Review: “9-Man” documentary is a complex, thought-provoking challenge to Asian American stereotypes

April 28, 2014

9-man-logoOpening to a Boston theatre crammed to capacity with an audience that included current and former players of 9-Man and the mayor of Massachusetts’ city of Malden, 9-Man made its theatrical debut last night at the 2014 Independent Film Festival of Boston. It was an instantaneous hit.

9-Man spotlights the uniquely Chinese-American sport of 9-man, an eighty-year old variant of volleyball popular in the southern Chinese city of Toisan and surrounding region as well as in Chinatowns throughout North America.

As a documentary, 9-Man is richly layered. Although a film about a virtually unknown sport with deep roots in Chinese American history runs the risk of being unwatchably dry, 9-Man is instead a surprisingly funny, sharp and nuanced conversation about contemporary Asian Americana.

Film-maker Ursula Liang (@ursulaliang), whose background is in sports journalism, allows 9-Man to tell its story through intimate conversations with several 9-Man players, each amateur athletes who fully dedicate their summers to training as part of the sports’ four more competitive teams: the Boston Knights, the Boston Freemasons, the D.C. CYC, and the Toronto Connex. Each team is hoping to win the annual Nationals tournament, a Labour Day weekend contest that thus far been dominated by the San Francisco Westcoast, a self-professed ringer team consisting mostly of professional (6-Man) volleyball players who aren’t really part of the 9-Man culture or community.

Film-maker Ursula Liang introduces "9-Man" at its Boston premiere. (Photo credit: Facebook)
Film-maker Ursula Liang introduces “9-Man” at its Boston premiere. (Photo credit: Facebook)

Liang’s savvy decision to focus on a single season of 9-Man volleyball infuses a palpable drama into the film that compels its viewers to invest and engage in the 9-Man teams’ underdog journey to dethrone the San Francisco Westcoast. As a Canadian, you know I was rooting for the Toronto Connex; but I was also surprised to find how quickly I was consumed by Connex’s captain Jeff Chung‘s dedication to all aspects (both cultural and athletic) of the sport, and his yearning for the Nationals trophy. Combined with wide shots of 9-Man’s innate high-energy action and the hilarious antics that come when you turn a camera upon a bunch of men doing something involving both sports and alcohol, 9-Man becomes one of those rare documentaries that never feels like a documentary: it is unerringly engaging and funny, while simultaneously informative and thought-provoking. Told through intimate conversations with several 9-Man players, the film effortlessly wends its way from Chinese American history and exclusion, to ideas about multiracial identity and cultural authenticity, to masculinity and stereotypes, to the increasing gentrification of North American Chinatowns.

From a pure production standpoint, 9-Man hardly betrays Liang’s status as a rookie film-maker. Despite some rough raw footage with poor lighting and audio quality, the finished product of 9-Man is unexpectedly polished. The film’s seamless editing by Michelle Chang is particularly noteworthy in building the complex narrative viewpoint of the film, and was augmented by smart and unobtrusive use of animation. Scott “Chops” Jung (of the Mountain Brothers and his recent collaborative project, “Strength in Numbers“) delivers — as always — some great beats to accompany some of the film’s key scenes as well.

But where the film truly stands out is in its incisive and unflinching presentation of its subject — 9-Man and its players — in both its beauty and its ugliness.

Several interview subjects are followed over the course of one summer as they prepare for the Labour Day Nationals, and we see moments of extreme dedication and athleticism. 9-Man is presented as a sport with a deep history, one that helped to bind Chinese American men together nearly a century ago in the face of their ostracism from mainstream American culture, and which is now a sport that helps build kinship and brotherhood among today’s Asian American male youth. For some biracial Asian American players who can’t speak a word of Chinese and whose families have long since moved away from Chinatown and into the suburbs, 9-Man is one of their only ties to their “Asian” side. For one player, who realizes over the course of the summer that the portrayed season will be his last, his intimate retirement interview captured in the final moments of the Labour Day tournament is heart-wrenchingly private and emotional. Throughout the film, 9-Man’s status as a unique cultural and community tradition that has been passed from father-to-son for nearly a century is undeniable. As the credits roll, we cannot escape the melancholy fear that 9-Man is truly a sport at-risk of disappearing. It feels both inevitable and unforgivable that this sport might surrender its essence to the economic and cultural erosion of this nation’s Chinatowns, or that it might fade away with the unrelenting passage of time as older players”age out” while younger men drift away from their Asian American history and heritage.

