A short story by Charlie Chin. Posted Sept. 15, 2021.

Intro:  Charlie has done it again! A wry and wonderful tale, part fancy all funny.

     Coconut Bowling is probably the biggest secret that AAPI community has.  Legend says it started in Hawaii.  It came to the Mainland after WWII and quietly spread throughout the West Coast and parts of the North East.  The astonishing  thing is the amount of money that changes hands during a tournament.  I’d give you some numbers but I’m afraid the IRS would get wind of it and a good thing would come to an end.  To give you an idea of what kind of money we’re talking about, everybody knows Willy Chow’s “King of Ramen” restaurant in Foster City, and “Banh Mi Pho Yu,” in San Jose, when they got started, where do you suppose the down payment money came from?

Photo by Matthew Rutledge. Creative Commons Flickr.

    I got involved when my buddy, David Gong called one day.  He wanted to meet about something important.  About an hour later we were in a Korean restaurant called, “The Bul Go Gi Cabin.”    I watched him wolf down a plate of the Han Gook culinary napalm the menu called “Pork with Forty Red Peppers.”.   I just had a pot of tea.   He glanced around to make sure nobody was listening and said,

     “There’s going to be a major Coconut Bowling Tournament taking place in a week.”

     “Coconut what?”

      “Coconut Bowling.  Trust me it’s big, really big.“  He kept inspecting his plate to see if any of the peppers were left.

      “Why are you telling me?”

     “For two reasons, one, you can keep your mouth shut.  And two, there a chance for us to make a bundle.”  I was becoming interested,

     “How much money are we talking about?”

      “You can double or triple your investment.”  I saw a red flag pop up.  Was I being conned?

  But Dave was really excited and he went on.

     “If you go in for a thousand, you can make two, maybe three thousand or more.”   He seemed sincere.  I wanted to know more this before we went any further.

     “How come I never heard of this Coconut Bowling?”  He was ready with an answer.

     “It’s strictly on the low down.  The games take place in back alleys and in underground parking lots.”

     “Explain this thing to me in detail.”

      “O.K.  You get three chances to bowl a coconut at a pineapple that’s set up about 40 yards away.  On the first roll, most people only bet ten or twenty dollars.  If you hit the pineapple, you double you bet or choose to leave the money on the table, if you miss, the house takes the money.   On the second roll, people can bet on you and they can bet up to hundred dollars.  Again, if you miss, the house takes the money, if you knock it down, you have a choice, either you can take your winnings or leave it on the table.   If you want to try a third time, there’s no cap on what you can bet.  If you bet a thousand, the other players and the house must cover your bet or drop out and lose the money they have already bet up to that point.  If you hit the pineapple, you get three times your money back.  Bet a one thousand, you get three thousand back.  Easy Peasy.”

    “Are you pulling my leg?”

     “No, it’s legit.  Remember how good a bowler I was in High School?  Well, I’m even better at Coconut Bowling.”   It sounded so crazy, the whole thing might actually be true.

     “Where is this event supposed to take place?’

      “I won’t know until the day before.  The judges keep it a secret for obvious reasons.  But this is like the National League of Coconut Bowling.”

    “Really?  And just who is going to be there?”   David leaned back in his chair, held out his hands, and started ticking off on his fingers the contestants by their bowling names.

     “Let’s see.  From the East Bay, there is Laptop Larry and the Big Alameda, and of course, Little Annie Oakland.    Tulu and Tula, the Tongan un-identical twins.  Monku Monku, he’s from Los Angeles.   Marica “Baby Toes” Phan, of San Jose.”  I stopped him for a second,

     “Why is she called Baby Toes?”   David explained,

     “She likes to bowl barefoot.  It drives the Shrimpers wild.”  That was good enough for me. I continued to question Dave,

     “Anyone else.”

     “Sure, Janet the Planet, from Millbrae, she’s got Taiwanese money behind her, and me, my handle is the Wakame Kid.”

     “So you want me to write you a check for what? A thousand? “   He shook his head.

     “No, no, it’s got to be cash.  The rules are no checks or paper trail.  Can you front me two large ones in cash?  You can be the money man, I’ll be the talent, and we’ll split the winnings 50-50.  Cool?

      Six days later we were in a dark underground parking lot in San Mateo, my home town.  The crowd was all Asian and P.I.   The official rules were posted, chalk lines were drawn, pineapples prepared, and coconuts issued to the contestants.

Photo by Vojta Cahlik.

      I watched with interest as the other bowlers took their turns in the qualifying round.  The Tongan brothers were dangerous.  They rolled the coconut with great force and power.  Their shots were more like cannon fire but very erratic.  Laptop Larry was a geek who needed a haircut.  He threw well but didn’t look like a winner.  Monku Monku of LA kept asking for another coconut, claiming none of those issued to him were perfect.  Janet the Planet Shih was dainty and cool, but no threat.  The Big Alameda wore a size 12 shoe and the coconut looked like a walnut in his massive hands.   “Baby Toes” qualified next and as I watched her, I saw something.  I was new to the game but she obviously had what it took.

