The documentary “9-man” is ostensibly about a little-known, hardscrabble variation on volleyball that Chinese-Americans play with nine, instead of six, players per side. But the sport, and journalist Ursula Liang’s first-time film capturing it, are about much, much more.
Borrowed from Chinese immigrants to America at the turn of the 20th century, 9-man became a refuge and an outlet for Chinese-American men who were crammed into Chinatowns and cut off from the rest of American society. Today, Asian-Americans in the U.S. are the most likely of any racial group to live in racially mixed neighborhoods and to marry people of different races, but the game lives on. It’s still played on asphalt playgrounds in Chinatowns across the U.S. and Canada, it’s still limited to men, and, in a 21st-century response to the cultural isolation it was born out of, is still closed off to those who are not of Chinese or Asian descent. But the sport is not immune to shifts in the Asian-American community today, where historical Chinatowns are no longer necessarily the heart of Chinese or Asian neighborhoods and where questions of race, identity, and masculinity are still very much in play.
“9-man,” which premiered this spring, is on a fall festival tour. Liang spoke with Colorlines after it screened at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, which is playing it again this Wednesday. “9-man” is also being shown in the coming days in New York City, Washington, D.C., Austin, and Philadelphia.
Is 9-man uniquely Chinese-American now? In the film you go to Toisan, [China,] where the game originated and they do play volleyball with nine-man teams. Can you suss that out for me?
I do think the sport of 9-man is unique to Chinese America [now]. It’s super interesting because to me this shows something about immigrants to new countries. When immigrants come to the country sometimes they have such love for the place they left that they want to hold onto it so tightly that it’s almost unnatural. I feel like that may have been with 9-man. The 9-man rules [as they’re played in North America] have held really close to the original game all these years.
In China they are playing nine people to each side, but it’s not the same as what they play in North America. They’re actually playing a game that has been modernized. It’s a little bit more like volleyball [so] there are some very specific rule differences.
That makes me think of my Chinese name. I’m fifth-generation on my mom’s side. You know, my family came to San Francisco, put down their bags and never left. My great-grandmother, who I don’t really remember, was the one who gave me my Chinese name. And when I talk to Chinese people from China right now and they ask me my Chinese name, they say, “Oh my gosh, I haven’t heard that name in 50 years.”
That’s funny because my mother is German and she came from Germany, and my name apparently is like Brumhilda. Like, they laugh at me because it’s a really old lady name from a couple generations back.
Right. I totally understand how you immigrate to a new place and bring the culture and traditions of that era, and they become frozen in time wherever you land.
Can you say more about the ways in which 9-man is uniquely Chinese American, beyond the rules of the game?
I think if I’m framing [9-man as it’s played in North America] against Chinese people in China, what’s so nice about this sport in the community is that these guys aren’t like a Chinese ideal of masculinity. [They embody] a very Chinese-American ideal of masculinity, where swagger is really important. Being tough and aggressive is really important.
I had a long conversation with an academic when I made this film, Jack Chen from NYU, and we talked a lot about masculinity and how, back in the day, at the time when 9-man was developing into a tournament circuit, there was this very Teddy Roosevelt sense of masculinity. You needed to have a beard and be a big brawling bear of a man, and there was a lot of propaganda that defined what a man should be. And of course, at that time, the idea of what it meant to be a man in Chinese culture didn’t jibe with [the] American [ideal]. [The ideal Chinese man] listened to opera, [was] educated and refined, and he had a long queue and wore an outfit that looked like a dress to Americans. The ideas of masculinity were very different, so I think there’s a very early foundation for why stereotypes of Asian-American men became so emasculated in American culture.
Did you find any parallels in your work on 9-man to J-Leagues in the Japanese-American community?
Yes. That was actually one of the inspirations for this. I was collecting Asian-American sports stuff, memorabilia and stories, just as a personal interest. In the course of that, I found that Justin Lin, who’s today a big, famous director, had done a film early on in his career, when he was at the Japanese American National Museum, about the Japanese-American basketball leagues. I watched that and it’s still part of the museum collection and it’s sold in their bookstore. And I said, “If I do nothing more, I could be in the Chinese-American bookstore.”
I think there are parallels to a lot of different groups, like the Maccabi games that are like the Jewish Olympics. There are gay sports leagues, and [gay men] have dealt with similar issues of people questioning their masculinity in the same way. JA basketball leagues were incredibly important.
What makes 9-man unique?
The big difference that makes the conflict in 9-man a little more interesting is that [not everyone can play]. You can go as a non-Asian person to a JA league and say, “I want to play” and be miffed that you can’t play. But you can go start you own basketball league, no problem. And there are many, many different kinds of leagues you can play in. But if you go to a 9-man team wanting to play and you’re not Asian, you can’t play, and you really can’t find anywhere else to play it. It’s an oral history and so you’d have to have someone in the community teach you the game. You’d be starting from zero to start your own league from scratch. That’s the big difference, and that’s why people get so frustrated with the rules and fixate on this quote-unquote reverse-racist behavior.
That part of the film was so fascinating. Of course these are deceptively simple questions, “Who is Chinese?” and “Who is Asian?” And maybe the easiest way to answer them is to ask, “Who isn’t Asian?” “Who isn’t Chinese?” But those answers weren’t easy either. What part of that conversation didn’t make the cut?
What didn’t make the cut was a lot of hemming and hawing about it. The community is still very in flux about that topic and they talk about it all the time. Some of the characters in the film have vacillated back and forth.
As a person of mixed racial descent I was hesitant to make a film that completely centered on that topic because I felt like people would expect me to take that position and take a negative position on race rules. And I don’t feel completely clean on the issue.
And it wasn’t just Chinese or white, or Chinese and black, it was Chinese and this South Asian guy.
I think there have been cases where a specific player inspires an amendment to the rule. I think there was a Pacific Islander who was incredibly good and very brown-skinned and at some point people said, “Hmm, maybe this guy shouldn’t be playing.” And there became a rule at some point that took him out of the mix. So I think there are these people that have made the community react very strongly.
Or if your great-great-grandmother is Chinese, at what point do you yourself stop being Chinese?
And Chinese is actually a nationality. If you were a white person born in China, who speaks Mandarin, and you move to the U.S., are you Chinese? I met a black man in New York who speaks Cantonese. He grew up in New York and he hangs out around the courts, and he’s really integrated into the community and knows everybody, and he’s probably got a lot more cultural knowledge than some of the guys who are playing who have Chinese faces and Chinese parents.
When people write about me or talk about me they often say I’m half-Chinese and half-white because that’s my lineage. [But] I don’t feel like I’m half Chinese. I’m 100 percent Chinese, if we’re going to go for percentages. It’s taken me a long time to learn and grow and feel part of the culture, but I don’t feel any less part of the culture than the person next to me who has two Chinese parents. Of course, everyone from the outside would question it because of the way I look.
On an intellectual, theoretically political level, I would lean toward openness in the game. But after watching the film I understand the arguments for closing it off.
Two Mexican-American boys came to watch the film in L.A. and their mom told me that night that they went home and were debating how they could play 9-man and preserve it and start their own team so they could play. On the flip side is [how] my friend and her kid came and they had an 8-year-old boy with them. After the film, he said: I’m so proud to be Chinese-American.” Aside from the talk of race, seeing the images on screen of young Chinese boys spoke to him, which really touched me.
For more on 9-man and screenings coming up this week, visit 9-man.com.