A player of the Toronto Connex is about to do some damage. (Photo credit: Tofu Magazine)
A player of the Toronto Connex is about to do some damage. (Photo credit: Tofu Magazine)

On the one hand, we become convinced that 9-Man is a piece of our heritage that is worth protecting; yet, Liang bravely refuses to flatly glorify the sport by whitewashing away its blemishes. Early in the film, Liang allows the camera to linger over one player who is drunkenly rambling after what seems like his eleventh beer: this human moment is both hilarious and a reminder that the sport is played by real, sometimes flawed, people. One young Canadian biracial player routinely refers to himself as “half Oriental” — a point of particular chagrin for me. Another who works construction at a trainyard makes an insensitive joke about coolie labour on the transcontinental railroads. A fight breaks out at the Labour Day banquet on the night before the tournament, and the cops are called as the restaurant is evacuated. But rather than to shy away from these more human moments, Liang courageously presents them as a counter-point to 9-Man’s cultural and athletic beauty: what results is a humanized portrayal of this streetball community that in the very act of juxtaposition of beauty with ugliness produces a complexity that innately challenges stereotypes.

One of the most controversial aspects of the film is its unflinching exploration of 9-Man’s “content rule”, a written rule established in 1991 that reinforces the racial segregation of the sport by preventing non-East Asian players from playing. According to the league’s official rulebook, 2/3rds of the players of each team must be “100% East Asian” (and a list of qualifying ethnicities, including Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipino and more recently Mongolian are included; South Asians are excluded) whereas the other 1/3rd of players can be “less than 100% East Asian”, but still must be able to prove East Asian heritage. Teams that violate the “content rule” can be disqualified, as nearly happens in one scene when a team’s two Blasian players have their “Asian-ness” challenged. All players at risk of a challenge are informally required to bring their pedigrees — a family tree and birth certificate — to every game.

This rule is, at base, racially and politically ugly. Created to try and protect the sport’s cultural authenticity as a “Chinese American sport” and its players from an influx of allegedly athletically superior Black and White men, the rule draws upon unfortunate anti-Black stereotypes while recreating the rationale behind the racial segregation we witnessed prior to the integration of Major League Baseball (a sport that was, until integration, believed to be a “White man’s sport”). Ironically, the film also documents how the rule fails to achieve its secondary goal: the San Francisco Westcoast are led by an absurdly tall biracial professional volleyball player who enters the tournament mainly to win a trophy, and he professes to not give a crap about preserving the cultural heritage of 9-Man.

To 9-Man‘s credit, Liang courageously faces the controversial “content rule” head-on in her film, and takes the time to present both the league’s reasoning for writing the rule as well as the (perhaps unintentional) racial absurdity of its enforcement that results in among other consequences a young South Asian player being decreed as “not Asian enough” to play. In so doing, Liang sparks a conversation not just on the “content rule” specifically, but on the more universal conundrum of preserving tradition within the changing face of Asian Americana: Who or what do we consider to be part of the Asian and Asian American identity and community? What steps can and should we (or should we not) take in preserving Asian American history and heritage? That the film raises these thorny questions in a fair and balanced manner is a testament to its strength as a documentary.

If I have one complaint, it is that the film was not able to present and discuss the gender politics of the 9-Man sport, which prohibits female players. Liang informed us in the Q&A that this was a subject that was cut from the film to preserve running time; I hope it will appear on the DVD.

Ultimately, 9-Man is an engrossing and carefully constructed film that deserves widespread distribution, not just at independent film festivals but in Asian American studies courses across the nation. I envision this film becoming a staple of introductory Asian American courses, used as a stepping-off point for further discussion of Asian American identity, masculinity, history, gentrification and stereotype threat. In short, I have no doubt that  in the coming years 9-Man will, like Better Luck Tomorrow and Vincent Who?, cement its status as one of Asian America’s must-see films.

