Nine-man volleyball: a lasting Chinese-American tradition

Patrick Tom and the 2018 Boston Hurricanes Summer clinic.

By Qinyuan Xie
BU News Service

Nine-man volleyball, a little-known Chinese-American street sport, has held the Chinese community in America together for almost a century. Though the game is surrounded by racial controversy, the Boston Hurricanes led the way by creating a booming volleyball passion among teenagers in Newton, regardless of their ethnicities. 

Nine-man volleyball grew in popularity in the 1930s when anti-Chinese sentiment and laws forced restaurant and laundry workers to socialize exclusively among themselves, and Chinese people gathered together to insulate themselves from discrimination, said Ursula Liang, who directed the documentary “9-MAN” on the unique street sport.

But there is racial controversy surrounding the game. 

The North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament, one of the biggest nine-man volleyball tournaments, requires that “all teams must have at least 2/3 of the players on the court at all times who are 100% Chinese to participate in any of the games of the tournament. The remaining players must be of Asian descent.” This has stirred some controversy, particularly among non-Chinese Asians, who sometimes feel isolated from the community.

Jeff Chen and Alan Chue founded the Boston Hurricanes in 1970. The club built their first nine-man volleyball team in Boston’s Chinatown. For them, the tournament’s race regulations are no impediment to trying to include more diversity among their team.

Chen said the Boston Hurricanes wanted to lead the way when it comes to inclusion in nine-man volleyball. They have hosted their volleyball training clinics every summer in Newton for over 10 years, which is open to everyone in the community regardless of their ethnicity. 

Patrick Tom, the director of the clinic, said 20% of the players in the clinic are not Asian. 

“Some non-Asian players are not used to being the minority in large Asian communities,” Tom said. “But after a while, once they see how open we are, they know that your ethnicity doesn’t matter, people just enjoy volleyball.” 

“Our biggest impact is beyond the sport,” Chen said. “Our young clinic participants make very deep relationships that they carry forward.”

Garbrielle Moore, a 12-year-old white student who joined the clinic, said it really challenged her and gave her a valuable chance to play volleyball with older kids last summer. 

Colleen Moore, Garbrielle’s mother, said they never felt excluded from the community. 

“The Hurricanes is super welcoming and encouraging,” she said. “It is also an opportunity for Gabby to experience being someone who is not the majority.” 

May Mok, whose oldest son Matthew plays for the Hurricanes, said her family has made a profound connection through playing with the Boston Hurricanes. All of her three children started their volleyball careers from the training clinic hosted by the Hurricanes at Newton South High School.

“One of the priceless moments is when they first walked into Newton South High School’s gym, they never saw so many Chinese and Asian kids in one room before,” she said. “This clinic is about bringing children together and having an outlet that they can associate with other Asian members in Massachusetts.” 

The manager of the clinic, Wendy Chan, said that over 200 children joined last summer, learning the basics of volleyball such as passing, hitting and footwork. The youngest trainee is eight years old. 

Amanda Lacey, who coaches the beginner’s group, said it’s rewarding for her to help Asian children overcome negative stereotypes about their athletic abilities.

“Asian kids growing up in America are usually shy and don’t have many athlete role models to look up to,” Lacey said. “Showing those little kids that they can even be better on sports because they are Asian is good.” 

Tom said he remembers how one father came up with tears in his eyes and thanked him. Because of the girl’s passion for volleyball, the father finally found a way to connect and bond with the daughter.

“The purpose of this game nowadays is gathering kids together and having fun,” Chu said. “Though our kids can no longer speak Chinese, they still play the nine-man and carry the tradition.” 

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