The Duluth and Case Recreation Center in St. Paul was bustling Tuesday afternoon with people playing the familiar games of autumn. On one field, flag football teams from Humboldt and Farnsworth schools were warming up for a game. On others, soccer players swarmed as whistles tweeted.
And near a corner of the East Side park, on a pair of brand-new courts, several men were using poles with cords to whip spinning tops in a game that looked a little like bocce ball and a lot like fun.
For the Hmong men gathered to play tuj lub — pronounced too-loo — the new courts signal another “finally-made-it” moment for the Hmong in Minnesota. Their game will now be a fixture on the city’s athletic landscape.
On Tuesday, St. Paul officials cut the ribbon on the first tuj lub courts built in Minnesota and only the second to be built in the United States.
“I love it,” said Steve Her, of a game that’s been played for at least 1,000 years and one he started playing as a 6-year-old. “We’ve been expecting this for a long time.” Her is past president of the nonprofit Hawj United of Minnesota, a cultural nonprofit.
The Hmong, an ethnic group with ancient roots in China, began coming to Minnesota in 1975 as refugees from wars in Laos. The state is now home to more than 60,000 Hmong, the largest population in the U.S.
The Hmong community over the past few years has pushed hard for tuj lub courts, said state Sen. Foung Hawj, who represents the East Side. “It took us 40 years, but now we are playing again,” he said.
That the courts were built in the center of an area where many of St. Paul’s Hmong live is an acknowledgment that recreation offerings must change as the community changes, said Mike Hahm, the city’s Parks and Recreation director. Where baseball, football and hockey once were the dominant games, diverse communities now seek recognition of the games that they grew up playing.
“Government parks and rec systems cannot continue to be great without changes for progress and becoming champions for equity in our work,” Hahm said. “It’s part of the evolution of the park system.”
That continued evolution could soon include kato courts to accommodate a wildly athletic game that looks like volleyball played with your feet, he said. It’s similar to other moves to meet demand, such as disc golf baskets placed on city golf courses and skateboard parks built near playgrounds around the Twin Cities.
City Council Member Dan Bostrom recalled when he was on the school board in the mid-1980s and discussion had just begun about developing soccer fields in the city. He said the tuj lub courts are proof of the city’s efforts to listen.
“This just seemed like a natural fit,” he said of the courts.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman acknowledged that “this has been a little bit of a long time coming.” But he said the $40,000 project signals St. Paul’s willingness to work with and welcome all its residents.
“To be a welcoming place, we need welcoming spaces,” he said, minutes before taking a shot on the court.
On another field, as his flag football players from Farnsworth — many of whom are Southeast Asian — formed a circle and started stretching, Coach Anthony Williams said he welcomes another game for the community to play.
“Really?” he said when told about the basics of the game. “It sounds like fun.”