9-Man (@9ManDoc) will be screened in May at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival and I caught something about a New York City showing, but can’t find the details on the website. If you can catch its West Coast screenings, you should definitely go. Either way, please spread the word about 9-Man through social networking and sharing to help generate buzz to get this film into more film festivals in the coming months.

  • Jimmy

    I could be wrong, but I do not think there are any rules against female players in 9 man. I have been playing for over a decade and I remember there being a female player on one of the Montreal or NY teams at the NY mini one year. Also, the women have their own tournament, but they play 6 on 6 for some reason. I have always wondered what 9women would look like. I wish someone would host a tournament.

  • Hey Jimmy,

    From what I understand from the film and the Q&A, women players would not be allowed to participate in league games. And a separate league and some teams were formed for women, but there weren’t enough women and yes for some reason, it WASN’T actually 9-man.

  • James

    Initially women teams were formed but after a while women weren’t able to play 9man like the men due to their physical difference that limits them from playing with the fast paced 9man rules. So they decided it was better competition to let the women play 6s within the 9man league

  • Just an Observer

    First off, this was a very well written review and for the most part it’s quite accurate. The tournament can be seen as a segregated tournament and does exclude people of other ethnic backgrounds but I don’t see anything wrong with that. There are many tournaments, organizations, and clubs that abide by the same methodology (i.e. NBA, WNBA, Boys’ Varsity, Boys’ Scout, etc). After all, this tournament is indeed an “invitational” tournament (NACIVT – North American Chinese Invitation Volleyball Tournament); if you were not invited, you are, simply, not allowed to play. If you are opposed to this, start your own.

    Certain clubs invite people of other ethnic backgrounds such as the ones you see in the documentary and there are several clubs and organizations participating in the tournament that violate this rule – many are guilty of this. This rule is violated for many many reasons, one of which would be the fact that they really, desperately want to win the tournament. Another reason would be the fact that this person is a friend that they have known their whole lives and share the same life experiences and passion for volleyball. Another reason could be the fact that they needed players on their team. Whatever the reason is, the only time that a team challenges this rule is when they feel threatened by the player however they use the excuse of the “rule” book to justify that – “Oh no! You cannot play because you will be breaking the heritage” – You know that card game?… Yeah, bull sh it.

    Here’s an example: Connex was threatened that the 1% Mongolian Blackenese player might be the key factor to eliminating them out of the tournament (because they desperate want to win), what can they do to try to benefit them from winning the tournament – protest.

    If you want to argue that this was not the reason and that it is to preserve history and culture. What about all those times when Connex’s A and B team matched up during playoffs and their organization conveniently decides to make the B team forfeit to give their A team a pass in order to achieve that extra rest so that they have the advantage to winning the whole tournament? Not so much culture and heritage there, eh?

    No offense to the Connex organization, as a matter of fact you are one of the most respected organization in the whole tournament. If you were an organization that truly believed in keeping this culture and heritage alive, you’d play against each other – at least give the B team a chance to win for all the heart they’ve put in. In fact, I would say some people would rather watch this match (in that both sides play all out) than the championship. I know I would, you’d probably draw a bigger crowd as well.

    All in all, there might be a lot of history associated with this tournament but that history and heritage is starting to die out and will die out one day. There was a part of the movie where one person said that they enjoy the tournaments because they get to meet other people who are of similar struggles (back in the day). However, struggles have changed and that feeling has died. This might seem as a nice, family, all about heritage and culture tournament from the outside but certain organizations and clubs absolutely hate each other; it’s all about winning and gaining respect (in any way, shape, or form) nowadays and that is going to be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.

  • Hey JAO –

    Thanks for the comment and for providing those key points. I agree with you on all of them — this is an invitational, non-professional tournament. They can choose to only let left-handed players play if they wanted to. This is why when we say non-Asians and women can’t play, it’s not a universal rule across the board. There’s no 9-Man police stopping this from happening; but it’s unlikely to be allowed in “sanctioned” games and since teams are largely training for Nationals, functionally, it’s equivalent to barring people from the sport.

