Chinese-Americans find community, slam dunks in “street” volleyball

A little-known sport called 9-man is starting to draw national attention

By Nicholas Nehamas

A player dunks over the net at a 9-man game in Philadelphia. (Andrew Huynh)

Jeremy Lin is only the tip of the iceberg.

In Chinatowns across the U.S., Chinese-Americans play an intense, Asians-only, “street” version of volleyball, spiking ethnic stereotypes to the ground and proving the Houston Rockets point guard isn’t the only one with the moves.

This isn’t a mild-mannered game.

9-man, which features nine players instead of the traditional six, is typically played on asphalt – sometimes littered with broken glass – an urban chaos of bloody knees and flaring tempers.

Players dunk over the net and talk trash.

“It’s a faster game [than standard volleyball],” says Robert Guen, a dentist who’s played 9-man since he was a boy growing up in Boston’s Chinatown. “It’s designed for speed, it’s designed for deception.”

Now in the “twilight of his career,” as he says, Guen sticks to coaching. His Boston Knights are a regular at the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament. Every Labor Day at the NACIVT, teams from Chinese immigrant communities across North America (the sport is also popular in Canada) compete for a shot at the title.

When Guen watched his first 9-man tournaments in the 1960’s in Boston, four teams showed up. Last year, in Toronto, there were around 50 men’s teams, each carrying 18 players on their rosters. As many as 4,000 people showed up to watch the final. A women’s competition was added in 1977, but the rules adhere to normal volleyball standards.

While women can play at the tournaments, non-Asians can’t.

In tournament matches, according to guidelines established in the 1980’s, six of the players on the court must be of 100 percent Chinese descent. The other three must be Asian.

It’s a rule that sticks out in today’s inclusive American culture. Who qualifies as Asian? (Koreans, but not Indians. Taiwanese, but not Pacific Islanders). You can imagine what might happen if a white or African-American sports league tried to ban outsiders.

But 9-man’s supporters argue that America’s historic ghettoization of Chinese immigrants – where did you think “Chinatowns” came from anyway? – justifies a different set of standards.

Ursula Liang is a sports journalist with a Chinese father and a German mother. She’s making a documentary about 9-man, and says the topic of race is constantly debated internally.

“Most of the guys will tell you different things, but ultimately they want to keep the culture of the sport alive,” she explains to Latitude News. “A huge element of this tournament isn’t athletic, it’s cultural. It’s about people spending time with other Chinese-Americans.”

“If other groups came in and dominated the tournament,” she continues, “perhaps some of the magic would be lost.”

Liang adds that non-Asian athletes, including two black players in Toronto, practice with 9-man teams, but don’t play in tournaments.

Whatever you think of the race rules, the atmosphere at the 9-man tournaments is like nothing you’ve ever seen.

“If you’re a volleyball player like I was,” Liang says, “you look at it and you think, this is crazy. All these people swarming around, on concrete, sweeping up broken bottles all over the place, it’s insane.”

“Pro volleyball players are often baffled by how fast the game is,” she continues, “how long the rallies are. It’s sort of the jazz version of volleyball, so quick and innovative.”

You can watch a clip from her documentary below, and help her get her project funded by donating to 9-Man‘s Kickstarter page here.

From Boston to Taishan and back again

Why don’t Chinese-Americans just play regular volleyball? The history of 9-man reveals an early story of globalization.

William G. Morgan, a physical education teacher, invented volleyball in 1895 at a YMCA in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Morgan called his creation “Mignonette.” In the early 20th century, American missionaries brought the game – with a much improved name – to China, where it grew popular and is still played today.

Ursula Liang and Robert Guen both say the historical record indicates 9-man originated as a distinct game in Taishan, a coastal city in Guangdong province. Immigrants from the area (Liang’s father’s family comes from a village outside Taishan) brought the sport with them when they came to the U.S.

It was easy to play.

“All you’ve got to do is wrap a towel with some string, and you’ve got a ball,” explains Liang.

In a strange land that practiced legal discrimination against Chinese – Jim Crow for Asians – 9-man became a way for immigrants to forge a connection to their homeland and to each other. Many left wives and children behind in China. Without their families, the men would work six days a week at laundries or restaurants.

On the seventh, they played 9-man.

The game became an emotion and physical release.

Starting in the 1930’s , teams from Boston and Providence would visit each other on Labor Day and play in parking lots or down at the YMCA. New York’s Chinatown got in on the game and, in 1944, the first “national” tournament was held.

“Chinatowns were very isolated in those days,” says Guen, “so these tournaments were like gatherings, they were like festivals, like pilgrimages.”

A network soon grew, he explains, and Chinese-Americans working menial jobs would learn of friends and relatives from other cities whose children were going to college. It was a reminder that, despite racism and discrimination, America remained a land of opportunity for immigrants.

Today, most 9-man games happen during the summer because it’s an outdoor sport and some of the athletes are away at college during the school year. But Liang says the sport has retained its blue collar identity.

A game of one’s own

Growing up in a different country and then isolated in the ghettos of Chinatown, 9-man evolved different rules from six player volleyball. As well as being able to dunk, players can perform a “chai” ball – an underhand passing move – or play the ball off the net, allowing their team an extra fourth touch. Volleyball only permits three.

There’s also no rotation of players between different positions on the court. That means instead of the usual long-limbed giants you see in Olympic volleyball, players in 9-man are all shapes and sizes, though one former U.S. Olympian, the 6’7 Kevin Wong, has successfully made the transition from beach volleyball to 9-man.

Dr. Robert Guen holds a trophy from a 2010 tournament at his dentistry practice in Brookline, MA. (Nicholas Nehamas)

And since teams provide their own referees, Liang says there’s plenty of room to argue in a “really fun, friendly, competitive way.”

One rule that is strictly enforced, organized refs or no: the ban on non-Asian players in tournament games.

While some non-Asians practice with teams, the tournaments are strictly all-Asian affairs. Liang believes the ethnic rules help preserve the roots of Chinese culture in America.

Robert Guen agrees with her assessment that 9-man needs to maintain its unique cultural traditions.

Guen believes that 9-man has also helped shatter stereotypes about Asian-Americans. When he was growing up, he says, Chinese boys only joined three teams: the chess club, the soccer team, and the track squad.

“But we didn’t have any kids on the football team,” he explains, “because we weren’t big enough. We didn’t play hockey, because we didn’t have any equipment.We didn’t have any kids on the basketball team, because we weren’t tall enough, even though we had some really good players.”

But the ability of Chinese-Americans to excel at 9-man and regular volleyball helped American coaches see a previously untapped wealth of athletic potential.

Ursula Liang agrees, and wants her film to contribute to a change in perception as well.

“The media coverage of Asian-Americans in this country is very limited,” she says, “and you get these very typical depictions. But 9-man shows the diversity of the Asian-American community: our diversity in phenotype, in size, in personality. It’s the kind of confident, vibrant portrayal that I don’t see put out there very often.”

Ironically, the Chinese, who created 9-man, now rarely play the game. Liang thinks that says a lot about Chinese-Americans.

“Immigrant cultures really want to preserve the culture they knew from their homeland in this hermetically sealed container,” she argues. “They really wanted to preserve it as it was. In China, they modernized. It’s kind of funny how people in China had no problem with growing and developing sport. Here they really wanted to hold on to something old.”