‘9-Man’ premiere showcases Chinese-American street volleyball

April 27, 2014

Ursula Liang never set out to make a film about Boston, yet the hometown crowd came in droves for the premier of the documentary “9-Man”. All seats at the Somerville Theatre were filled with raucous cheering at the Sunday afternoon screening.

9man-ursula close up

“9-Man” revolves around a game invented in Toisan and played among men on the streets of North America. But it’s also more than a game. It’s also, in Liang’s words, “about history, about having a place for Asian-Americans, especially men, to be together.”

Liang grew up in Newton, Mass., and played volleyball growing up. The sport nine-man is essentially volleyball, with a few notable changes. There is a rule book, which specifies that each team has nine players instead of the usual six; there are no rotations; players must serve with both feet planted on the ground; and at least two-thirds of the players must be 100 percent Chinese, with the other three players having some Asian blood. An elder noted the ethnicity rule is followed to keep the spirit of the game.

Boston itself is home to three nine-man teams formed to compete in the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament: Freemasons, Hurricanes and Knights. The first female team is in the works.

The coach for the Knights is local dentist Robert Guen. Guen had been coaching for nearly two decades, longer than he himself was a player.

According to Liang, there were challenges in making the film. First, there was 350 hours of footage to condense into a 90-minute film. Liang started filming in 2008 at the New York mini-tournament, but “it took a long time to get pioneers on record.”

Liang had intended to interview Reggie Wong, founder of the Knights Chinese Athletic Club in 1961 and a leader of the movement. Unfortunately, he died in 2011 before she could speak to him. The film includes historical footage of Wong and was dedicated to his memory.

Nine-man volleyball has experienced phenomenal growth, starting with just four teams — two in Boston, and a team each in New York and Washington, D.C. Now there are 108 teams, spanning the West Coast and Canada. The annual tournament will move to Las Vegas this year.

Freemasons player Bryant Yee said, “It’s a special part of the community. It gives us an identity.”

 

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