9-Man Is The Undiscovered Street Sport That Has Flourished In Chinatown For Decades

Spend enough time in your city's Chinatown and you might come across a frenetic game called 9-man.

Resembling street volleyball, 9-man has become much more than a game in the Asian-American community thanks to its rich history and unique rules (nine players on a side, a slightly bigger court, and no rotations). Invented in the 1930s, Chinese immigrants used the game as a way to establish a kind of fraternity in the face of discrimination.

While anyone can play 9-man informally these days, the sport's championship tournament -- the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament (NACIVT) -- preserves the game's tradition and culture by ruling that each team have at least six “100 percent Chinese” players. The remaining three are supposed to be of Asian descent.

According to Ursula Liang, the director of a new documentary about the sport entitled “9-Man,”, preserving a sense of community and identity are integral to the game.

“The tale of nine-man begins at a time when Chinese men faced blatant racism and hostility," she wrote in her director's statement, "but it continues as Asian Americans still grapple with persistent microaggressions and emasculating stereotypes."

In Liang's film, which premiered this year, player Jeff Chung says, "It's flattering that other cultures want to get involved, but there's a line, and we gotta keep that line."

Liang told HuffPost that she started looking into the history of the game in 2008 when her brother started playing. “I realized that the oldest living 9-man pioneer was in his 90s. I thought it was important to capture his story before it was too late.”

As the Chinese-American community has moved out of Chinatowns and across suburbs, 9-man serves as a community event to rally around. Every year, more than 50 teams convene in a different Chinatown for the NACIVT. While questions about a player's race or ethnicity don't normally come up, a team can protest the ethnicity of an opposing player. The burden of proof then lies on that player to prove his Asian authenticity.

While the tournament is fiercely competitive, Paul Chin, coach of Washington’s CYC, says in the documentary that his goal isn’t to win.

“My goal is to make sure it keeps going," he says, "to make sure that I impart on enough kids that they’ll want to be part of the club and continue this community.”

At the very least, Boston coach Bobby Guen says with a laugh, “It’s very nice to have these kids learn swears in Chinese so that we can curse the other teams in our native language.”



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