This post was written by STF blogger Krystal Grow.
Sports journalist Ursula Liang waited for years for someone to recognize the phenomenon know as 9-Man in Chinatowns across North America, but eventually picked up a camera and started shooting herself.
Liang’s interest in 9-man volleyball is both personal and objective. As a German-Chinese sports journalist whose brother was deeply involved in the game and the community that surrounded it, she sensed the drama on the blacktop courts and empty parking lots where most 9-man games are played. She was invested in the culture surrounding the game, but with no allegiance to any particular team, she was able to tell a bigger story in her film – one about Chinese-American identity, the unique history of Chinese immigrants and their struggles to establish something truly their own.
In her first film, Liang dives into a distinctly Chinese-American game that has exploded into a community of dedicated players striving to maintain a connection to their culture. Logistically speaking, the rules of 9-man are more rigid and complicated than a standard, 6-person volleyball. Though players don’t rotate positions, they can make contact the with the ball twice in a row. While these variations have attracted volleyball players from around the world, it’s another set of rules that have remained a key point of contention among and outside the 9-man community.
‘Content rules,’ as defined by a group of 9-man elders and passed on through the generations, states that only Asian Americans are allowed to play. There are various percentage rules that define which position a player can occupy, and if a player’s racial integrity is questioned, they must present proof of their Asian heritage to tournament officials or be barred from the court.
Liang said the content rules were initially enacted to maintain the cultural significance of the game, which originated during the early days of Chinese immigration to North America as a way for Chinese men to build community during a bleak period of Chinese-American history. As the years have passed, younger generations of Chinese men, who spend their lives outside the tight-knit Chinatown community, see 9-man as a way to reconnect.
The cultural significance of 9-man makes the annual Labor Day tournament far more than a game. It is a yearly statement of the game’s legacy and the feverish loyalty of the men who play. By following a few select teams from their off-season practices through the final round of the grueling 4-day tournament, Liang captures the elements that make the best sports movie riveting, and the most effective documentaries captivating: drama, suspense, surprise and characters the audience can truly root for.
Raphaela Neihausen: How did you come to know about 9-man, how did you start shooting this film, and how did you come to this project?
Ursula Liang: My brother played 9-man. He played a lot of sports and so did I, but when I saw him play this sport, I saw the importance it took in his life. He came to it in his 20s, and the 9-man community became incredibly important to him. I saw that there was something else there greater than just a sport. I’d been a print journalist for most of my life, and this is my first film.
Neihausen: Let’s clap for that.
Liang: I’d been a sports journalist for a long time and this is the kind of story and the kind of community that the mainstream sports world is not interested in. They’re interested in the big four sports. I’d encountered this sport a long time ago and waited for someone else to do the story but it just never happened. The tournament goes on a circuit and the last time it came to New York was 2008. I realized there were playersin their 90s and that if I didn’t get them on record, no one else was going to do it.
Neihausen: If i remember correctly, you said there were 53 teams in the tournament, and I was curious to know how you came to follow these teams? Did it happen in the editing room, or did it start out with the people you were interviewing in the beginning?
Liang: A lot of it came together in the editing room. I was a new filmmaker so I was a little wild in shooting to start with, but I am a sports person and a sports fan, so I had a sense to follow teams that were going to make it in the tournament because you can’t have every team you follow be like the bad news bears and never make it anywhere. I did a certain amount of scouting and interviewing to find out which teams were notable athletically and character-wise, and then Michelle sifted through those 5000 people.
Michelle Chang: As you can tell, there are a lot of characters in the film, probably more characters than conventional in a documentary. The teams are pretty much the ones we started with. It kind of conveniently happened that they ended up in the final brackets, but it was a constant working out of which characters to include. At some point, we said it was going to be more of a mosaic. It’s going to be a portrait of lots of people. We wanted to have a diversity of different people. It was never going to be about two characters to follow.
