Like most things handed down from the British aristocracy—fox hunting, peerages, Prince Philip—table tennis is basically ridiculous, and certainly pointless. Ignoring for the moment that it was invented by the chinless gentry, Dustin Bromley and Michael Unger both agree that there’s just something inescapably goofy about a game played with tiny balls and cartoon-coloured bonsai paddles.
These are some of the thoughts that surface when the Straight joins the duo over hangover brunch at El Camino’s on Main Street one hot Saturday afternoon to discuss the wild, if somewhat puzzling, success of their Ping-Pong nights at the Biltmore Cabaret. In fact, the evening is such a smash that it’s been imported by programmer Ken Tsui into his revamped Chinatown Night Market, for a monthly appearance getting its official Tiger-sponsored start this Friday (June 14). Everybody agrees it’s a winner. It’s just that nobody really understands why.
“It’s huge in Europe,” suggests Unger, a sharp and brainy comic-actor-astronomer who emcees the increasingly busy event. “We get a lot of ESL students coming to the Biltmore, because when they go to a bar in Berlin or wherever, there’ll be a big Ping-Pong table there.”
“I genuinely feel that people just want something to do when they go to the bar,” Bromley offers with a shrug, pointing out that it’s no less unlikely or odd than karaoke. “I think they’re tired of going to the bar and just standing there.”
Boy, if he only knew. Around 15 years ago, before Bromley was even allowed to drink, braving the joint now known as the Biltmore Cabaret meant entering a low-ceilinged hellhole where haunted men nursed bad draft and stared grimly into their keno cards. On a good night, the place merely exploded into sudden and random violence.
These days, the Biltmore is the signature venue for a generation that has brought its own new pulse to our sometimes entertainment-beleaguered city. In June of last year, the club’s talent booker at the time, Courtney Ewan, decided to introduce a Ping-Pong night, of all things, into the schedule. “I got roped in through nepotism,” explains her fiancé, Bromley, cheerfully. Twelve months later, he’s stumped as to her motives, but a quick call from the Georgia Straight unlocks this most timeless of mysteries. Turns out it was simple intuition.
“It was really a think-outside-the-box kind of thing,” Ewan tells the Straight. “The Biltmore’s a fantastic room but it can be a bit of a tough sell to people in summer. We were just trying to entice people to come and hang out in a basement for a few hours. We actually had a hilarious list of ridiculously random night ideas that we could do, and Ping-Pong just seemed like something that would work.”
It did, and Ewan is certain that it’ll translate beautifully to the Night Market, adding that Unger and Bromley “are both perfect for it. They both get the spirit of it. It’s just a really ridiculous, atypical night.” Meanwhile, Unger reports that an unofficial trial run in Chinatown, during the grand opening on June 1, added to his confidence—even with nature adding its own randomizing element to the game.
“I thought being outside made it more enjoyable, actually,” he says. “Because sometimes the wind would pick up and blow your ball away. I like it. Evens the playing field.” This is actually Unger’s way of acknowledging what he and Bromley both feel is the real source of the game’s appeal, at least the way they do it.
While Bromley deejays a mix of punk and energetic rock songs—mingled with some thematically appropriate electro like “Michelle Plays Ping Pong” by Daisy Daisy—Unger coaches patrons through several rounds of Around the World, an elimination spectacle in which a group of players take turns just keeping the ball on the table. By the end of it all, two contestants remain and then face off for the night’s final game, which is when Bromley starts pulling out stuff like “The Final Countdown”. At the Biltmore, they average about 10 rounds a night, with a final winner taking home concert tickets, among other prizes.
Bromley prefers Around the World because “you don’t have to be very good.” Adds Unger: “I think that is really the key. I think a lot of times, with games, people get apprehensive because they don’t feel that they’re as good as other people. With Around the World, there’s a levelling factor. All you have to do is just stay in the game. That’s sort of the fun of it.”
In other words, this isn’t a sport, you don’t need to be Olympic gold-medallist Li Xiaoxia to compete—or even Forrest Gump, for that matter—and nobody really cares about winning anyway. As Unger puts it: “Ping-Pong is something you play in your friend’s basement with a bunch of beers. It’s a party game.” For a graphic view, you can check out a video called “° ° °ping - pong° ° °”, posted to Vimeo by an eager Biltmore attendee named tiNka. Or you could just show up on Keefer Street on Friday for the inaugural Unger-Bromley Outdoor Around the World Tourney. Nobody can say for sure, but even in the new location, there’s a pretty great chance they’ll be keeping their tiny balls in play.