9-Man by Ursula Liang - Chinatown Now

Image courtesy of 9-Man, text by Kaycee Macaraeg

Ursula Liang’s documentary 9-Man, showing at HIFF, explores the culture and complexity of a sport played on the streets of Chinatowns.

For some, Chinatown offers independent businesses and a local scene.  For others, it is all about the food, friends, and family.  For Ursula Liang, Chinatown is about the community, culture, and sense of belonging, all of which is presented in her film being featured at the Hawaii International Film Festival.

Liang’s documentary film 9-Man introduces the daring, fast-paced, and capricious sport, which is similar to volleyball except with nine players on each team instead of six, starting with its origins in the 1930s in Chinatowns across the United States.  It was during this time that the Chinese Exclusion Act restricted Chinese Americans from interacting with other ethnicities and left them feeling isolated.  Nine-man was intense, quick, and dirty (quite literally, you could trash-talk your opponents) and was instrumental in providing these men with a place of solidarity—something especially sought during a time when they were segregated from society. For the documentary, Liang explores the current nine-man community, looking into those who continue to play the game, new rules that have been enacted, and how it continues to define what it means to be Chinese in the U.S.

Liang is the director, producer, cinematographer, and writer of the film—which she describes as incredibly fun yet difficult—and it comes as no surprise at how personal and meaningful this project is to her.  Liang grew up in the suburbs of Boston; she is part Chinese (her father is Chinese-American) and her brother was a “nine-man.”  Noticing the lack of Asian-American athletes being publicly recognized, as well as the fact that the history and cultural background of the street-ball game was largely unknown even to scholarly circles or was dismissed as pastime, Liang resolved to get the voices and stories of Chinese-American men and nine-man players heard.  “The story is about what community means, what Chinese American means,” says Liang.  Exploring broader themes of inclusion and exclusion, she also found that 9-Man appealed to other outlier communities, who could relate to the film in terms of their own experiences as well.

Not a stranger to print, having worked a worldly career in journalism, Liang was drawn to making 9-Man a documentary.  “I worked in print for a very long time, and I learned print is not the future of journalism,” she says, pointing instead to multimedia and other forms of progressive media. The making of the film had its ups and downs.  When asked about any difficulties, Liang replies, “From a production standpoint: the heat,” comparing the process of production to the street-ball sport itself.  Interviews also proved to be challenging.  Liang had young interviewees writing back on Facebook instead of calling or emailing; with her oldest interviewee, a 90-year-old pioneer, Liang had to deal with his hearing aid affecting the equipment. He would get annoyed if he was asked to repeat himself—but Liang is quick to reassure that “you’ll fall in love with him.” 

“I think it’s really important to open your eyes,” says Liang. “There is another level of understanding when you know a community very well.  Don’t be afraid to tell stories that don’t seem mainstream.  … I want people to see Asian Americans in a different way.  Some are tall, some are short, some have Boston accents, some are sensitive, some have different parents.”  Far from the preconceptions that American audiences may have of Asian Americans due to Hollywood films, she wants her audience to see “the diversity of Asian Americans.”

The documentary 9-Man will be featured in the Hawaii International Film Festival on November 5 at 5:45 p.m. in Dole Cannery F. Liang will be in attendance during the screening. For more information, visit hiff.org.

To learn more about the documentary, visit 9-man.com.

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