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Chinatown’s Swagger Celebrated in New ‘9-Man’ Documentary

A still from the documentary film, 9-Man. Ursula Liang

Fast, gritty, and chaotic, 9-Man is an intensely athletic game played in the parking lots and back alleys of Chinatown since the 1930’s. Born out of the segregated bachelor’s societies created by the Chinese Exclusion Acts, 9-Man was a way for overworked laundrymen and restaurant workers to find fraternity and escape. Although the Chinese American community is better integrated into mainstream society and has more opportunities today, the game still offers Chinese American men a space to find community and sport and a continuing connection to Chinatown.

Director Ursula Liang brings her many years of sports journalism to document this unique volleyball-like sport, largely preserved as it was when it first came to America with Toisanese workers over 80 years ago, even as the game has continued to evolve in China. Liang talks with former players - now in their 80’s and 90’s, discovers archival material for the first time, follows current players on and off the court, and celebrates this vigorous and fast-paced game in a raucous stereotype-busting look at what it means to be a Chinese American man today.

The award-winning 9-Man: A Streetball Battle in the Heart of Chinatown will be screening on September 3rd at the Museum of Chinese in America and is now available on DVD and VOD.

The national championship, North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament (NACIVT), will bring together over one hundred 9-Man teams in New York City this year on Labor Day weekend.

NBC News caught up with director Ursula Liang during the height of 9-Man season to find out more about her journey making this film and why the legacy of sport is important both inside and outside of Chinatown.

"9-Man" director Ursula Liang talks to Jason Chau. Jen Wu / Jen Wu

Q: What led you to the sport of 9-Man and why did you want to tell this story?

A: I came across 9-Man for the first time in the late 1990’s in Boston. It was a space with this great raw energy and so much swagger. The players and coaches and fans defied stereotypes of Asian American men. They were compelling, dynamic personalities and I was surprised to learn how long the game had been around and never unearthed by the mainstream media. When my brother started playing, it became very clear that this was more than just a group of weekend warriors. It was a complex community full of passion, cultural history, and gifted athletes and mentors.

Q: How did 9-Man develop in 1930’s Chinatowns?

A: In 1882, the US passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law that prevented a single ethnic group from immigrating to this country. Chinese laborers in the US were isolated in America, and a so-called Bachelor Society emerged, where men outnumbered women by huge percentages. These men, who worked incredibly hard, enduring outright racism, turned to 9-Man to blow off steam. It was a game that was well suited to Chinatown--back alleys and lots became courts where men could play when they had precious time off—and 9-Man gave these men both a physical and emotional escape from the tough lives they were living.

A game of 9-Man being played in Los Angeles, as seen from above. Ursula Liang / Ursula Liang

Q: Why is 9-Man such an important part of the Chinatown community? What did it represent in early days and what does it represent now?

A: In the early days, 9-Man was a cathartic past-time for men under a lot of physical and emotional stress, but it also served to unite the community. In the late 1930’s the game started to get organized and intercity tournaments began, connecting the Chinatowns. Today circumstances have changed dramatically for Chinese American men, but 9-Man still offers some of the same things. It is a place where guys can escape the emasculating stereotypes they are persistently saddled with, where they can express themselves freely, and where they can connect back to their roots no matter how far from Chinatown they find themselves. It is also a place where they can drink beer, eat dumplings, and curse in Chinese.

Q: What is 9-Man’s role in shaping Chinese American male identity?

A: I think this depends very much on your perspective. Inside the game, it is a place where identity does not come programmed, where masculinity is defined by the individuals who play. From the outside, it is a revealing portrait of Chinese American men, one that is much more nuanced than mainstream media portrays and most definitely contradicts many of the stereotypes of the community.

A film still from "9-MAN". Ursula Lian / Ursula Lian

Q: What are some of the challenges facing the sport today?

A: The game has grown in popularity, so one of the biggest hurdles is putting on the tournament every year. The logistics have become a nightmare as Chinatown real estate is swallowed up and the costs for everything have grown. Everything is volunteer run, so you can imagine how hard it is to make things work. There are also questions about how tradition and modern life intersect and interact. One of the greatest things about the game is how well it has been preserved over the years and how great it is for teaching and passing on culture to future generations. But keeping tradition intact often means unnaturally protecting it. In order to keep the Chinese roots of the game, rules were put into place requiring that a certain number of players have Chinese heritage. Some see this rule as exclusionary and others see it as essential to keeping the sport alive. This is something the community continues to grapple with as Chinese Americans become more diverse and less isolated culturally in this country.

Q: Why is this story important for people outside of the community?

A: I really hope that people from all walks of life watch the documentary! Chinatown history is American history, so it is an important part of our cultural heritage as a country. I also think the film gives you a very intimate window into the perspective of Chinese Americans, and more generally resonates in conversations about the immigrant experience, microaggressions, exclusion and inclusion, and cultural identity. I think it is essential that we seek out stories about communities that are not our own. Empathy and understanding are invaluable tools in combating many of the social issues in our country.

Director Ursula Liang is flanked by her brother, Peter Liang, and father, Matthew Liang. Bing Wang

Q: What’s next?

A: We are really looking to build the outreach for this film and want to get it into as many schools and libraries as we can. While on the surface, it is a film about sports, there are so many conversations that come out of the documentary. I am particularly interested in doing a series of screenings of 9-Man for African American audiences and searching for funding for it. I am also searching for Asian Americans who shot film in the early days—who was the person in your community who always documented everything? I want to know that person! Send him or her my way.

Watch the 9-MAN trailer here:

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.