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Volleyball as you’ve never seen it: Chinese ’9-man’

by Elizabeth Chang

The Washington Post

My 15-year-old daughter had a warning for me. “You know, Mom,” she said, “you’ll probably be the only white person there.”

It was July 2012, and we were headed to our first “Chinese volleyball” tournament, in New York City. I didn’t know what to expect. In fact, I wasn’t sure we should be going at all.

When one of her high school volleyball teammates recruited Sara to play in a Chinese volleyball league, my immediate reaction was that the whole concept was racist. Only Asian or part-Asian people could play, I was told, and two-thirds of the players on the court at any time had to be “100 percent Chinese.” Those rules meant that Sara — whose ethnicity is half Chinese, half Eastern European with a sprinkling of English — could be on the court with only one other player of mixed ethnicity. This ridiculous level of racial parsing was not for our Chinese-Jewish family, I thought. Why would people whose forebears had been shut out of opportunity accept limited opportunity from members of their own community? And why join an organization that denied that opportunity to others?

Yet Sara really wanted to try it, and my husband, who grew up in Hawaii and had never heard of Chinese volleyball, didn’t object. He took her to the practices, run by Washington’s Chinese Youth Club, but it fell to me to go with her team to the New York Mini tournament, held annually since 1987 in Manhattan’s Chinatown. That was when Sara issued her tongue-in-cheek warning.

Of course, being the only white person wasn’t a hardship (and, to be fair, other non-Asians were there). It was the setting — on outdoor tennis courts — that was a challenge: It was hot, it was sunny, the asphalt was hard, and on Sunday, the only clean public restroom, in a nearby library, was closed. Every time I walked by a court where the men were playing a particularly ferocious Chinese version of volleyball that I’d never seen before called “9-man,” I was sure I’d be knocked unconscious by a misfired spike.

On the other hand, I was surrounded by dumpling and bubble tea shops, as well as hundreds of athletic Asian people wearing a rainbow of jerseys. There were old men weaving their fingers through the wire fence as they intently analyzed the games and, I later learned, gambled; supporters holding colorful striped umbrellas over strapping players on the sidelines; teams of young professionals who spoke little Chinese and teams of restaurant workers who spoke little English; teams with generic names (Hurricanes) and with culturally significant ones (Flying Tigers) — a kaleidoscope of Asian people and pride.

I learned about the uniqueness of 9-man and why the tournament was played outside on pavement instead of inside on a nice wood or plastic-tile floor. By the end of the New York Mini, I was planning to attend the 100-team North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament in Toronto over Labor Day. By the end of that event — where we ran into my husband’s cousin’s daughter’s brother-in-law from Hawaii, which almost made us feel like we, too, were part of the family — I was looking forward to Washington’s turn to host the NACIVT this Labor Day weekend. I was eager to see how Washington’s small Chinese community would fare in its efforts to throw a huge tournament — organizers were anticipating up to 5,500 players and spectators — on the streets of a “revitalized” Chinatown whose elaborate, colorful arch offers a gateway to overwhelmingly non-Chinese establishments.

I had become a fan of Chinese volleyball, even though I never would have been allowed to play.

The origins of 9-man volleyball are murky. Even Chinese Youth Club co-founder Art Ping Lee, a dapper 97-year-old decked out in a pinstriped suit and tie, couldn’t tell me much: The game already existed when he was a child in Taishan, in southern China’s Guangdong province.

Volleyball — a tennis, badminton and handball mashup — had been invented in Massachusetts in the late 1800s by William G. Morgan to provide American businessmen with a less-strenuous alternative to another new pastime: basketball. The initial rules did not address the number of players, according to former Springfield (Mass.) College volleyball coach Joel Dearing, author of a book about Morgan, and the official rules (six players per side, only three hits per side; no back-row attacks) weren’t established until 1928.

By then, volleyball had already made it to Taishan. Some say it was brought by missionaries. Others, such as retired engineer and amateur historian Sam Wong, an 85-year-old CYC member, say it was introduced by Chinese immigrants on visits home. This version of the sport, which is still played in Taishan and America’s Chinatowns, wound up with its own peculiar format: a larger court, a lower net, nine men per side, and rules that have kept it more rapid, raucous and rough than the standard six-player game.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which had halted most Chinese immigration to America, inadvertently fostered 9-man’s growth in the United States. Volleyball became an easily accessible diversion for the predominantly male laundry and restaurant workers who had few other avenues for socializing: All it required was a street or alley, a strung-up rope and a ball (or a bundle of tied-together rags). And because Chinese communities remained small and isolated, holding “friendship” games on Labor Day — a holiday with guaranteed time off and special train fares — became a way for the Chinese in cities such as Boston, New York, Providence and Newark to meet and check in with each other.

