“Can we get in?” An athletic young man looks toward the camera as he asks to play in a game of 9-Man volleyball. He and a friend are identified here as “beach volleyball players”, and he smiles as he speaks, looking confident and eager, the kind of teammate who might, in another context, be a perfect addition. But in this case, as he and his buddy aren’t invited to play because they’re white.
The reason they can’t get in has to do how 9-Man is defined, its historical roots in Chinese-American communities, and its longstanding but also shifting significance for its participants as well as those who might want to participate. Much of the game’s background is revealed in the lively documentary 9-Man, screening at Stranger Than Fiction on 20 May, followed by a Q&A with director Ursula Liang. Tracing this history using animated maps and drawings, as well as interviews with players, coaches, and invested observers. “It’s organized jungle ball,” says one participant near film’s start. “We used to call other volleyball sissyball,” says Bobby Guen, while yet another boasts of having “rocks in my elbows and knees.”
These rocks would be the result of the game’s typical field, which is to say, pavement. On its face, 9-Man is an especially aggressive, athletic version of the game played in two forms at the Summer Olympics. While in tournaments it can be played on a hardwood court (though not the soft-landing beach), slightly larger than the one used for the more common six-man game, it is frequently played on in parking lots or even city streets.
These are where the game was born, in Chinatowns across the US during the ‘30s, when immigrant men outnumbered women in the community and when anti-Asian prejudice was vividly institutionalized. Teams organized in part to create networks across the US and Canada. Legal restrictions on the social and economic lives of the players, many of them workers in laundries and restaurants, ensured that they were otherwise isolated; as the film reminds you, 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act intended specifically to stop Chinese immigration to the US.
The players’ efforts to organize under such conditions weren’t exactly secret, but they were communicated primarily within the community. And their investments in the game were not only individual but also became something of a family tradition. Indeed, many of the subjects in the film are second and third generation 9-Man players. Bobby Guen, coach of the Boston Knights, observes that, being born and raised in Chinatown, he and his friends “had no heroes,” their fathers immersed in the day-to-day survival of the laundry or restaurant business, “So we never got to see them do anything but work.” In search of an identity, the kids worked hard too, at the game, and practice and game footage in the film indicates how difficult it can be, the commitment it demands.
As it tells this history, the film also shows preparations by several teams—Boston, Washington DC, New York (CYC)—for the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament (NACIVT) held every Labor Day. The countdown to the date provides something of a structure for the narrative, and the climactic competition at film’s end is thrilling, shot from multiple angles, the mobile frame only barely able to keep up with the action.
Beyond the competition, the game of 9-Man offers identity, connections with a past that has to do with language and rituals and a sense of belonging in a place where survival and success were often premised on assimilation. “Without the Knights,” says one player, “There would have very little Chinese culture in my family.” This culture includes the Chinese drums played at tournaments, Chinese-based colors and costumes, the community support that often takes the form of food and cheering sections, staffed by local businesses. It’s this idea that frames some of the tournament’s rules, including the idea that players must be “of Asian descent,” a qualification that’s increasingly hard to pin down.
A couple of scenes in the film show efforts to determine who might be challenged, who raises questions about “descent,” and how votes might be organized, on the spot at a game or in a more institutionalized fashion. Given that the “rules” aren’t encoded (percentages of heritage, for instance, or verification processes), they can be hard to articulate, let alone determine.
Some players or former players worry about how the game might change if “others” were allowed to play, how some “races” might be gifted athletically or how the game might be changed if someone like Kevin Wong, an Olympic volleyball player, participates in competitions with street players and amateurs. The film doesn’t resolve any of these questions, but in asking them, it looks also at how other sports take for granted who can play, how communities and identities are developed, and how assumptions shape expectations. Who gets in depends on multiple, ever changing factors.