When Wang Chen, now 48, came to New Jersey via China in 2000, it wasn’t her intention to focus on table tennis, a sport she began playing at age 7 in her native Shanghai.
“When I first came, it was to help my sister with her business in New Jersey,” Chen said. “I thought for a while that I was done with table tennis. I’ve put it behind me.”
It made sense on the surface. She had retired from playing in China due to injury, but when she came to settle with Sari Wong, her lone sibling, a move to New York City in 2001 changed everything.
“My sister helped me get a Green Card when I moved to New York City,” Chen said. “I came from Beijing, a big city, but coming to New York City it opened up a lot of possibilities for me, and I saw it as a place where I can become successful.”
21 years later, Chen is leaving an indelible mark on table tennis. She made the USA Olympic Team in 2008 and represented America in the Beijing Games, finishing fifth in Women’s Single, still the best finish for an American woman in the sport. She also participated in the team competition where they reached the playoff round for the bronze medal.
Chen now runs two eponymous table tennis centers in the New York City metro area, one located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and the other in Jersey City’s Newport development.
“Really appreciate the landlord providing me with an amazing table tennis center in Jersey City,” Chen said. “They helped with renovations, and it’s a great spot, next to the water and a lot of big companies and shopping centers around.”
Wang Chen Table Tennis/Newport opened in 2017 and offers private lessons, after-school programs, and summer camps. Chen is usually there weekdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. to help with the training.
Her son, Ryan, 11, is one of her pupils.
“My son started at age 4, but last year he started to play more,” Chen said. “It’s very interesting to teach kids; you must be patient with them. But the kids I teach are happy to learn the game, and it’s amazing to see how they evolve.”
Chen laughs while mentioning patience with kids and continues, “Table tennis has evolved since I’ve been here, and the diversity of Jersey City and New York City helps expand the game. It’s not an expensive sport to play whereas golf you will need clubs and find a golf course or baseball or lacrosse. Table tennis, you just need a table and paddle and can put one in the office or home basement.”
But not surprisingly, the Covid pandemic impacted Chen’s business. She had to close one location in Bergen County and scrap plans to open another in Brooklyn.
Fortunately, business at Chen’s Manhattan location has rebounded of late, she said. Usage in Jersey City, she reported, is still off. Still, Chen is confident her location in Newport will soon see a return to 2018 levels.
“It takes time, but Jersey City has been amazing for me, and we will see it pick back up,” she said.
Chen’s success is particularly notable given her size. At 5’1″, she is considerably shorter than most of the best female players in the sport, who are between 5’3” and 5’9.” Her short frame is a liability.
“Table tennis is not an easy sport to play if you are tall,” said Chen. “It’s a very quick game and not easy for tall people. If I had to choose to be a certain height playing, I would be shorter. You’re more agile to move around, and for tall players, it’s hard to move fast.”
Despite this, once Chen gained U.S. citizenship in 2005, she made the commitment to work harder than before. For two years she went overseas to compete, travel that was necessary for her to find the level of play she needed to regain her competitiveness. It took time and some losses, but after a year she collected a gold medal at the Pan American Games in 2007 and finished fifth in Beijing.
“I found myself,” Chen said.
This is not to say that Chen regrets having to work her way back up the professional ladder.
“I’ve learned life experiences since I came to America,” she said. “Before that, my sole focus in China was to be a table tennis player and be the best I can.
Chen smiled and finished, “Here, I learned how to become a very independent and strong woman. I learned English, learned how to drive, rent an apartment, and open a business and raise a family.”