case Recreation Center sits directly across Phalen Boulevard from Hmong Village, a celebrated hub of Hmong culture and retailers.

People visiting the Hmong Village could easily walk over to the new courts.

Murphy said the sport brings people from all over the country together, and with courts in St. Paul, the sport could attract people to the city. He points to St. Paul’s annual Hmong Fest, which takes place around the Fourth of July at Como Park, where Tuj Lub tournaments bring competitors from across the country.

Complex game

The game is played in a series of eight different playing levels, each level with its own objectives and gameplay. It starts with two teams battling by spinning their tops onto a 2-foot square platform -- one player spins a top on the platform and another player launches a top with the goal of knocking over the other top, while keeping their top spinning longer than the opponent’s. The complex game then proceeds through different rounds, which ultimately culminates in the players sending their tops 70 feet down the playing court, trying to hit a small target.

Official recognition, pride

East Sider Chia Yang has been playing the sport for over 25 years, and has been pushing for three years to get Tuj Lub courts installed in St. Paul.  

As it stands, players have to set up a court each time they play, lugging long rolls of carpet out to a field. Players can be found practicing just about every day near Beaver Lake, where they set up the makeshift playing field.

“Why do we have to go set it up every time we play,” complained Tony Yang, Chia’s son. “You don’t go set up a tennis court before you play.”

The installed courts, Tony said, could bring a sense of official recognition to the sport, which he said has gained a substantial following in the area.

Tony Yang, 20, plays on his father’s Tuj Lub team, but plans to set up a team comprised of other young men this year. He says the sport is gaining traction with younger people.

Tuj Lub is also getting more organized. There’s a statewide Tuj Lub organization, which is a branch of a national organizing body. The state body gets together annually to discuss rules, which are formalized and being gradually smoothed out.

Chao Her, president of the Hmong Tuj Lub Club, used to play Tuj Lub in his native Laos when he was a kid. Now, he doesn’t play much, but he’s hoping that at least some of his six kids will engage with the sport.

He imagines Tuj Lub leagues forming, programs forming at community center, and people of all ages and ethnicities engaging in the sport.

Community council weighs in

On Wednesday, St. Paul Parks and Recreation staff gave a presentation about Tuj Lub to the Payne Phalen District Council’s Community Planning and Economic Development board, which by and large embraced the idea of bringing courts to the East Side.

Considering the park has some underutilized baseball fields, said board member Cheryl Peterson, the courts seem like a good way to increase use of the park.

Al Oertwig, a district council board member, said “I think we need to serve the diversity of the folks in the neighborhood.”

A couple of board members expressed concern over parking at the rec center, and questioned why the sport of Tuj Lub should be chosen over any number of other underdog sports. Nonetheless, the board voted overwhelmingly in favor of writing a letter expressing support for installing the courts.

Ed Davis, president of the Duluth and Case Recreation Center’s booster club, said he sees the Tuj Lub courts as a way to attract more people to the rec center.

Bianca Paz, landscape designer at St. Paul Parks and Recreation, said the design process is still ongoing.

She said both city and county staff attended community meetings where Tuj Lub players provided input on what they were looking for in courts.

Paz also worked with some players to test different playing surfaces. The game takes place in a field but uses a hard surface to spin the tops on, and requires a platform.

They came up with what is basically conveyor belt material to serve as the landing surface the tops will spin on. Design details have yet to be worked out.

If all goes as planned, Paz said the St. Paul courts will be installed towards the end of the summer.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

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