Liang: That’s something I felt strongly about. Images of Asian American men in the media are particularly limited, so to have one or two characters, would have meant that we presented that many fewer portraits of Asian American men. So it became important to me to have a variety. It was definitely much more of a challenge in the edit room. We took out a number of characters and actually added a few in at the last minute. I’m sure all of the editors in the room are cringing.
Audience: How long was the shoot and how long was the edit?
Liang: We shot most of the footage in one year. At the tournaments, we had multiple cameras, but other than that, it was just me. The first year was just trying to get the old guys on record. I figured if someone had a bigger budget than me and wanted to do the story, I would own the story by having the old guys on record before they died.
Chang: The season in the film is actually 2010. It doesn’t really matter, but it happened to be the season we were following. We started cutting in 2011, but not continuously, so it’s been a long journey off and on. There was a lot more shooting after the 2010 season that we wanted to incorporate, while staying on that full season.
Neihausen: It seemed from the interviews that everyone was very welcoming, wanting to tell their story and communicate their history and this legacy. Did you ever come across people who weren’t into being followed by camera people?
Liang: There was one really good player who wanted me to guarantee that he would be in the film if he did an interview. I could not guarantee that so he was not in the film. But generally, everyone was really willing to tell their stories. I think people are afraid to tell stories about Chinatown and about immigrant communities because they don’t feel like they can access them in the same way they can access mainstream communities. If you spend time, people totally want to tell their stories. I think everyone has the same instinct to put the things that are important to them on record, and it’s important for us to remember that, as journalists and filmmakers or people that are just curious about the world.
Neihausen: I loved the use of archives, and the contrast between where those memories took place and how those streets looks now. What was the archive process like in terms of securing that stuff?
Liang: A lot of that stuff came in very late in the process.
Chang: Like 5 weeks ago. We always had a lot of the personal photos, but the non-personal stuff came in later. The film really changed after that stuff came in and it’s one of the best parts of the film.
Audience: How does the current generation of players feel about moving the tournament to Vegas?
Liang: There are a couple players in the audience. could they raise their hands? Could Wayne and Frank come up and take that question? Wayne plays on one of the New York teams. Frank is in a lot of the old photos, so some of those strapping young men in the 60s are actually Frank.
Wayne Chow: I guess my concern is come playoff day, no one is going to be there, because everyone will be gambling, or really drunk. Aside from that it’s great. Having it indoors is great, so you don’t have to worry about heatstroke, which is always a big issue. We always have an ambulance on hand in case people succumb to the heat.
Liang: That was one of my regrets of the film. I don’t feel like you could feel from watching it how hot and how crazy and how exhausting it is.
Neihausen: We’ll crank up the heat in the theater next time to recreate that feeling. What was the experience for you watching the film and watching everybody playing?
Chow: It was great. It was nice to see how other clubs prepare for nationals and for the season. For instance, I play on the New York Strangers and we have our own way we set up and practice that’s different from everyone else.
Liang: None of the players or teams were shown the film in advance, so we were very nervous, but sofar it’s been ok.
Audience: So the game is segregated racially, to keep the history and the community together, but it seems like getting a team of ringers, who don’t practice much, contradicts that process. Though they win, they’re put together to do it so that doesn’t seem to build community either.
Chow: Partly, it’s role models. Kevin Wong is a huge role model for most of the players who play 9-man. They are ringers because they play professional ball all over the place, but they’re all people we aspire to be like when we play.
Liang: Kevin Wong brings a lot of legitimacy to the tournament. I think there’s a lot of doubt both from the outside and also self-doubt about the athleticism of the community. But to have a man who’s played in the Olympics across the net from you, and to sometimes beat him, it validates the athleticism within the sport. I think some people would agree that they would prefer those teams be more integrated in the community throughout the year. The teams on the east coast have this community throughout the year, but a lot of the west coast teams just come together at the end of the season to play. The smaller Chinatowns tend to have much tighter communities. I think maybe it’s because there are fewer Chinese Americans so they band together all year.
