My New Workout: The Cambodian Jianzi

I was in the night market of Siem Reap sometime in 2013 when I saw two waiters taking a break from their shift. They were kicking around a colorful shuttlecock. It reminded me of the traditional Filipino game sipa, where two or more players attempt to keep a pató (small ball, metal washer, or cluster of rubber bands) in the air by kicking or juggling it with the feet or any body part except for the hands.

My souvenir from a trip to Cambodia in 2013



I asked our hostel owner and tour guide Meang where I could purchase a similar shuttlecock. “I’m sure you’ll find one in the market,” he said. And I did. I took it home, where it gathered dust on my shelf for years.

Feeling the impending holiday weight gain after my Nth family reunion and buffet dinner last month, I decided to bring my jianzi shuttlecock to a family gathering. In between servings of pancit, I challenged my cousins to a game of “Who could keep the jianzi in the air the longest?” I could barely get past 10 seconds, and broke into a sweat learning to get the hang of it.

My jianzi

My uncles joined in on the fun. Sipa was part of their physical education classes in the ’60s and ’70s, so they could still perform a few tricks.

This shuttlecock sport has different names and variations around the world. In the Philippines it’s called sipa, which used to be our country’s official national sport until it was replaced by arnis in 2009. In Malaysia, it’s sepak takraw, which uses a rattan ball. In China, Vietman, and Cambodia, it’s jianzi. In Brazil, it’s petaca, and you play with your hands.

I challenged my cousin Gabby to a game of jianzi (also known as sipa).

In a more formal sports setting, there’s a net and strict set of rules involved. For the street version, the rules and number of players are flexible, and it’s more about showing off your tricks.

To keep me from overindulging in future family gatherings and Filipino fiestas, I will bring my colorful jianzi. It’s also a great way to keep my younger cousins from being anti-social with their iPad apps, and to let my diabetic uncles get some exercise with me.

January 11, 2016

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