How to Grow Big, Beautiful Papayas: On the Baseball Film in Asia




WHEN THE YOUNG RAILROAD ENGINEER Hiraoka Hiroshi returned from studying in the United States in 1877, he brought a baseball home with him. Western missionaries had been playing ball in Japan for a few years, but it was Hiraoka who formed the first Japanese team, securing his reputation as the father of Japanese baseball. (A skilled player of the samisen — a three-stringed Japanese instrument — he is also credited with introducing the first guitar to Japan.) Japanese baseball now boasts a history of 140 years. Baseball in the US itself is only some three decades older.

Baseball is often called “America’s pastime,” and whereas soccer and cricket each hold truly global World Cup championships, baseball’s “World Series” remains parochially North American. Yet even American baseball is globalizing. Major League Baseball (MLB) has held recent season openers in Japan and Australia. The World Baseball Classic and Little League World Series bring together all-star national teams from around the world. And Major League Baseball increasingly recruits foreign players for North American teams. Over a quarter of the players listed on the opening day rosters of MLB teams in 2014 were born outside the United States, mainly in various parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, with a handful from East Asia.

This kind of outsourcing — whereby other countries in effect serve as training academies and farm teams for the North American metropole — provides the context for last year’s best-known English-language baseball film, Million Dollar Arm. The film romanticizes the story of sports agent J. B. Bernstein (played by Madmen’s John Hamm), who took a reality-TV contest on the road through India in search of potential baseball talent. Bernstein ultimately brought two 19-year-old javelin-throwers back to California where, after extensive coaching, they were signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. As Bernstein writes in his memoir, he was looking for an “Indian Yao Ming” — referring to the seven-foot-six Chinese basketball center whose tenure with the Houston Rockets not only helped the team reach four NBA playoffs, but added hundreds of millions of Chinese to the NBA’s global fan base.

Bernstein’s Indian prodigies have not proven to be Yao Mings, nor has MLB gotten to first base in India — perhaps not surprising, given South Asia’s passion for cricket. But Bernstein’s way of thinking is telling, given the Western popular imagination of China and India as rising stars of the new Asian century, as vast supply chains and unexploited markets, as bandwagons left unboarded only at great peril. This likely explains the modest critical and box-office success enjoyed by this otherwise clichéd inspirational sports film.

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Two other recent baseball films show that, MLB notwithstanding, Hiraoka’s legacy lives on in Northeast Asia and has even reached remoter parts of the continent, sometimes in ways that have little reference to North America at all. Well-worn themes, familiar from not just Million Dollar Arm but Jerry Maguire, Field of Dreams, A League of Their Own, The Jackie Robinson Story, and many other American sports films before it, are in evidence here: the hardscrabble success of an unlikely team; baseball as path from the sticks to the big-time; racial obstacles overcome to integrate the diamond; the scarred, cynical, or washed-up father figure (coach, agent, ex-player) redeemed by the innocent aspirations and can-do spirit of youthful sportsmen. But in a Japanese or Chinese setting, these conventional lessons take on Confucian coloring. And in the pair of baseball films reviewed here, Kano and Diamond in the Dunes, the sport comments in startling ways on Asia’s indigenous imperial past.

Kano tells the historically documented story of a team from Kagi (Jiayi) Agricultural and Forestry Public School, in rural southern Taiwan, beating the odds to reach the high school championships in Kōshien, near Kobe, Japan, where they won second place in 1931. (The team’s name, “Kano,” is the abbreviation of Kagi Agricultural in Japanese.) A high school championship might not seem a big deal, but Kōshien was the largest stadium in Asia at the time and the Mecca of Japanese baseball, its diamond’s very dirt considered “sacred.” Moreover, as the opening sequences of the film note without comment, these were all-empire championships, and the rookie team from Taiwan competed against toughened squads from Hokkaido, Manchuria, and Korea as well as mainland Japan. Baseball in this story brings the diverse peoples of Japan’s colonies together in a ritual pilgrimage to the Kōshien metropole.

In the 2001 Bollywood film Lagaan, a mixed-caste team of Indian villagers learns cricket in preparation for a match against a team of British officers, thus pitting subject against oppressor and showing how Indian unity could defeat the mighty Raj. The colonial lines in Kano are drawn very differently. The Kano team as we see it is happily integrated and imperially assimilated. It takes a keen eye for East Asian physiognomy to tell, but the good-looking boys who horse around, joke in fluent Japanese, and call each other by Japanese names in fact represent three “races,” in the parlance of the time: Japanese, Han Chinese, and native or aboriginal Taiwanese. We learn that pitcher and team captain Go Akira (played by real-life Taiwanese outfielder Tsao Yu-ning) is Chinese when he steps into a shop in town and addresses his girlfriend in a southern Chinese dialect. The movie nods further to Kagi’s ethnic diversity by trotting out stereotyped relatives and townsfolk (a demure kimonoed wife, a corpulent Chinese grandmother, a shirtless native in a conical straw hat), but everyone gets along splendidly. Only two brief encounters with minor characters — a drunk official and an aggressive journalist — hint at the racism faced by non-Japanese members of the Kano team. The reporter asks, “Can the savages understand Japanese? Were they born dark-skinned?” In response, the Kano coach, Kondo Yotaro (dolefully played by Masatoshi Nagase), firmly rejects such prejudice: “Minzoku to yakyū kankei nai! Race has nothing to do with baseball!” And yet he reflects it in his line-up, explaining that the Japanese know defense, the Hans are big hitters, and the natives can run very fast.

