J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

DOC NYC ’14: 9-Man

It is a lot like volleyball, but with more street smarts and tradition. You used find it played in traditional Chinatown neighborhoods and it still is in spirit. Ursula Liang chronicles a season of the scrappy amateur sporting league and explores its cultural legacy in 9-Man (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

One hundred years ago, the American media was not exactly preoccupied with immigration reform and pathways to citizenship. Prohibitive restrictions were placed on Chinese immigration, particularly limiting the influx of women. As a result, expatriate Chinese communities were overwhelmingly male and largely segregated to Chinatown enclaves. 9-Man became an important social outlet within the neighborhood and facilitated friendships with teams from other cities through the annual championship tournament.

The tradition is carried on today by younger generations. Liang will follow the leaders of several teams, particularly the perennially contending Toronto Connex and the upstart Boston Knights. (Strangely though, New York teams are only mentioned in passing, which is downright bizarre, considering this is the universally acknowledged sports capital of the world.)

Liang briskly but comprehensively explains the history and rules of 9-Man: three more men on the floor than traditional volleyball, but no rotations and no jump serves. Here’s the potentially controversial part: six of those nine have to be 100% Chinese-American and the other three must be part Asian, strictly defined. It is their game, so they should be able to set whatever rules they wish. However, it is strange that they enforce purity at one end, but let San Francisco West Coast, a team of tournament-only professional volleyball players, come in and routinely win the championship, frustrating the passion-for-the-game amateurs who train together all season long.

Blacktop-style volleyball might not sound particularly engaging to non-fans, but Liang skillfully employs it a metaphor for traditional Chinese-American values of tradition, hard work, and dedication to family and community. There is some pointed social commentary as well, but Liang never belabors the issue. Audiences will pull for the sport to continue and thrive in general, if not necessarily for a specific team (that isn’t the West Coast ringers). Recommended for sports fanatics and viewers from any ethnic background who appreciate the immigrant experience, 9-Man screens this Saturday afternoon (11/15) as part of DOC NYC 2014.

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