9-Man Volleyball: The Unofficial Official Sport of American Chinatowns
For more than four decades, I have spent my Labor Day Weekends masquerading as a back row defensive specialist on a 9-man volleyball team. What am I doing here?
Specifically, I play a position called the “suicide” in a hybrid form of the standard 6-player sport—a game patterned after what Chinese immigrants to the United States had actually learned back in their home villages (possibly from American missionaries, possibly from Chinese American immigrants who returned to Toisan to visit family). 9-man has its own distinct set of rules, spacing, and skills—and it had taken hold in America’s urban Chinatowns even before my parents arrived in San Francisco on a boat from Southern China in 1948.
I was born in Washington, D.C. I grew up smack in the middle of Chinatown in homes that were both successively removed for the building of the Verizon Center. The 9-man team on which I play today was first organized in the 1940s by the Chinese Youth Club back when D.C.’s Chinatown was the center of a hustling vibrant community. Prior to its life as a tourist destination, the neighborhood was home to many immigrants seeking a better lifestyle by working the typical service industry jobs of laundries, restaurants, curio stores, and groceries. While most of these people were men since restrictive immigration laws tightly limited Chinese entry into the country, by the time I was a kid in the 1960s, Chinatown had a very close community of about thirty to thirty-five families.
The Chinese Youth Club was the central fulcrum of our activities. Then as now, there was no playground, no nearby elementary school, no such thing as a rec or community center. We didn’t have formal athletic facilities, but we had a clubhouse in a building on H Street, and for volleyball, we didn’t need much else but an empty parking lot.
The annual 9-man tournaments have been organized in Chinatowns during Labor Day weekend since the 1940s. When I was growing up, they rotated among three cities—New York, D.C., and Boston. Now they rotate among seven cities in Canada and the United States, and they draw over one hundred teams. The tournament is arguably one of the most important events held in the Chinese American community—and I always look forward to the rotation to the next city and mark the date once the new calendar year comes around.
Over four decades! This means that I have completed the 9-man circuit more than seven times. In New York, we play in Columbus Park and the side street by the Criminal Courts Building. In Boston, we played at the parking lot by Bob Lee’s restaurant, and then on the surface artery by Dynasty Restaurant, and later on a back street a block away. I played in the first tournament hosted in San Francisco on a tennis court, the upper level basketball court, and a badminton court. In the first Toronto tournament, we played in the rain on the streets of old Chinatown by City Hall, next to the Holiday Inn, in a parking lot near Spadina Avenue. In D.C., the games were played in a parking lot by Calvary Baptist Church, and then the parking lot at Sixth and H before hitting the streets right smack in our “ChinaBlock.”
In the 1970s, when Metro construction began and the first Convention Center was constructed, Chinatown was cut in half. The beginning of the renaissance of downtown D.C. did not include plans for the existing Chinatown to grow. Yet even as the physical boundaries of D.C.’s Chinatown were shrinking, the pride in the community continued. Though D.C. now has the smallest Chinatown in the circuit, this has not been a barrier to hosting the event. In 2013, the city hosted a memorable tournament just outside of Chinatown in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue—setting up 24 courts for 1,500 players, well beyond what the streets of Chinatown could have accommodated.
And then there are the wearing effects of the game. In 1980, my car was broken into during the New York tournament. In D.C. in 1983, Chinese gangsters threatened half our young team with bodily harm due to a bogus rumor. When we played in Toronto, my car was towed during the Labor Day parade. One year I had two days of coughing spasms. And careers are often short in 9-man because the concrete has a battering effect on the knees.
So what am I still doing here on the “court”? I am neither tall, nor talented, nor particularly tenacious. I don’t pass all that well or save much defensively. I can’t dig or pass with the right form since I am double jointed and my elbows don’t lock in the right position. I don’t referee games, but am quite adept at turning the scorecards. What’s more, as I mentioned earlier, I play a position that is called the “suicide” because its position in the middle of the court naturally subjects the player to the hardest attacks. I give up my suicide spot willingly to almost anyone because I know my time is running out.
But still, the game makes this old guy happy. I will continue to collect tournament booklets, trinkets, and T-shirts. I will continue to enjoy watching the maniacal sideline rantings of coaches and the many frenzied exhortations of teams psyching themselves up at the beginning of play. I will still flip the scorecards and scan the brackets to track the progress of my teams. I will chat with friends, young and old, who share the same passion for the game.
I love 9-man—it binds the Chinatown communities not just to their past, but to each other as well. But I have to accept the fact that one day I will become one of the old men that peer through the fences or crowd the sidelines, talking up the game and players from days gone by. That’s okay with me, because this is where I want to be, even if it’s outside the lines.
Join Harry Guey Lee and the Chinese Youth Club in a game of 9-man volleyball at the Folklife Festival on July 3 at 11 a.m.
Note: This blog was adapted from two articles by Harry Guey Lee that were previously published in the Chinese Youth Club newsletter as “9Man Reflections: There Must Be Something Else to Do on Labor Day...or Is There?” and “Washington DC Chinatown and 9Man Volleyball.”
Harry Guey-Lee is a longtime member of the Chinese Youth Club of Washington, D.C. He can be found trying to relive his volleyball youth most summer Sundays in a parking lot at Montgomery College. Occasionally, he is inside the lines summoning up the courage for one last dig.