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A traditional Hmong sport is putting down roots in the U.S.


There's lots of sports to watch this holiday week - the World Cup, the NFL. But if you happen to be in Newton, N.C., you can check out the year's biggest matches in a 5,000-year-old sport called tuj lub. It's popularly played by members of the Hmong diaspora. It's a little like bowling mixed with baseball, but it involves spinning tops and long sticks. And Mallory Cheng of member station WUWM in Milwaukee does a much better job explaining it.

MALLORY CHENG, BYLINE: It's late in the game. Kou Lee has to knock down a full row of tuj lub or his team loses. It all comes down to this. And he gets it. It's a great day for Lee. He's been playing this sport for over 20 years. And sometimes you aren't as lucky as Lee, and you got to manage the heartbreak of hitting the dirt. Tuj lub generally translates to spin top. Players use a wooden stick or the end of a golf club that is about 2 feet long with a nylon fishing line attached at the end. And that string is wrapped around a large spinning top. Two teams with six players compete for eight rounds to try to hit each other's spinning top. And with each round, the tops are moved farther and farther away from the starting point. And by round three, the tuj lub sit still, lined up together.

KOU LEE: In Milwaukee, we play around 14 team. So you're talking about, like, around 8,200 people participate on a big event.

CHENG: Tuj lub players as young as 13 and as old as 80 compete in tournaments that happen all year round in places with large Hmong populations, like Oshkosh, Wisc., too right outside of Tulsa, Okla., to larger cities like Minneapolis and Denver - there are permanent tuj lub courts. And with a growing Hmong population in Milwaukee's Silver Spring neighborhood, the local park will be building permanent courts in the upcoming year.

SOLOMAN XIONG: I'm pretty excited because I see videos on YouTube. Minnesota has two of those. And then Colorado has one, too. And I know there's players in Milwaukee, Wisc., too. And it kind of makes me like - why not us?

CHENG: Soloman Xiong is in his early 20s and got into the game early in his life.

XIONG: Every week and every day, whenever my dad was free or he didn't go to work, we'd just come with him. And then we'd meet all our awesome friends here.

CHENG: Ultimately, Lee hopes that the new courts will spread the community's love of tuj lub.

LEE: It became your daily life, you know. You go to work. You come back home. You eat a little bit. Sometimes you take the kids. Sometimes you just go and play tuj lub. So it become a real life for me. Tuj lub is another sport that is new to the community. So welcome, everybody. We don't pick color. We don't pick race. Everybody come and play.

CHENG: Carmen Playfield is set to open in spring of 2023, and the tuj lub players will definitely be out there with their stick and top. For NPR News, I'm Mallory Cheng in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mallory Cheng