Essential Viewing

Essential Viewing: 9-Man

Every immigrant community who has gained a foothold in this country has injected something into its cultural continuum that is uniquely foreign and American at the same time, whether they meant to or not. For Chinese-Americans, this includes Chinatown, General Tso’s chicken, fortune cookies, and knockoff handbags. But some things a community keeps for itself as a symbol of its heritage, even if that symbol is now a uniquely American thing. This is the story of “9-man.”

Essentially a variant of volleyball, “9-Man” is said to originate from Toisan, China after American missionaries brought volleyball to the region in the early 20th century. As many of the Chinese who were emigrating to the U.S. at the time were from Toisan, they brought “9-Man” with them. And since the 1930’s, Chinese-American men played this faster, more improvisational, version of volleyball in the parking lots and alleys of Chinatown. It was a way for Chinese restaurant and laundry workers to unwind and kill time without leaving the neighborhood. If playground basketball was created in the streets of our cities as an economic necessity, then “9-man” is its kindred soul. This is street volleyball.

Ursula Liang’s feature-length documentary covers the scope of the game’s unique history by mixing together decisively spare archival elements with those of an ESPN “Outside the Lines” feature on the athletes involved. The doc profiles a small cast of amateur players and coaches through one “season” in 2010. Through their stories while preparing for the 66th annual North American Chinese Invitational Tournament (there have been national competitions since 1944), we learn not only about the game itself, but what the game means for its participants as one of few remaining imprints of Chinese tradition. Liang makes sure you know that this is more than some obscure cultural phenomenon; it is the American immigrant story.

The sport, however, never quite took off like its urban cousin, playground basketball. That’s because it has always been an extension of Chinatown, and a product of the bachelor societies created by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. General Tso’s and fortune cookies were made for Americans, but Chinatown was always for the Chinese. The game of 9-Man lives in this spirit. Historically, and by rule, “9-Man” is only played by Chinese men. Over the years, allowances have been made to include men who qualify as “Asian,” but non-Asians and women are still not allowed. Women do, however, participate in the annual national tournament in standard rules volleyball.

To this, the athletes in 9-Man speak strongly about maintaining Chinese-American tradition through the sport, but it’s the very nature of this preservation that may be pushing the game toward obscurity. This tradition is actually more rooted now in the American side of Chinese-American. The game of “9-man” is rarely played anywhere else today, even in its birthplace of Toisan.

The players in the film, who appear to be part of a golden age of athletes for the sport, are starting to age out of competition. There is a pervading feeling that subsequent generations have but a waning interest in carrying the sport forward. Some of the older players just want one last hurrah before calling it quits, perhaps a weighty metaphor for the game itself. For even as local club teams feel the pressure of a diminishing youth presence, officials of the national tournament continue to push for bigger, flashier venues like Las Vegas.

The documentary deftly takes these issues on, but meaningful discussion of the gender politics that dictate its continuing exclusion of women is not addressed. Liang has clarified that the topic was a regrettable victim of the cutting room floor. Liang, who is herself a volleyball player, and a journalist who is as conscientious about issues of race and gender as anyone I’ve ever met, was hardly blind to it. Like Jenn from, we would love to see how it was addressed, perhaps as a DVD extra.

Ursula Liang’s 9-Man makes its Bay Area debut tonight at the historic Great Star Theatre in San Francisco as part of CAAMFest 2015.  Info on screenings can be found here. Ursula is one of Dat Winning’s 2015 mentoring editors, and an Advisory Board Member to The Dynasty Project.

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