Thus the origins of a traveling competition featuring a fierce, fast game played outdoors on summer-baked streets studded with rubble and broken glass, all of which add hardship and danger, and contribute to the tough-guy aesthetic of 9-man.

The first unofficial tournament took place among Northeastern teams in 1939 (some say ’44). Washington joined the rotation a few years later, and the Labor Day competition spread across the country and into Canada. What started as a small, one-day set of friendly outdoor games has turned into the thousand-plus-player, three-day, highly competitive North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament, so large that it is now sometimes held indoors.

Women entered the NACIVT in the late ’70s, playing traditional sixes volleyball. Yet they also are eager to perpetuate the 9-man convention of holding the competition on the streets. “It’s tradition,” said Cindy Goon, 24, a CYC player who participated in Washington’s last street tournament, in 2001.

The tournament still rotates — since Washington’s last turn in 2006, the NACIVT has passed through San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Montreal and Toronto. That means that every few years, the Chinese community in one of these places comes together to outdo all others. “Every city wants to make sure people are talking about their tournament, even the year after,” said Kevin Lee, 26, the director of this year’s Washington event. Among the requisite components are a banquet, social events for athletes who range from their late teens to their 60s, an opening ceremony with a lion dance, and a cultural venue where schoolkids can showcase talents in dance or martial arts.

While growing in popularity inside the Asian community 9-man is drawing outside interest as well, with participation from top-level college players and professionals. And the sport will have an opportunity to break free of its Chinatown confines with a documentary being produced by former ESPN the Magazine reporter Ursula Liang, titled “9-Man.”

Though she grew up in the Boston area, Liang didn’t have a close-up encounter with 9-man until after college, when she started playing for a Chinese women’s volleyball team. “The guys play with such enthusiasm and passion, it’s hard not to take notice,” she recalled. As time went on and she realized that no one had told 9-man’s story, she set out to do it herself, but even she hasn’t been able to definitively trace 9-man’s pedigree. “The goal really is to make a film that inspires other people to dig into this oral history and this Chinatown history,” she said.

It’s May, and the Washington NACIVT organizers are intent on holding the tournament as tradition dictates. To win approval and permits to shut down several streets around Chinatown’s Friendship Arch, they have decided to lobby the neighborhood’s D.C. Council member, Jack Evans, at a Chinese American Citizens Alliance event that will include a tribute to him.

Patrick Chin, the committee’s site director, arrives at the crowded reception in the Gallery Place complex holding a folder with three proposed layouts for courts on Sixth, Seventh and H streets NW. The reception is buzzing with business-attired networkers; students from a hospitality school flit around serving punch and dim sum while, despite the drizzle, guests wander onto the outdoor patio overlooking the arch.

Patrick, known as 2E, a nickname bestowed upon him by a younger sister, is a longtime member of the Chinese Youth Club, which was established in 1939 and fosters athletic, cultural and educational opportunities. CYC is one of several organizations putting together the $200,000 tournament under the auspices of the city’s Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, and 2E has assured the association he is going to do everything in his power “to bring the tournament back to the streets of Chinatown.”

The 32-year-old financial consultant’s roots in Chinatown and volleyball are deep; though he lived in the suburbs as a kid, he says, “we grew up hanging out at our grandparents’ places down there,” and his earliest memory is of his father posing for a photo at a 9-man tournament. He’s getting married this fall, and who knows, maybe he’ll have a son or daughter toddling around a tournament soon.

Holding the NACIVT on the streets isn’t just tradition, it’s “an experience no one else is going to have,” 2E has argued. The past few host cities have used convention centers or parking lots. In fact, the last time Washington hosted, the courts were in a parking lot that has since become the site of CityCenter DC. Before that, I’ve been told, every Washington tournament from 1973 to 2001 took place in the streets.

