Talk Story on the Mall: 1882 Foundation at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
By: Jennifer Sugijanto
9-Man Volleyball Across Chinatowns in the United States, one can spot nine Chinese-American youth and adults sprawled out on concrete, engaging in a lively game of 9-man volleyball. While 9-man’s origins date back to Toishan, China, it is uniquely Chinese-American. With its establishment in the 1930s, 9-man provided Chinese-American immigrant male (the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was still in effect) workers, many of whom left families behind, a way to get together once a year to socialize and compete with friends from the same village. Tournaments were held on Labor Days, the one day of the year restaurants and laundries, businesses many Chinese immigrants worked in, closed. Different from 12-man volleyball, 9-man is a sport fitting of the Chinese physique and gives Chinese-Americans the opportunity to be good in a sport that also celebrates their culture. In many Chinese-American communities, sport heroes and cultural heroes were 9-man volleyball players whom the youth could relate to.
More than just a sport, 9-man is part of Chinese American culture and heritage, and thus also critical for their preservation. For the older generation of immigrants, it is a community-binding activity; the 9-man panel brought together many current and past players and was marked by plentiful colorful anecdotes and audience participation, highlighting the communal aspect of the sport. The sport is played by both amateur and professional players, and is also in certain cases a family sport. For the younger generation, more of a focus is now on competition. What began as disparate games played throughout communities is now a sport with its own tournament; 120 teams will compete on Labor Day, 2017 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 9-man is also becoming more businesslike as it gains popularity: Penny Lee came out with a documentary that gathered more inquiry about the sport, and 9-man has made appearances in volleyball magazines and national publications like the Washington Post. Women are now integrated into the sport as well.
With the gentrification of Chinatowns nationwide, 9-man tournaments that were previously held on Chinatown asphalt are forced to move elsewhere. Removal of the game from the physical location of the Chinese American community creates an accessibility barrier, and such issues touch on the role of gentrification on the Chinese community. Since Chinatowns across the United States are now becoming less and less of a residential area, perhaps the physical space in Chinese American community is less important than Chinatown’s importance as a cultural touchstone, both for Chinese communities and also other Asian Americans.
With 9-man’s growing popularity, questions of how to keep 9-man as a Chinese sport are being increasingly posed. The “rules of ethnicity” discussed during the 9-man panel include: six players on a team must be of Chinese descent, and three players of Asian descent. While 9-man’s cultural significance as a Chinese American sport warrants this relatively strict ethnic makeup, now some mini-tournaments are open to different ethnicities. Such rules are still being discussed as our communities become less and less homogenous.
1882 Foundation’s Executive Director Ted Gong moderated this session along with Chinese Youth Center (CYC) members Gary, Bobby from CYC Boston, and former 9 Man player-turned-coach Wally Li from CYC DC.