Review of 9-Man

9-MAN (2014).  Directed by Ursula Liang.  Centre for Asian American Media.  Corporation got Public Broadcasting.  89 minutes.

Reviewed by Tom Fabian

I first heard of the sport of 9-Man in high school, while playing indoor volleyball for a club called Toronto West, located near the edgy intersection of Jane and Finch.  T-West, as it’s referred to, was primarily composed of Chinese-Canadian players and coaches (looking back, all three coaches and about half of our 12-player squad were Chinese-Canadian).  And every so often during practices, I would hear comments about this mysterious game.  As it was first explained to me, 9-Man is a variation of volleyball that allows nine players on the court, is played outside in parking lots, and is exclusive to Chinese (and southeast Asian) descendants.  In fact, the “content” eligibility rule in 9-Man states that six players on the court must have 100% Chinese heritage, whereas the remaining three must have Asian heritage from select countries.[1]  When I asked why the sport was so exclusive, the answer I received more often than not was that it was because in a sport like volleyball, where height matters, Asians wanted a somewhat more diminutive playing field.  So it’s a sizeist matter, not a racist one.[2]  This answer, however, is not what journalist Ursula Liang concluded in her raw and mesmerizing documentary, 9-Man, about the “streetball battle in the heart of Chinatown.”[3]

Liang sandwiches the history of 9-Man between storylines surrounding the 66th annual North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament (NACIVT) held in Boston in 2010.  The fates of four teams (Toronto Connex, Washington CYC, Boston Freemasons, and Boston Knights) are documented as they journey through training in preparation for the annual Labour Day classic.  Interviews with current and former players make the documentary more of an oral history of the sport.  In particular, Jeff Chung and Kevin Wong provide “star power,” as it were, to the undiscovered sport.  The former is a long-time Connex player-coach, as well as a coach with the Canadian national program, while the latter is a former professional beach volleyballer and US Olympian.  The meaty history-focus stems from interviews with old-timers, like 96-year-old Henry Oi, and academics, like NYU professor Jack (John Kuo Wei) Tchen.  Known as the scholar to talk with about all things Chinatown, Tchen adds an appropriate and needed academic element to 9-MAN.

The main form of volleyball played in the Toisan province of China is 9-Man, hence the belief that the sport originated there.  Cross-cultural exchanges amongst the first wave of Chinese immigrants to North America slowly spread the sport to this side of the Pacific; however, it was contained mostly within the budding Chinatowns across the various metropolitans that supported large Chinese immigrant populations.  Dating back to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants were forced to congregate in Chinatowns to maintain their heritage, but also as a way to support their communities within an increasingly exclusionist economy and society.  To this, Jack Tchen points out that during the early twentieth century “Chinese men were automatically seen as not masculine – racially inferior.”[4]  9-Man became an outlet for Chinese identity, culture, and frustration.  It was a game for the people and by the people.  Therefore, counter to the sizeist argument I heard growing up, the exclusion of non-Asian ethnicities to participate in 9-Man is indeed founded in racist ideologies, albeit a necessary (counter) racism.

The annual tournament sprung up in the 1930s “at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment and laws forced restaurant workers and laundrymen to socialize exclusively amongst themselves.”[5]  It was a way to connect Chinatowns across the US and Canada, and allow for an interface to socialize and learn from other Chinese communities.  The NACIVT has grown into a 50+ team tournament, for which amateur community clubs train for months.  The winningest club is Toronto’s Connex with fourteen championships, which includes ten straight tournament victories between 1995 and 2005.  Clubs from major US and Canadian cities – New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Montreal, and others – round out the competition.  The endearing fact about the tournament, and indeed the sport, is that it is grassroots all the way.  Players, coaches, and tournament organizers are all volunteers looking to maintain Chinese immigrant traditions from generation to generation.

The passing of the torch is honed in on by director/producer Ursula Liang.  For instance, the focus on the father-son bonds fostered through the sport are highlighted by the new generations taking their spots in the limelight.  Liang has performed a remarkable service to sport history, documenting a little known streetball battle in Chinatowns across North America.  The careful focus on the history, sociology, and psychology of 9-Man provide an element of academic precision that rounds out the contemporary significance of the sport in Chinese immigrant communities.  To learn not just about the sport of 9-Man, but also about cultural identities within Chinatowns, 9-MAN is a documentary worth the hype.

Tom Fabian is a PhD student at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada.  He has worked at a variety of levels within professional and amateur sport and is a “sport agnostic” (loves all sport, without a favorite team).  His research focuses on the history of international university sport, as well as national sporting cultures.  Tom can be reached at thomas.a.fabian@gmail.com or followed on Twitter at @bushleaguenorth.

 

[1] These countries include: Myanmar (formerly Burma), Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

[2] Sizeism is discrimination based on a person’s size.  Gigaphobia, the fear of tall people, could also be used here.

[3] Movie catchphrase.

[4] John Kuo Wei Tchen, interviewed by Ursula Liang during the filming of 9-MAN.

[5] “Synopsis,” http://www.9-man.com/synopsis/. First accessed: 14 November 2017.

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