9 men on the court. Two-thirds of the players must be 100% Chinese, the remaining players must be of some Asian descent, and you better know more than “bump, set, spike.” Welcome to 9-Man.
I first discovered the sport of 9-Man after several interactions with my volleyball friends, and after watching the 9-Man documentary, I was intrigued by the origins and continuation of this immigrants’ ball game. 9-Man is an alternative form of volleyball, with nine players instead of the regular volleyball six, and remains exclusive to Chinese and Asian males in North America. The history of the game can be traced back to Toisan City in the Guangdong Province of China; however, its significance is rooted in the Chinese-American immigrant experience.
The history goes back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, when white Americans (yet again) felt threatened by the wave of immigrants and actively barred Chinese immigrants from entering the country. While this discriminatory act stunted the growth of Chinese-American families, it bred a new community of Chinese males who came together in the 1930s with a makeshift net and a volleyball. As the game gained more popularity within the Chinese community, teams began to travel from Boston to New York to D.C. for friendly competitions and the chance to network with other Chinese communities.
Today, the sport continues its legacy with the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament (NACIVT) every Labor Day weekend. The tournament actually began in Boston in 1945, and participating cities — San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Montreal, Toronto, and more — now rotate as hosts of the three-day tournament. Due to its popularity and growth, cities hold smaller tournaments leading up to the NACIVT, and many outsiders have begun to question the rules regarding player qualifications.
Given the historical context of 9-Man’s origins, the player qualifications make sense. Chinese males dominated the Chinatown communities, and they had created a sport that could bring them together and defy many stereotypes of Asian males that still exist today. But our contemporary generations have experienced a dynamic intersection of culture, race, and identity. The rules of identity and ethnic background are ever-changing, making 9-Man’s rules of player qualifications feel antiquated and exclusive. Can the swelling Asian pride still exist if the game begins to include non-Asian players? Will the significance of “brotherhood” among the male community be altered if women or other genders begin to join the game? Can the Chinese-American culture be preserved as later generations of hyphenated Americans begin to lose their mother tongue?
I feel a bit of vindictive satisfaction from this game being exclusive to Asians — as a hypothetical middle finger to anyone who has belittled or dismissed the Asian community as weak and submissive. It gives me a sense of pride when others envy the game and beg to be a part of it. And I am proud of the older generations who have fiercely protected the game to preserve its roots.
Yet, I question if there can be a middle ground that would enhance the communication between this loyal Asian community with other cultures, or if this game – outdoor volleyball on the streets of Chinatown, with roots that are deep in American history and still culturally relevant — is too precious to share.