    And thanks for talking about the Blasian players form the other Toronto game whom Connex challenged. Ursula did a good job with her portrayal of that incident — it comes across as petty, and that pursuit of the the content rule was both illegitimate and fueled by competitiveness: invoking the rules to make sure you win. But that still doesn’t address why the rule exists in the first place. Even if it’s not universally reinforced, the league still has codefied a rule of racial segregation of their sport.

    It’s a tricky question: we can understand wanting to preserve the sport, but do Asian Americans really need to mandate a certain racial or ethnic purity in order to do so? What about the fact that the sport doesn’t prevent the obscenely tall Westcoast player and his team of 6-Man ringers who (at least according to the film) are more motivated by wanting to get another trophy under his belt than love of the 9-Man sport? He’s cool, skilled, but he does not represent a pathway for the sport’s survival. The rules do not forbid him or teams like him; on the way home, Snoopy Jenkins and I theorized that the better rule might be to mandate that all players be amateurs — no professional volleyball players allowed, which would certainly encourage people who are dedicated to preserving the cultural aspects of the sport.

  • Just an Observer

    I see where you’re coming from Jenn that the rule should state that only amateur players are allowed, no professionals however what about Jeff Chung? Jeff started playing 9-man as an amateur and because of 9-man volleyball, he has dedicated his life to becoming a professional. How would the rule work then?

    Kevin Wong is very much accepted into the community, not only because he provides the competitive edge but it creates a word of mouth. Everybody in the community is an advocate of spreading the word, attracting new comers and even media coverage, what better way than a celebrity? Not to mention, there are other professional players that have played in the past such as – Mike Lambert, Scott Wong (Kevin’s brother), etc.

    The rule has obviously been very subjective and it’s become less strict because players have adapted to society where all ethnic backgrounds are accepted. We are all okay with everyone player but when it comes to winning the championship, get out of my way.

  • @JAO

    Thanks for your comments! I think the “no professionals” rule would make sense in the same way that, say, amateur boxing works (which is my context for most sports; boxing is the only sport I really follow). In amateurs, you can only compete if you are not a professional. If you were to retire as a professional, conceivably you could go back to amateur status (although no one really does that).

    Jeff Chung is a retired 6-Man professional volleyball player so as long as he wasn’t playing professionally, he could play in the 9-Man tourney. If the Westcoasts want to play in the 9-Man tourney, they could only do so if they were not pulling a 6-Man check as professional players (is that tall guy named Kevin Wong? His name I didn’t catch in the film). It wouldn’t prevent the Westcoasts from playing entirely, but WOULD reduce or discourage the ringer issue.

    I think it’s a good rule because it evens the playing field somewhat between someone like Kevin (even Jeff) and those folks who are participating in the sport while being fathers and family men. At heart, this is a streetball sport that was intended for adult men to unwind and build kinship; if you have tons of professional players influxing the sport — regardless of their ethnic background — you dilute the cultural importance of the sport for the amateur non-professional men who first popularized it.

    As with all informal tourneys, all rules are pretty subjective and unequally applied. I think it just makes sense that if a rule is intended to preserve the culture of the sport, that the rule not be kinda racist (which the content rule currently is) and also that it actually be effective. I think a ‘no professional’ rule would accomplish both.

  • Andy

    Just wondering where ya had a chance to see the film? Noticed the numerous screenings available in the states but don’t know when it’ll come out here in Canada.

  • Just wondering where ya had a chance to see the film? Noticed the numerous screenings available in the states but don’t know when it’ll come out here in Canada.

    I saw it in Boston and then at NYC. I don’t know if it’s been invited to screen in Canada yet, but I’m sure Toronto’s 9-Man teams would love to see it! There is a listserve through the 9-man website that is updating with additional screenings — they will probably be your best resource for being notified when a Canada screening gets organized.

    In the meanwhile, to try and get 9-Man to Canada, I suggest contacting a local film festival board and asking for them to invite 9-Man. That’s how the film has been screened where it’s been screened in the past, and it’s really through interested folks like yourself that independent films manage to find places to screen at all.