2E, who is friendly and disarming, knows that Seventh Street is an emergency route and the recent Boston Marathon bombings remain on officials’ minds. But he has hope that Evans and Linda Lee, a Chinatown leader, will influence the city bureaucracy. He waits, a bit at a loss and worried about the fact that he’s wearing jeans, until Kevin Lee arrives in jeans as well. “Now, I don’t feel so underdressed,” 2E jokes to him. Kevin, a marketing and events associate, is a third-generation CYC member involved in its 9-man and lion dance programs. His family is well represented on the event committee; his mother, Penny, a freelance film editor, is the communications director; his brother, Jason, 24, is head of social events.

Soon, Kevin and 2E are joined by CYC president Kevin Born, 42, a federal program manager, and board member Tom Fong, 52, the gregarious president of a hospitality IT company.

The involvement of the four men follows a common trajectory for Chinese volleyball players: Grow up watching or playing volleyball (or basketball, or lion dancing, or all three). Spend your young adult years traveling to tournaments, partying and making friends in other cities. Realize that it’s time to give back and perpetuate the traditions by coaching, or organizing fundraisers or serving on a tournament committee.

Jack Evans finally shows up, but he is swiftly ushered through the crowd, and there is no way to collar him before the speeches begin.

“Without Jack Evans, Chinatown would not be like it is today,” Linda Lee tells the gathering. “This area was so run-down; nobody believed it could be revitalized.”

Evans gives the love right back — “You always remember the people who supported you when no one else did” — and goes on to rhapsodize about Chinatown. “We like to refer to it almost as the Times Square of the metropolitan area. Remember, an area that was completely deserted 22 years ago is now the most vibrant neighborhood in the entire region. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, you come down here, there are people, restaurants, activities.”

What he doesn’t say is that not many of them are Chinese.

Chinese merchants — many from five mostly Taishanese families whose names remain common here: the Lees, Wongs, Moys, Chins and Wus — moved into the blocks around Seventh and H streets after Washington’s first Chinatown was razed to make way for Federal Triangle in the 1930s. Art Ping Lee immigrated in 1936 and was one of 20 young men who chartered CYC as a social club for Ping-Pong, kung fu and 9-man. Few of the men were married, because the Exclusion Act had severely limited the number of Chinese women in the country. “No girls!” Art Ping Lee said. CYC members marched in parades, performed lion dances to raise funds to help the Chinese fight the Japanese, and supported the U.S. war effort; Lee, who later owned laundries, worked on warships. He returned to Taishan in the late ’40s to find a bride.

By the mid-1960s, many Chinatown residents had moved to Maryland or Virginia while retaining their properties or businesses, leaving it a primarily commercial center. (Most CYC members still live in the suburbs.) The 1968 riots emptied it further, and revitalization efforts, which always sparked simultaneous warnings of Chinatown’s destruction, sputtered along for years. Even the now-beloved arch was constructed only after bitter debate over the fact that the District had joined with its communist “sister city” of Beijing to build it. Verizon Center (1997), the convention center (2003) and Gallery Place (2004) finally brought the renaissance Evans boasts of, each enlivening Chinatown further while also upping costs and forcing out more Chinese businesses and residents.

After the speeches, Linda quickly choreographs a photo with the councilman and the CYC reps. “Jack, thanks for all your help,” Tom says, though they haven’t had a chance to ask him for any. Then, Evans is off.

“I was hoping we’d be able to, like, talk to him at some point in time,” 2E says with disappointment. “Once we got here, it just didn’t seem like the forum for it.”

The next step is appearing before the Mayor’s Special Events Task Group to seek the permit. 2E is cautiously optimistic. He and the consultant he has hired have touched based with Evans’ office, the transportation department and the task group itself.

But the men have hardly taken their places at the end of a long table studded with public safety officials before Lt. Sean Egan of the Fire and Emergency Services Department tells them that closing down the roads would affect major “running routes” for emergency services.

“I would not be in a position to approve any one of these three options,” he says. “Sorry.”

There is an awkward silence.

“Are we close on any of the options?” the consultant ventures.

“No.”

Wally Lee, 64, an IBM service rep who is Art Ping Lee’s son and a tournament-hosting veteran (as well as an occasional player), asks if any peripheral streets will work.

“Part of the problem is the neighborhood’s outgrown the capacity of being able to have an event like this safely down there,” Egan responds. Another official suggests using the Mall or Pennsylvania Avenue, which are farther from Chinatown than the tournament planners had thought was ideal.

