9-Man: A bad-ass 80-year-old Chinese American version of volleyball!


You’ve probably never heard of Nine-Man. I know I never have. But Ursula Liang, a sports journalist turned filmmaker, discovered this form of Chinatown streetball and created a film to document it.

With its roots in the 1930’s, when Chinese exclusion laws effectively restricted immigration and other legal rights of Chinese Americans in America and Canada, Nine-Man arose out of this virtual bachelor society as an escape from social and political alienation. From the documentary website:

“9-Man” is an independent feature documentary about an isolated and exceptionally athletic Chinese-American sport that’s much more than a pastime. Since the 1930’s, young men have played this gritty, streetball game competitively in the alleys and parking lots of Chinatown. When the community was a Bachelor Society (men outnumbered women 4-to-1) at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment and laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act forced Chinese restaurant workers and laundrymen to socialize exclusively amongst themselves, nine-man offered both escape and fraternity for men who were separated from their families in China and facing extreme discrimination and distrust. Today, some 80 years later, nine-man is a lasting connection to Chinatown for a community of men who know a different, more integrated America and it’s a game that has grown exponentially in athleticism. Nine-man punctuates each summer with a vibrant, aggressive, exhausting bragging-rights tournament that unites thousands of Chinese-Americans and maintains traditional rules and customs.

“9-Man” introduces the history of the game and a diverse cast of modern-day characters — from 6’7″ Olympian Kevin Wong to a 91-year-old pioneer — combining vérité footage and interviews with never before seen archival footage and photos sourced directly from the community. Pivoting between oil-spotted Chinatown parking lots and jellyfish-filled banquet scenes, the film captures the spirit of nine-man as players not only battle for a championship but fight to preserve a sport that holds so much history.

Honestly, I never bought into Linsanity, being not really a fan of basketball. But this seems like a super cool, authentically Chinese American cultural tradition that deserves documentation and exploration.

Liang’s film, 9-Man, will premiere at the Independent Film Festival of Boston on April 27th. It is currently also a finalist for the Grand Jury Prize at the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival.

If you can make it to either opening, please come out and support this cool independent film! Tickets go on sale next week for Boston and several screenings are available from May 2 -5 in LA. I’ll be trying to make it out to the Boston premiere.

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