    Barring that, I think Ursula is trying to figure out distribution stuff (i.e. DVDs, etc) with the film as we speak.

  • Grandfathered

    I play on Westcoast and have won several championships with the team. Players like Kevin and myself both have roots back to Mei Mei and we are both very much advocates of the sport. I have had my ethnicity challenged in almost every one of the 20 tournaments I’ve played in and find it very offensive. Players like us are very proud of our heritage. I am half Chinese and born in Taiwan. When people at the tournament claim that you are lying about your race, it hurts. We are trying to be a part of our Chinese community. And if it were about preserving heritage, then why don’t they challenge the race of players who are on teams that aren’t competing to win. If our team wasn’t good, they wouldn’t care. And to say we only care about trophies is absurd. We play because we are athletes and enjoy competing. And all of our “ringers” are celebrated when we are at the tournament. I was a professional player as well, and trust me, we don’t care about the trophy. We want to win because we are competitive. We kept coming back to the tournament because we love the tournament and the people and friends we’ve made. There is a strong bond that develops between people when they compete against each other, as well as a high level of respect. And let’s not forget that Connex won 10 years in a row. And they’ve employed some questionable tactics to win. So let’s not overlook that it is a cultural event, and a very high level competition. And anyone who knows Kevin knows he cares about his culture. But when players like us are treated the way we are and discriminated against because we are half “white”, it makes us feel like we aren’t included in the cultural aspect. And the way we deal with it is we want to win more. And players like Jeff get a bad rap as well. I’ve competed against him in the finals and semi finals several times, and I have a ton of respect for him. He is a true competitor on and off the court. So when people say we don’t give a damn about preserving the heritage of the sport, it doesn’t mean that we don’t give a damn about our heritage. It just means that discriminating only excludes people who share our cultural background. Remember, almost 100% of the competitors are American and Canadian.

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  • JEng

    Because I am Toisanese, watching the Toisanese players, their elders led me to believe that the issue about allowing 1 percent Asian but not Indian or African American was about the Toisanese tendency to swallow bullying i.e. bitterness and that is what that game looked like to me in that well, Indians may be friendly and that Vietnamese may have gotten brownie points (it’s very Toisanese of me to point this out and offend and not pander) with the Indian but Indians were used by the British in Hong Kong to attack workers physically so Indians in that respect poured that bitterness for us to drink. And there have always been muggings by African Americans upon Chinese immigrants so that is another cup of bitterness that we drink – so that game to me is about that one thing that a small number of Toisanese had that was just theirs but that just theirs was about swallowing bitterness and still behaving yourself and being seen as weak when you really carrying more than your fair share for overall peacekeeping.

    We could have many times blown up at nonAsian customers who threw tantrums in Chinese restaurants back in the day but that would be very very rare. The staff and the owner would choke it down, swallow it.

    So someone not from that heritage – if your ancestor didn’t drink that bitterness then maybe you don’t uphold the heritage of that game. I’m not really interested in 9-man, I doubt it would ever directly benefit my family but I do interpret that documentary in a particular way because I am Toisanese and Toisanese swallow bullying.

    So it’s not racist but it is not articulated in that old Toisanese way that if you need an explanation than you don’t have it already in your nature. But the fact that they allow African American players with a Chinese great grandmother is the sign of where they are coming from – you have to have that particular bitterness drunk in your ancestry.

    And Indians and West African and White players may have their own share of bitterness but is it the same one as the original Toisanese who probably do have a chip on their shoulder not just from the immigration law passed against them that changed their family dynamics to this day but possibly earlier from working on the railroad – we have no right to be mad, right? Because we all want to be here and we all owe the United States. It wouldn’t be fair to moan about it so instead we swallow.

    It’s then more inappropriate to claim that 9-man is racist. Chinese who aren’t good at moving along those currents of assimilation – who can retain their FOBness whilst being accepted – part of that identity – is being not included and being lame ducks, right? maybe not for popular Shanghainese Canadians like that team leader (poor Shanghai so good at getting along at the upper echelons but on the more authentic team that lost to the West Coast ringers albeit on a possible misread by the ref).

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