Audience: Has there been any discussion among the community about revising the content rule? At this point, this internal Chinatown activity has the standing of major league baseball before integration. I’m wondering if seeing that there are so many people that aren’t fully Asian that want to play has resulted in any talk now about changing it?
Liang: I’ve only heard the reactions of players who’ve talked to me directly. There’s discussion all the time about whether the rules should change and it’s very divided. There are people who strongly believe it needs to stay Chinese American or Chinese Canadian, and others think it would be further legitimized by opening it up to everyone else.
Chow: It’s tough because it started from very small communities where everyone is kind of segregated. Now it’s time to open up. You have a lot more acceptance towards difference cultures. Things are changing. In regards to the sport, there’s a lot of talk about getting more funding to make bigger tournaments. Every year, we get more and more teams coming out to play, which makes it increasingly hard for local communities to fund. So we have to start hopefully getting funding from Nike or some of the bigger sports companies – which will change things. 9-man is about the community, so whatever the changes are they’ll be gradual, and always trying to preserve as much of the culture as possible.
Audience: If there are that many people that want to play, wouldn’t there be open 9-man leagues already? You can’t stop that from happening. How big is the pool of people that actually want to play that this hasn’t already happened?
Liang: One of the great things about showing this film is that people are starting to understand the game, to see its value and see ways in which they could touch it or see it or play it. There was a 13-year old boy who came to a screening in LA and after the show, he and his brother were trying to figure out how to make a mixed league. It was really cute. You’re right, people could start their own league and I think that’s what some of the 9-man players would prefer – that the game is honored and respected but that they still keep their own thing.
Neihausen: What about women? Is that even up for discussion or is that even further away than content rules?
Liang: The tournament actually has a women’s 6-person volleyball attached to it, but it was very difficult to incorporate that in the time that we had. They’ve actually tried twice in New York to have a womens’ 9-man scrimmage or tournament but I don’t think they came up with enough players. I do think there are women that want to play and maybe that will happen in the future.
Chow: I can’t say anything about that. I haven’t heard anything.
Audience: I found it really moving when the coach from CYC (Chinese Youth Club) talked to the camera after about not coaching and I wondered if he actually stopped.
Liang: He did stop coaching. And the team ribbed him endlessly for it and pretended to shun him, but I think a year or a year and a half later, he started playing on an old man team. He couldn’t resist. He jumped in the last minute. I think one of his teammates is here. I think they made it to playoffs.
Audience: You talk about the racial aspect of how the game changed, but what I found interesting was the class aspect of it. This really started out as a game where working class Chinese people who worked in restaurants and lived in Chinatown played. And it seems to me that most of the people who play this game now don’t live in Chinatown and don’t work in restaurants. They’re mostly professionals, doctors, lawyers, so in a sense as much as the old guard is trying to keep this game from changing, it’s already changed and it’s going to keep on changing. So I’m wondering how many people in the documentary actually live in chinatown.
Chow: I live in Long Island.
Liang: I don’t know the percentages, but there are a lot of working class people that still play. I think that’s one of the stereotypes that people have – that Chinese Americans are all white collar folks, but there are a lot of working class Chinese Americans that play in the tournament. That said, there are a lot of people that have followed the pattern of Chinatown and moved into the diaspora of the suburbs. That was one of the things we wanted to show in the film, that 9-man is actually a way to connect people back to that Chinatown that was once a physical necessity for the community and now is sort of an emotional necessity. One of the reasons we decided to pair the historical documentary with this modern narrative of the tournament was we thought it was important to explore the idea that though it may seem today like Chinese Americans have equality, there’s still something that feels like they want to have something of their own.
Chow: It’s true for me. I live out in Long Island, born and raised, in a predominantly Jewish community. So for me 9-man was the first time I really felt like I was in a Chinese community. It was a really good way for me to find a sense of identity, to see other people like me playing volleyball, because that was the only thing I did. l loved playing volleyball but I just couldn’t relate to a lot of the people I played with. We speak Chinese out in Chinatown. We go for Chinese food after. There’s a lot of things i can relate to. It helps me a lot.