In Kano’s vision of Japanese empire, then, baseball unites colonial and colonist in happy amity. The film feels more like Soviet or Chinese propaganda about “the unity of the nationalities” than a product of Taiwan’s sophisticated contemporary cinema. Nor does the startlingly rosy nostalgia for the Japanese Raj end there. While the boys of Kano practice pitching, batting, fielding, and running, the countryside around them is transformed under the beneficent hand of empire: Japanese engineers complete the Kanan Canal, the longest in Asia, to irrigate southern Taiwan. The Kagi students’ favorite sensei, the Japanese agronomist Hamada, doles out bushels of improved bananas and papayas, bred larger, sweeter, and juicier than native varieties. As coach Kano records statistics and drills his unschooled players with ergonomic techniques, so too does science, in the form of Japanese agronomy and hydrology, wrench ever greater yields from Taiwan’s untamed soil. We might be witnessing the Green Revolution in Cold War–era American newsreels from Southeast Asia.

This modern, developmentalist narrative comes wrapped round a Confucian core. Hamada-sensei’s secret for growing bigger, more beautiful papayas is to drive a nail into the tree’s root. Thus challenged, not only does the spiked tree struggle to overcome its handicap, but other trees in the grove emulate it, and all produce fatter fruits. Coach Kondo stalks the film as if clenched around a spike of his own. Haunted by a humiliating past failure, he never smiles, makes his frisky players bow ritually before their muddy diamond, and presides as stiff patriarch over his own home. As his cute daughters frolic on the tatamis, Kondo brushes out lines of stark calligraphy in spare classical Chinese: “The ball is the soul. The soul is the ball. When the ball is rectified, the soul is rectified. When the soul is rectified, the ball is rectified.” When Kondo finally gets his energetic but irresolute team to Kōshien, in the film’s climax, it is as much a testament to the rectifying powers of empire as to the skill of the Taiwanese players.

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Diamond in the Dunes unfolds on the western frontier of China, a desert environment far from the lush paddies and torrential rains of southern Taiwan. Yet similar themes of discipline, development, race, and colonial status underlie this tale of baseball’s improbable emergence in Xinjiang — a vast region of sandy basins and towering ranges conquered by the Qing empire in the 18th century and inherited by 20th-century Chinese republics. The film profiles Parhat Ablat, a Uyghur from the dusty town of Payziwat, outside Kashgar, in predominantly Muslim and Turkic-speaking southwest Xinjiang. Parhat’s father having been murdered when Parhat was a boy — the spike in his own root — Parhat is the man of the family. He shares a modest home with his mother and siblings, amid shopkeepers, sheep herders and hardscrabble farmers. But Parhat has surmounted obstacles and achieved great things: when we meet him, he is enrolled in Xinjiang’s top university in Urumchi, the regional capital 900 miles to the east. His headscarved mother glows with pride; neighborhood kids lionize him; and as near-celebrity he enjoys the dubious attentions of a gold-digging local girl who strings him along romantically while asking for handouts. People take Parhat’s passion for baseball seriously, though few have ever heard of the game before.

How did baseball get to Xinjiang? There is no narrator to tell us in this cinéma vérité film, but according to a 2008 Christian Science Monitor story, Xinjiang University students first began experimenting with baseball gear left behind by Japanese exchange students in the late 1990s; then, in the early 2000s, a Korean visitor — rumored to be a Christian missionary — decided to stay in Urumchi and coach the college team. In a way, as in Japan a century and a half earlier, baseball followed the cross to western China. Nevertheless, baseball’s advent in Xinjiang owes more to Japan than to American civilization. Parhat and his teammates read up on baseball not in English, but in Chinese language materials imported from baseball-crazy Taiwan, which of course, like Korea, learned the game from Japanese occupiers early in the 20th century.

