Zang, his sister Loann, and his parents escaped Vietnam in a boat just after the war ended. “We were robbed by pirates on the first leg of the trip,” he recalls, “and we were lucky — many people had worse things happen to them. The pirates even steered us in the right direction after they robbed us.” Long Duong, Zang’s father, was a supporter of the South Vietnamese Army and did not feel safe after the war ended. Many South Vietnamese officials were imprisoned in re-education camps after the Communist North took over the country. Zang remembers his father hiding from police several times before his family fled. Long and several others built a boat that took them as far as Malaysia, where Zang’s brother, Bang, was born. His mother had endured the first leg of the trip while pregnant, two children in tow.
“We were a part of the second wave of boat people,” Zang says. About two million civilians fled the country after the war. About half of these boat people perished. A Lutheran church in Philadelphia enabled the Duong family to come to America around 1979, when Zang was six. His parents are forever grateful to the church for sponsoring their immigration. They still attend church services regularly, as a sign of respect and gratitude, even though they don’t share the church’s beliefs.
“They got us involved with the church and the community — they helped us adapt to U.S. culture and customs,” Zang says. It was a neighbor and family friend from the church who introduced him to marbles.
“I was like, ‘Marbles, whatever, who plays marbles?’ ” remembers Zang. “At eight years old, I was thinking about running around outside, not marbles. But I finally went. I ended up beating the kid that got me to go out and play the first time.” Jim Ridpath watched Zang that day at the Lutheran church and asked if he could coach him. Ridpath, a decorated Navy veteran of WWII, had a passion for marbles.
“It was just like The Karate Kid,” says Zang, describing how he learned to play the official game in the U.S., called Ringer. “Mr. Ridpath made us shoot ten times each, two-inch shots, four-inch shots, so on. He kept records, and we had to do it a certain amount of time before he’d let us move on. We had to practice different scenarios — if it’s windy, I might put a lot of spin on it.”
Ridpath was the founder and a member of the Marble Club of America. His passion for marbles, and also for his collection, led Sports Illustrated to write a story about him: “Here’s a Man Who Has All of His Marbles — Maybe Some of Yours, Too.” At that time Ridpath owned 161,471 marbles, thought to be the largest collection in the world.
That December 3, 1984 issue of Sports Illustrated describes how Ridpath drew a regulation ring on the linoleum floor in his basement. “Every now and then, a kid will knock on his door and ask his wife Helen, ‘Can Jim play marbles today?’ ” the article says. There were marbles all over his house, everything from agates to a 19th-century sulphide worth, in those days, nearly $300.
“He would take us on trips during the off-season, to glass and marble museums to see how marbles were made,” says Zang. “It was really cool. He taught us about the history of the sport, little by little. I think my mom liked that I played marbles because it kept me out of trouble.” Ridpath was a second father to kids in the area, and he took care of them when their parents weren’t around. The legendary coach considered Zang his protégé, but that didn’t mean he favored him.
“If we missed a practice he would tell us, ‘Do you want to get serious about this game?’ ” recalls Zang. “I was kicked out of the program a few times for missing practice, and he would tell my mom.” Zang practiced three to four times a week during the year and then every day for two months before the big tournament.
“You need a lot of composure in the finals,” Zang says. “Kids used to break down before even finishing the game. It’s a lot of pressure.” Once, after an intense match that he won, Zang ran from the table and began to cry, upset because he thought another kid had cheated. And Zang remembers one girl, Shellie, who came to the Wildwood, NJ, tournament and placed second or third, year after year. She never won because she would break down from the emotional strain before the game was over.
“The year I won,” Zang says, “the guy I played against in the final was also coached by Mr. Ridpath. My coach was so emotional during the match that he just had to sit back and watch — he told us he couldn’t coach.”
Ridpath passed away in 2005, before he could publish a book he was writing about marbles.
“It’s all downhill after you win the title at nine,” quipped a girl in another story about marbles in Sports Illustrated. Zang laughs when this quote is read to him. But he remembers the intensity of feelings that come with the sport he practiced religiously growing up as a Vietnamese immigrant in Philadelphia.
In a book about New Jersey history, author Mark Di Ionno writes that “the misty-eyed sports romantics who think that only baseball is a microcosm of changing America should look at marbles. In 1986, Giang Duong, a boy of Vietnamese heritage, won the championship. His brother, Bang Duong, won in 1994.” After all the write-ups, Zang Americanized the spelling of his first name, Giang.
Along with the youngest brother, Sang, all three Duongs have held the title of National Marbles Champion. Zang, the oldest, is the marbles legend. Like Jim Ridpath, Bang carries on the tradition by volunteering as a marbles coach for kids in Philadelphia.