Rocking the Chinese yo-yo, Won crowd at a time

Eugene Won ’09 is a legend on campus, consistently receiving roaring applause at campus events because of his nimble command of the primeval game of Chinese yo-yo. Students have come to love watching him whisk the world’s second oldest toy around his lanky limbs, whether he’s whipping the wooden sticks back and forth to the echoing bass line of a digital synthesizer or to the syncopated cadence of the Octet’s beatboxing. And although some students claim to have chosen the College only after witnessing his routine at Previews, very few students know the campus icon by name.

As the man behind the yo-yo, Won is a well-known figure on campus, but I soon learn that the moniker is a touchy subject. “I’m always called the Chinese yo-yo guy by random people,” he said. “It’s annoying. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re that Chinese yo-yo guy!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah what’s my name?’ And they don’t know.”

A Korean American by birth, Won began to attend Chinese school for two and a half hours each week in middle school. “My parents said China was going to become a world power, so I should learn Chinese,” Won said with a sheepish smile on his face.

Learning how to use the Chinese yo-yo was an unexpected byproduct of his schooling. Students at the Chinese school gave Won his first yo-yo, and strongly encouraged him to join his high school team. When I asked what got him hooked, Won widened his eyes and shot me a look of disbelief. “Come on, really?!” I wait for him to clarify. “It looks awesome. It’s like an exotic thing that you don’t really see everywhere.” Won reads my faces and, seeing that I’m beginning to concede, pushes on. “When you see it going around the leg, and going around the arm, don’t you think that it’s cool?” he asked. I’m somewhat swayed.

By the time Won got to high school, he was good enough to make the team. That’s right – the high school Chinese yo-yo team composed of six students who only accepted the cream of the crop. “It was pretty intense. It was around twelve people who tried out, and six people made the team,” Won said.

Won later spread his love of the toy, teaching in Chinese schools during his sophomore year and taking over the high school club for his junior and senior years. “It basically kept getting better. People learn new tricks and add on to what you already know,” he said.

Upon his arrival at the College, Won founded the Chinese Yo-Yo Club with Aroop Mukharji ’09. Although Mukharji was unfamiliar with the toy, the two friends organized yo-yo practices, and three students were deemed proficient enough to perform throughout the year. However, due to his busy schedule last year, Won was unable to continue running the organization, and the Chinese Yo-Yo Club has not been revived since.

When asked what he thinks of yo-yoing becoming defunct on campus, Won remains optimistic. “Supposedly there’s this freshman who I have yet to meet,” said Won. “His name is Cameron Rogers [’12] – I don’t know how good he is. Someone said he was really sick.” And what if Cameron can out yo-yo Won? “If he’s better than me, then hopefully he can continue it,” Won said.

Or even better – I can continue it! Won agrees to take me under his wing and breaks out a cardboard box of yo-yo equipment for the occasion. The Zappos shoebox is packed tightly with colorful plastic disks, wooden sticks and cotton string. Screwing the yo-yos together with practiced dexterity, Won lays down some ground rules before I try my hand at ancient Chinese street entertainment.

Before I know it, I am successfully, albeit clumsily, juggling a pair of wooden sticks. Won watches me, giving me pointers on how to keep the right hand more dominant than the left, or how always to stay parallel to one face of the yo-yo. At one point, I think I’ve got it down, but my triumph is fleeting – keeping a barbell-shaped toy balanced through string and angular momentum is no easy task. Spinning the yo-yo and maintaining the speed is just the beginning, as the Chinese yo-yo is a versatile toy that leaves room for elaborate tricks. By the end of our session, I am able to perform a basic trick. Using momentum from the juggling movements, I wind the yo-yo vertically between the sticks. I stand giddily in Won’s bachelor pad, the victorious student with my yo-yo master.

Before I leave, Won demonstrates for me the three pitches of sound that emanate from the holes in the plastic disks. The third and final pitch is nearly unbearable, and Won is exhausted from the physical exertion necessary for the display.

Won’s Chinese yo-yoing may have a raucous presence on campus now, but Chinese yo-yo may well become nothing but legend come this summer. If our community wishes to continue Won’s legacy, now is the time to inherit the torch that he will soon be forced to relinquish. Learn Chinese yo-yo. I happen to know a Chinese yo-yo guy who has a knack for teaching. Grab him while the offer remains available.