A 5,000-year-old Hmong game will soon have a permanent home in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee Recreation adds three lands to Carmen Playfield to play the Hmong game tuj lub (pronounced too-loo). For years, those who played the sport in Milwaukee had to set up the field themselves. From next year, they won’t have to.
“It’s amazing,” said tuj lub player Tom Vang. “We can’t ask for more than that.”
The courts, which will be the fourth of their kind in the country, are part of the renovations to the Carmen and Stark playgrounds and are funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhood program.
Stark and Carmen Playgrounds are located on the north and northwest sides of Milwaukee, near areas of the city with a growing Hmong population.
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Tuj lub is played by people of all ages. The game uses tops approximately five inches tall and three inches in diameter. Players use a self-made golf shaft or club so they can tie a string to the end to wrap around the top. The length of the string is measured by the number of times it can wrap around the top and each player decides the length of the string to their liking.
All game materials must be handcrafted.
Kou Lee said that with a longer string, you have to be stronger and more precise. At the end of the string is a feather, which Vang says helps with aiming and accuracy.
The game is played with two teams usually with six players on each team and players take turns throwing a top at other tops 10 to 70 feet away depending on the round. The distance, aim, target and objective change in each of the eight rounds that are played. Each round gets progressively more difficult with more points awarded. A perfect score is 75.
“It’s absolutely not easy and it’s absolutely not difficult,” Vang said at Clovernook Park, where the game has moved while Carmen is under construction.
The first round consists of attempting to hit a top, and the top of the team that spins the longest after contact wins the point. The second round is played in the same way but at a longer length and points are awarded if the thrower just hits the top.
The game is played on grass and carpet. The throwing area material can range from a carpet to something similar to a gym floor. When the new courts open in 2023, Vang said the game will change.
“It’s going to be totally game-changing…because we’re going to have to get used to the new materials,” Vang said. “Everyone is probably going to change the way they throw or play the games there because they’re different materials than playing on grass.”
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Construction of the Stark and Carmen playgrounds has already begun and is expected to be completed this fall or spring so the parks can reopen in the summer of 2023.
“We work closely with our contractors and our owners’ representatives to ensure that we are efficient and doing everything we can to complete on time,” said Milwaukee Recreation project supervisor Shannon Arms.
Milwaukee Recreation has renders of what Stark and Carmen’s playgrounds will look like on their website. Improvements include: a renovated pavilion, shaded structure, walking loops, asphalt games, basketball courts, playgrounds, group swings and wading pools.
Both will also improve lighting and improve fencing on playgrounds as a safety measure.
“I think the decorative fence we put in is something that protects users, but also looks good aesthetically,” said Lynn Greb, director of recreation for Milwaukee Recreation. “We have also included CCTV at all of our new sites to keep equipment protected and to ensure user safety as well.”
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These measures also aim to ensure that playground users can focus on fun and not on their safety.
“Nothing can replace that experience of your body being able to relax when you’re supposed to be able to go to a park or playground and relax and have that fun experience,” Arms said.
Additionally, Stark Playfield will have a renovated football/soccer pitch and tennis courts.
The addition of the tuj lub courts to Carmen Playfield is in response to the way the playground was used.
“There is a larger growing Hmong community in this part of town and this is a great example of supporting a truly community-based process on how to use these public spaces,” initiative coordinator Paul Williams Choice Neighborhood for the City of Milwaukee Housing Authority. said.
Arms said there was no manual for creating the courts due to the lack of people. Because of this, it opened up a conversation with players about what they would like to see with future courts.
“We would go out with material samples and kind of say ‘OK, we have three types of synthetic turf, which one do you want to throw on? Which one do you want the tops to land on?” said Armes. “It was this really collaborative process of developing the design with them and we went out and put flags up and said, is this wide enough for a short , or does it need to be wider? Can it get any narrower?”
When the courts are complete, Arms and Greb said there is potential for classes on how to play tuj lub and also tournaments like the ones Milwaukee players travel to in Denver and Minneapolis.
In the meantime, tuj lub players have had to find a new place to play for the summer with Carmen Playfield under construction.
They brought their game and skills to Clovernook Playground, a five-minute drive north of Carmen Playfield. When they show up at Clovernook Playground, they bring field supplies, lawn chairs and bags of baseball bats along with their gear.
But, when they return to Carmen in 2023, they only need to bring one thing: their bags full of their clubs, tops, supplies and maybe even a refreshing drink for the hot summer days.
“It will be like a new life for us,” Kou Lee said. “It’s something new and it’s a good opportunity for us in the community.”