How a Chinatown street sport went global 

This weekend, Toronto will host one of the oldest and most important sporting events in Chinese-North American culture — a 9-Man volleyball tournament
By Alex Wong - Published on Aug 29, 2019
Two volleyball players
Players warm up before a 9-Man championship game in Los Angeles’s Chinatown in 2009. (Ursula Liang)

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Jenny Hui grew up in Toronto’s downtown Chinatown, near Dundas Street and Spadina Avenue, in the early 1980s. When she was a child, she’d bike through the neighbourhood and stop on the sidewalk outside a local school. That’s because, on the concrete playground, men would play a sport seen only in areas like hers: 9-Man volleyball.

“I think what I found particularly fascinating about it when I was a kid was the social component to it,” Hui says. “What I thought was particularly unique was they all looked like me. They were all Chinese.”

This weekend, hundreds will take in 9-Man as 162 teams descend on the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to compete in one of the oldest and most important sporting events in Chinese-North American culture: the 75th annual North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament.

The game is similar to the volleyball most Canadians are familiar with, but there are some critical differences. Unlike typical volleyball, which features six players on each side, 9-Man has, well, nine. It’s usually played outdoors on pavement, and the courts are a metre longer and wider. Players can’t jump when they serve, and there’s no mandatory position rotation. Like its better-known counterpart, 9-Man is fast-paced and packed with fluid action. But, thanks to the added bodies, it’s more chaotic.

people playing volleyball
The New York Vikings face off against a team from Shanghai during a 2009 match in Los Angeles. (Ursula Liang)

There are cultural differences, too. If you’re not Chinese, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of 9-Man. No one knows exactly how it developed, but many trace its roots back to the streets of Toisan, in China’s Guangdong province, in the first half of the 20th century. As the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924 limited Chinese immigration to the United States, those who did migrate developed Chinatowns as a means of survival — and many embraced 9-Man, then played on Chinatown streets with rolled-up towels tied together with string, as a signifier of Chinese culture.

The first NACIVT took place in Boston in 1944. Today, mini-tournaments dot the summer months until the Labour Day weekend’s big event, which rotates between host cities like Boston, New York, San Francisco, Washington, and Montreal.

Each host city has a rich history of 9-Man volleyball, and Toronto is no exception. NACIVT has been held here seven times — most recently in 2012. This year’s Canada Day tournament, at the Toronto Police College in Etobicoke, included more than 60 teams from across the city, some of which have been around for decades and passed down through families.

One such “legacy club” is Ngun Lam, which was founded by Thomas Lau in 1976 and is now run by his son, Allen, 46. The team practises in locations across the GTA, including Riverdale Collegiate Institute, in Toronto, and Bill Hogarth Secondary School, in Markham. The younger Lau played for Ngun Lam for roughly 30 years — he still does, sometimes, even though he’s technically retired: after one of his players was injured during a recent tournament in Las Vegas, Lau stepped in and played in the competition for three straight days. “If you talk to anybody on the team, it’s been a running joke for God knows how long,” he says. “I always bring my shoes to the tournaments just in case.”

Danny Ly, 24, has been a member of Ngun Lam for almost a decade. “I wasn’t too appealed to 9-Man from a volleyball standpoint — it was more of the culture,” he says. “The team dynamic, the independence, the relationships you grow out of it. It’s very free-flowing; everyone is social, and it’s all ages.”

Ly is taking it upon himself to keep the sport going. There is no money in it for the athletes — the tournaments rely on sponsorships and donations — so when he’s trying to recruit friends from North American volleyball, he makes a point of emphasizing a critical aspect of the sport’s culture: it’s fun.

“It’s more enjoyable when you’re playing with people you know,” he says. “Being competitive is amazing, but the culture has to be amazing, too, otherwise you end up with the same atmosphere as a club volleyball team, and I’m not interested in that.”

Ngun Lam won six consecutive NACIVT championships from 1986 to 1991. Its most recent finals visit, though, was in 2013, in Washington, where the team finished second to Toronto Connex, the most celebrated and successful team in North American 9-Man.

Founded in the mid-1980s by Harold Mark, it was initially supposed to be called the “Connection.” As the story goes, that name was too long and too expensive for screen-printed jerseys. So Mark went with the shorter and more eye-catching “Connex.” The team took off. Led by star Jeff Chung, it won 10 straight championships between 1996 and 2005. Today, Chung coaches the team, and, while it’s no longer as dominant, it’s still a serious contender each year.

Chung grew up with 9-Man: his father, Robert, who now serves as the team’s associate coach, also played for the Connex and used to bring him to practices. He first played as a teenager and went on to compete with the University of Toronto’s six-person volleyball team, winning four Ontario University Athletics championships. He later played for both Team Ontario and Team Canada.

For his entire athletic life, Chung says, he’s faced questions about the most polarizing aspect of 9-Man: its codified racial parameters. The NACIVT rules, which are set by the North American Chinese Volleyball Association, require that two-thirds of the players in the tournament must be 100 per cent Chinese; the rest must be of Asian descent to some degree. “Asian descent,” though, leaves room for interpretation — as it can be difficult to prove definitively, disagreements on eligibility often come down to following an honour system.

Chung remembers being asked by non-Asian friends about the game. Some thought it was exclusionary, even racist. “It really made me think as to why I participate and why I’m so loyal to the game,” he says. “When my friends would ask me, I never had an answer. Because when you grow up in Chinatown, it’s almost like you’re naturally allowed to participate. When you get older, the questions come: ‘How come it’s only Asians? How come I can’t play?’ The analogy I give my friends is, look, it’s like a fraternity. Everyone has social events. 9-Man is our social event.”

Hui, who herself became dominant in both 9-Man and six-person volleyball and now sits on the board of the North American Chinese Volleyball Association, says that the sport plays a vital role in maintaining and transmitting culture. “It’s so important to our community that the heritage and the culture isn’t completely lost and we’re not completely drowned out by the melting pot that is North America,” she says.

“9-Man is a pretty important vehicle to help pass on those traditions and to share stories about our culture. I think it’s something that can ground our identity and show what it means to be Chinese and to be Asian in the form of a sport.”

For more on the sport, watch 9-Man: A Streetball Battle in the Heart of Chinatown on TVO at 10 p.m. on September 1.

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