Parhat is as solemn as Kano’s coach Kondo, and every bit as mindful of the momentousness of baseball. Uyghurs’ position in China is akin to that of Tibetans — a fact the film mentions briefly in the opening sequence. But Parhat’s own words make clear how he has chosen to negotiate the colonial conundrum: by constant striving. Religion does not come up, at least not explicitly, or has been replaced for him by baseball. To Parhat, success at playing ball, at studying, at being a man, and at serving as a model for family, village, and people are one and the same. Diamond in the Dunes sketches the fine line Parhat must walk, affording quick but telling glimpses of Uyghur and Han students’ segregated lives: they speak different languages, live in separate dorms, and eat in separate dining halls. Only on the baseball team do Han and Uyghur students interact. When Parhat tries to rally his team, he speaks across, and strives to transcend, an ethno-nationalist chasm.

That chasm has grown wider and more treacherous in recent years. During filming of Diamond, a Uyghur demonstration on July 7, 2009, turned violent when repressed by police and Uyghur rioters murdered nearly 200 Han. Over the next few days and nights, untold numbers of Uyghurs were killed and thousands arrested in Han vigilante and police reprisals. The film incorporates Chinese state TV footage of this bloody watershed. Though few students took part in these events, Xinjiang University went under a lengthy lock-down, and ethnically mixed baseball was indefinitely banned. Even after team practices recommenced, the Han students stayed away.

They ultimately came back, however. Parhat returns to coaching Han and Uyghur alike, interspersing drills with pep talks in the didactic mode common to PRC pedagogy and propaganda, his motivational harangues equal parts Confucius and Dale Carnegie. He has internalized the discourse of self-improvement for the collective good. He never dwells on his status as a Muslim minority in a Chinese-dominated state, where authorities have just jailed thousands of his confreres and continue to execute a steady stream of others as “terrorists.” Nor does Parhat voice the slightest objection to that system, at least not on camera. Only once does the ethnic elephant in the room step into the frame: in a dorm-room conversation, Parhat upbraids a Uyghur player who is slipping in both his studies and his fielding skills: “Just look at the Han,” Parhat says. “They learn how to work hard without even knowing it.” With this comment, the minority acknowledges those advantages that the majority enjoys unconsciously: a Uyghur must strive twice has hard as his Han classmate, just to avoid falling behind. A familiar enough situation; the surprise is that Parhat focuses so much of his striving on baseball. To what end?

As a baseball film, Diamond in the Dunes follows the accustomed arc of aspiration and expectation leading to the Big Game. In this case, it’s the Xinjiang team’s first and only game of the season. Parhat and his squad travel 1,000 miles to play the nearest team, in Qinghai, on the Tibetan Plateau — only to be demolished, 16–1. The film ends soon thereafter, on an ambiguous note. Parhat, newly graduated from Xinjiang University, is back in Payziwat. He’s pitching stones with a gaggle of kids down dirt lanes at dusk. These children are the next generation of Uyghurs, possibly the future of Uyghur baseball. “My name is Hope,” one says. “What’s yours?”

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As it does depressingly often over international awards, the Chinese government threw a snit over Kano’s nominations for Taipei’s Golden Horse, one of the most prestigious cinema events in the Chinese-speaking world. Though the PRC did not withdraw its own films from Golden Horse contention as it has done from other festivals, it blocked Chinese social media and did not allow live coverage of the ceremonies by Chinese news outlets until it was clear that Kano had been shut out of all jury choices. (The movie did take home the audience and critics’ awards passed out the day before. Kano also won Audience Choice awards at the Osaka and Taipei Film Festivals.)

The reason for PRC ire is clear: Chinese official history cannot abide portrayals of 1930s and 1940s Japan as anything but evil, much less accept Kano’s easy representation of Taiwan as a colony thriving under Japanese tutelage. Indeed, the popularity of this revisionist film in Taiwan must owe as much to Beijing’s overbearing assertions that Taiwan is and forever has been Chinese as it does to baseball fever or real nostalgia for Japanese rule.

There has been no official PRC reaction to or knowledge of Diamond in the Dunes that I know of, but if Beijing could tolerate cinematic allusions to tensions in Xinjiang at all, this would be a film to embrace, since Parhat is the model Uyghur minority, embodying precisely those values PRC propaganda trumpets to all Uyghurs in its effort to drown out what it fears is a siren song of Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, since filming ended, Parhat has settled successfully in Urumchi and, as coach, has led the Xinjiang University team on to win the Chinese national championships. Yet I fear neither baseball nor Diamond in the Dunes can gain much traction in the PRC. The film treads too close to the sensitive issues of Uyghur-Han relations and Muslim minority prospects in China today. Ironically, the unpaved streets, fading paint, and mud-brick dwellings of Parhat’s home-town, along with the segregated dorms at his university, suggest how little the real Xinjiang resembles the ideal one of China’s state media — an ideal no different from the Japanese Taiwan that Kano depicts, with ethnic harmony and modernizing development for the good of all. If the PRC produced a film about Xinjiang baseball, it would look like Kano. Except that Parhat’s team would have to win the Big Game.

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James A. Millward is Professor of Intersocietal History at the Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of History, Georgetown University.


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