In Malden, a simmering dispute about alleged racism revolves around the most seemingly innocuous of topics: Ping-Pong at the senior center.
Qixia Liang, 72, along with dozens of other elderly patrons, used to play there every day. Liang credited the activity with keeping her physically fit and mentally sharp. And, she said, it was fun.
But she doesn’t play anymore, not since senior center staff last year relocated one Ping-Pong table from the auditorium to a cramped upstairs room and removed another altogether, despite the protests of the players — most of whom were Chinese.
The seemingly minor dispute, which flared up last year, boiled over last fall into two complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and a series of heated community meetings.
Senior center staff insist the decision was not racially motivated, and the two complaints were closed in February for lack of probable cause, according to the assistant to the commissioners, H. Harrison. But Malden residents say the debate offers a window onto the struggles the city has encountered as its demographics rapidly evolve.
“I think for the old guard, some of them have their noses a little broken: ‘What are you doing, this is my community,’” said Malden City Councilor Debbie DeMaria. “I think that’s natural and it’s normal, but it makes me sad.”
Over the past few decades, as gentrification has sent rent in Chinatown skyrocketing, Malden’s Chinese population has ballooned. Malden’s Asian population grew by 46 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the state Department of Public Health, although the city’s population only grew by 10 percent. The suburb is a popular destination because of its lower housing prices and easy access to the Orange Line.
Chinese restaurants have cropped up all across town. Malden High School, now almost a quarter Asian, is the most racially diverse public high school in the state, according to data from the federal Department of Education.
These changes have brought the historically Irish, Italian, and Jewish community some “growing pains,” according to Lydia Lowe, codirector of Boston’s Chinese Progressive Association.
“They have to come to terms with who lives in the city now,” she said.
The growing pains aren’t new — a Globe article from 1991 details similar accounts of racism toward immigrants in Malden — but they have surged to the forefront again with the conflict over Ping-Pong.
Tensions first erupted more than a year ago, when longtime senior center patrons complained that the players were excessively noisy and disrespectful, even scratching the floors during their games. A string of community meetings resulted, including one last November where angry Chinese residents held signs demanding respect.
The city attempted to mediate, contracting with a third-party mediator who hosted several group discussions last winter about the issue. City officials said they hope a new police station, slated to open later this year with a room for community use, may ease the demands for space.
But Ping-Pong players, many of whom have stopped playing, say the issue is far from resolved.
“If they respected us and listened to our complaints, they wouldn’t have moved the tables. They just didn’t listen at all,” Liang said.
Senior center director Silvia Banos did not return multiple requests for comment.
The Ping-Pong incident is just one of several disputes in Malden that residents say have racial overtones. An ongoing attempt by a Chinatown-based health center, the South Cove Community Health Center, to expand into Malden has met opposition. A few Chinese restaurants have had their windows broken, although no arrests have been made.
Chinese community advocates acknowledge that, as at the senior center, the opposition to South Cove is not explicitly racial. Councilors opposed to the project cite concerns about gentrification, pointing to the health center’s proposed partnership with an apartment developer.
Still, the conflicts have left the city in the delicate position of trying to unify an increasingly diverse — and at times divided — population.
On July 25, Malden Mayor Gary Christenson attended the latest of several “East Meets West” dialogues hosted by the city’s Chinese Culture Connection, where he discussed the importance of civic engagement. City officials plan to sponsor their own series of conversations about race and diversity, too, Christenson said.
“I think what we’ve learned was that we do need to have better communication and we do need to help each other learn about each other,” said Maria Luise, special assistant to the mayor.
Mei Hung, executive director of Chinese Culture Connection, said the Ping-Pong dispute was likely the result of a lack of understanding by Malden residents who did not know that the sport is a joyful, noisy activity among Chinese, or that Chinese people often communicate more loudly than Americans do.
Likewise, William Regan, 72, a Caucasian volunteer at the senior center who filed one of the August complaints alleging that staff had been discriminatory, said he thinks the conflicts were the product of ignorance, not ill will. He said he hopes further discussions will ease tensions.
Still, some Chinese residents, like Liang, are skeptical of how much the city’s efforts will help, noting that their initial discussions about the Ping-Pong tables did not change the outcome. Some longtime residents, City Councilor DeMaria acknowledged, are set in their ways: she said she knows people who have talked about leaving Malden due to the changing demographics.
“They’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’m moving out of Malden, this is crazy, all these Asian people,’ ” DeMaria said. “So yes, it’s going to take time.”
Hung acknowledged that organizations like Chinese Culture Connection won’t be able to change everyone’s minds. She knows that the people who attend her events are a self-selecting group.
But she remains hopeful.
“Just like anywhere in the world, you have people who are very open-minded and curious, and others who feel a little intimidated or maybe threatened by the new people who may come to share their piece of the pie,” Hung said. “I’m very optimistic to build this bridge and make Malden a very vibrant and fun place to live.”