The men leave, a bit shellshocked.

The first Boston Spikeoff is not held on the streets of Boston’s Chinatown, or in Boston, even. It was just too hard to find enough space, says organizer Jeff Chin of the Boston Hurricanes athletic club. Instead, the late June tournament is being held in a former beverage warehouse turned 12-court volleyball facility, 30 minutes south of Boston. The loading bay doors have been cracked to let in air, but it’s so hot and humid inside a player faints.

Among the 21 teams are four from Washington. Fifteen of the CYC players have made the trip overnight by chartered bus. (The women’s team will wind up winning the consolation division; the men will make it to the semifinals.)

“Something like this actually binds communities,” Jeff says. “Our kids, they grow up in towns where they’re the only Asians.” Chinese volleyball offers “a different platform for them.”

It also provides an opportunity, other parents tell me, for Chinese kids to see older players who exude an in-your-face challenge to the “nerdy Asian” stereotype and to be judged solely on their athletic prowess, without the cultural blinders that non-Asian coaches can wear.

The noise ricochets off the warehouse walls. The 9-man players bow before and after each match, but after the first bow, all decorum disappears as they congregate in a circle, clapping and roaring to pump themselves up.

The women’s game on the adjacent courts, with its typical six-player pass, set, hit rhythm, looks almost sedate next to this 9-man free-for-all. There are generally five men at the net: a setter and four hitters; it’s not uncommon for the entire front row to block shots at the same time, a rising wall of intimidation. Among those hitters is the “fast,” a player who specializes in scoring kills by scooping and throwing the ball in a way that would be illegal in the standard game and most closely resembles a dunk, as well as a “two-ball” hitter who always runs a tandem play. Then, there is a midcourt spike-drawing player called the “suicide” — the gutsiest guys play there, Jeff says. Finally, there are three defensive players in the back, who take turns serving.

9-man is quicker and less predictable not only because there are more players, but because of its unconventional rules: A block counts as a contact, but if the ball touches the net between contacts, you get an additional contact and the same player can hit the ball twice in a row; players don’t rotate; the ball can be attacked by anyone, anywhere. It can be an adjustment for newcomers. “Their first reaction is they laugh at the rules: ‘You can do that, you can do this?’” says CYC coach and former “fast” Art Goon, 62, a computer network administrator. “Until they play,” he adds. “Then they realize how much faster the game is.”

One unusual aspect of the Spikeoff was the fact that several women’s teams had white players. “We want inclusion instead of exclusion,” Jeff says.

The eligibility rules, which 2E calls “a really touchy subject” are the thorniest issue facing Chinese volleyball, especially if 9-man continues to increase in popularity and exposure.

“I’ve always had that little birdie on your shoulder — ‘It is a little biased; there’s exclusion there,’ ” said Tom Fong. “And then yet, on the other shoulder, ‘We have to keep certain traditions intact.’ “

The captains introduced the rules in 1991 to maintain 9-man’s Chinese character after players of other Asian ethnicities had joined teams, Wally Lee said. One resulting problem was their failure to anticipate that intermarriage would produce part-Chinese children who could be denied playing time. If you’re a parent who wants your kids “to participate in your tradition, you’ve got to be doing something about this rule,” Wally said.

Tom said he could imagine open divisions in future tournaments, though he joked that would be “ESPN2-ish, rather than ESPN.”

It was also in late June that 2E sent out an e-mail saying the planning committee had “exhausted every possible resource at our disposal attempting to keep with tradition and secure a playing site in Chinatown.” The tournament would be on Pennsylvania Avenue, starting at Freedom Plaza and ending at the FBI Building.

The committee’s announcement on the website hardly sounded disappointed. “For the first time in DC history,” it reads, “the NACIVT games will be played on our nation’s premier street of Pennsylvania Avenue!”

The Benevolent Association members were “a lot more positive about it than I thought they’d be,” 2E said with relief. In fact, they were so pleased, and the Pennsylvania Avenue surface was so much smoother.

Art Ping Lee shrugged. “Can’t do it in Chinatown,” he said. “Not enough space.”

Penny Lee, the communications director and film editor, also wasn’t disappointed. Closing Pennsylvania Avenue for a Chinatown event is “a big, big thing for us.”

“I think it’s going to be a beautiful view looking down with the Capitol on the end and the nets in between,” she said. “Good photo op, too.”