Liang: I think my personal experience with this was very much affected by the fact that I’m Chinese and German. I think partially because I always wanted to personally belong to something, I had an aversion to focusing too much on that issue. I think it took other people and screenings to bring more of that up. I didn’t want the film to be all about that race rule, because I think people would have expected me as a mixed race person to make that film. And since I have this need to belong to this community, I felt like I wanted the film to be bigger than that.
Chang: I think there’s a subtext to the film about this question of identity and what it means to be specifically Chinese American. And the whole question of Chinatown is uniquely Chinese American. It’s not like these people have a longing for china, because they don’t have any connection to it. These people are two to three generations in. Identity issues are interesting. Asian American issues are interesting to me and interesting to Ursula. At points, I think we were going to push it even more and make it more explicit, but then we pulled back and let it come out of the scenes more. The rule section is the only place there’s a specific dialogue about it, but to me it’s a subtext through the whole film.
Audience: Are people in China generally aware that people play in america, and are people here aware of the history of the game?
Liang: I’m not sure. I was careful in wording the cards in saying that the roots are a little unclear. If you go to china, they actually believe they invented volleyball for the rest of the world. They believe volleyball comes from Taishan. Within China, Taishan is the place where volleyball grew to the rest of China, but remember there’s been a closed door to the outside world from China for a long time. So I think that’s their reality and that’s what i heard when i was there. I didn’t have enough money to stay longer to do research, but I do think the roots are still unclear.
I think they’re aware now and there’s enough movement back and forth that they know that people play here in America, but they actually don’t play 9-man in Taishan the way they play here. What’s interesting to me is that immigrants hold almost unnaturally onto things from home, so they’re trying to preserve something over 80 years that in China has actually grown and morphed. In China, they pretty much play volleyball, sometimes with 9 people on the court. So the rules we have here, at this point, are pretty distinctly Chinese American or Chinese Canadian.
Audience: Can you tell us a bit more about the fan base for 9-man?
Liang: Women are watching all the time, which is part of the reason men are trying so hard on the court. There’s a circle of women. There’s a circle of old men that used to play or never played. The armchair quarterbacks who are also gambling on the game, which could be a whole other film but something we couldn’t get into in this film. I think I have some outtakes of guys doing like a 9-man draft. They get really into it. They pick their dream team and use one of those Lazy Susans to get to the person picking next. They’re fanatics about it.
Audience: A lot of Chinatowns now are undergoing gentrification, with people moving into the neighborhoods to the point that now they’re moving 9-man to Las Vegas. Its kind of sad, that maybe this is like a record of what was.
Liang: I think some people took it in a very sad way. My sister thought it was incredibly depressing, but it can also be seen in another way, in that Chinatown is sort of where your heart is, in some ways. Is it a place, or a people, or an emotion? Those are questions we want people to think about when they watch the film.
Audience: Who are the reigning champions and where is the tournament this year?
Liang: This year’s tournament is in Las Vegas. San Francisco Smash won last year. When we were filming, most of the West Coast teams didn’t have a presence during the year so it was hard for us to follow them. But the year after we started filming, one of the San Francisco teams, the parents that had played previously were now old enough to keep their communities together. So they had been practicing all summerlong, all year. It’s usually the teams that have intergenerational support that have stronger communities and season-long practices. And those kids who are now 18, 19, 20 are getting good, so they won for the first time ever this year.
Neihausen: So since this is one of the first audiences to see the film and all these people want to tell all their friends, how can people find out about it?
Liang: Sign up on our website at 9-man.com and add your email address. We don’t have another screening until October or November, but we’ll send you information about it. Before we close, I wanted to say thank you to STF, which is sort of the place where I did my documentary schooling over the past few years. It’s really an honor to be here.
Krystal Grow is an arts writer and photo editor based in New York. She has written for TIME LightBox, the New York Times Lens Blog and the DOC NYC blog. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kgreyscale.