     All the others did their first round, but nobody hit the pineapple three times. The Wakame Kid and Marica Baby Toes were the only two left.  I looked around for Dave and found him crouched behind a Toyota and moaning.  His normal healthy color had been replaced with an off shade of green.

     “You don’t look well David.”  He made a moaning sound and hung his head down.  He confessed,

    “Maybe it’s that order of Crabs Vindaloo I ate for lunch.”   He was in no condition to compete.

      “Dave, I warned you about spicy food.  Wait here, I’m going down to the drug store and get you some Pepto Bismol.”  He nodded as I dashed outside and headed two blocks for downtown San Mateo.

     When I got back, Dave looked worse.  He downed the whole bottle of Pepto like he was chugging a beer and tried to stand up.  The judges, Doctor Gupta Patel, and Indonesian Harry, asked if Dave was ready.  The poor guy was just able to gasp that he would wait a turn.

Photo by Dennis Weiser. Flickr.

     The judges signaled that Marica was next.  “Baby Toes” came up to the line and the crowd grew quiet.   She was wearing a short, very short black skirt, a tiny halter top, and bare feet.  All the women in the garage were watching her technique.  All the men in the crowd were quietly thinking the same thing, and it wasn’t how she would look in a burqa.

      She bowled so smoothly the coconut barely made a sound as it hit the floor.  She stepped back and rubbed her hands with glee as the sphere hooked its way to the target.  It was a hit.  There was a surge as the crowd put their bets on the table top.  The next try she put her hands In an attitude of prayer, picked up the coconut, and in one smooth movement, rolled the nut down the lane, another perfect strike.  It didn’t look good for us.  On her third try, she wrung her hands nervously, then she straightened up, and spun the coconut down the lane in a perfect hook shot.  The place exploded with cheers and I saw the two big ones we had brought say good bye.

    Dave was up next.  It looked to many of the crowd thought Marica had won.  Dave pulled himself together.  He bowled a first throw and hit the pineapple.  There was a quieting down as the people began to realize that maybe the game wasn’t over.  Dave through sheer force of will rolled his next shot and hit the pineapple again.  There was tension, things could go another way.  On Dave last roll, he took a long looping role that twisted at the end and hit the pineapple squarely on the side,

        It was a tie.  Doctor Gupta Patel and Indonesian Harry huddled and make a decision.  There will be an extra inning.  I glanced at Dave, he was as sick as a dog.  He was up first.  Somehow, he made his first two pineapples but on his third try, he stopped to make a sound like he was calling for somebody named Ralph, and missed the pineapple.    The audience groaned and some started laughing.   The pride of San Jose came up and she bowled three perfect rolls.  There was cheering and calls of “I told you so.”    But Doctor Patel was suspicious.  He asked to see Marica’s hands.  Baby Toes froze.  Indonesian Harry grabbed her wrists and inspected her palms.  They were covered in moisturizer cream.    There were shouts that it was a foul.

        But Doctor Patel shook his head and announced,

      “No, there’s no official rule against greasing the coconut.  But there will be after today.  She wins.”  Dave was crestfallen and too weak to stand up.  He was draped across the hood of a Volkswagon like a dead deer and gently barfing on the license plate.

      It was all over. In the pay out, we lost our two thousand dollar investment.  In between bouts of revisiting the Crabs Vindaloo, The Wakame Kid kept apologizing.   I told him it was the breaks but I warned him not to throw fruit any more.  As I turned to leave, Doc Patel came up to me and put a fat envelope in my hands.  Dave looked mystified and asked me what was in it.  I explained that after I saw Baby Toes bowling in the qualifying round, I realized Dave couldn’t beat her.  When I went to the drug store to get his medicine, I also decided to stop by my bank and take out five thousand in cash to put on Baby Toes to win.  I lost two thousand with the Wakame Kid but won fifteen thousand with Baby Toes.  That meant a profit of eight thousand bucks.  I gave Dave a grand for having turned me on to the game.  The kid was a little miffed that I bet against him but he appreciated the “Finders Fee” bonus.  We were both smiling when we shook hands.   I stuffed my winnings in my jacket pocket and headed home.

     When I came through the front door of our apartment, I called out to my wife,

     “Honey, put on a nice dress and those high heel shoes you’ve saving since your cousin’s wedding, we’re going out to eat fancy restaurant tonight.”  She looked surprised but asked no questions.  As she hurried to get the shoe box down from the closet shelf, she noticed the bag I was carrying.  She asked,

    ‘Where did you get all those coconuts?”  I didn’t have to lie,

     “They were on sale.”

Photo by Jagjit Dhillon. Flickr.

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Author’s bio: Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).

Cover Photo:

Japanese American Elvis at Gardena Obon, Aug. 2018. Photo by Eddie Wong.

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