Social Encore: ‘9-Man’ showcases Chinese spirit
BY JERMEL-LYNN QUILLOPO / Special to the Star-Advertiser
“9-Man,” which makes its Hawaii debut next week at Regal Dole Cannery Stadium 18 and IMAX, takes viewers to China for an inside look at the origins of the male-only sport played on asphalt courts that’s been preserved by communities there since the late 1930’s.
Screens at 5:45 p.m. Sunday and 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Regal Dole Cannery
Director Ursula Liang, who grew up in the suburbs of Boston and is of German and Chinese descent, was introduced to the sport more than 20 years ago when her brother started playing. Similar to volleyball, 9-man utilizes nine players, has its own unique rules and is played on a slightly larger court. As a child, she was unaware of the dynamic community of Chinese-Americans in her state.
When she became a sports journalist, Liang noticed Asian stereotypes in mainstream professional sports. Through the isolated subculture of 9-man she saw an “amazing community where guys had confidence, swagger, height and muscles … all things that defied Asian stereotypes.”
Wanting to show the world the Asian sports community that she intimately knew, she set out to create the documentary. She hoped to share an untold and unfiltered story of a tightly knit community that is trying to keep a tradition alive while touching basis on issues of the community struggling to define itself through history and modern improvisations, along with ethnic and homo-social identifications.
The film showcases several 9-man teams, intertwining footage captured over a five-year span from 2008 to 2013, along with archival images and footage from former players. The film also travels to the roots of the Toisan province in China, where many early 9-man players emigrated from.
Liang was able to go back in time with one of the oldest surviving 9-man pioneers, 90-year-old Henry Oi. He shared clear and poignant stories of Chinese-American life during the Chinese Exclusion Act and how the sport became an escape from the grueling working hours and conditions.
Although this film was mostly filmed in the continental U.S., there are a lot of Hawaii ties to the film. One of the featured players is Hawaii-born Olympic volleyball player Kevin Wong, who played for a San Francisco team during the duration of the production. Wong has never seen the film and will be at the premiere.
Liang was also able to work with Wong’s brother, Scott, who is the head volleyball coach at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Other players with Hawaii ties include Mason Kuo, Kimo Tuyay, Rick Tune and Ed Chun.
Helping to co-produce the film is former Hawaii resident Theresa Christine Navarro, who received a master’s degree in American studies and a certificate in museum studies from UH-Manoa.
Before working on the film, Navarro and longtime Chinese-American boyfriend Joshua Chow didn’t know about the sport. She said she is glad stories like these are being brought to light, in hopes for future generations to preserve.
“I was fascinated and also thought about how important of a story this is,” said Navarro. “I would want to share this story when I have children – a part of Chinese American community history that they would never learn and school.”
Familiar with the Honolulu’s communities and Chinatown scene, Navarro said the circumstances couldn’t be any better and fitting to have the film screen at this year’s Hawaii International Film Festival.
“Especially in Hawaii, Chinatown’s history is so rich and vivid – and of course the sport of volleyball, and ways that communities try to keep traditions in the face of rapidly changing times, all these themes will definitely speak to local audiences in Hawaii,” she said.
The 9-man tournaments were ways for the Chinese communities across the nation to connect. Liang said she thought Hawaii would be a great city to add to the mix.
“I would love for the Hawaii community to come out and experience the 9-man film,” she said. “It would be great if the film inspired more people to play and reach back into history.”
The film was successfully funded due to hundreds of people who supported Liang through a Kickstarter campaign in 2012. She said it was a challenging documentary to shoot because it was so physically demanding. With hot long days on blazing asphalt, the environment was unpredictable, crowded and chaotic.
“I was hit by balls, players chasing plays and elbowed by spectators jostling for position,” said Liang. “But the crazy spirit of 9-man was what also made it incredibly fun. Everyone is loose and loving, passionate and charismatic. It was great to be part of a community during production.”
With challenges, casting profiles and love of the sport, I think the documentary was creatively and sentimentally put together. The individual stories of pioneers who helped create a community, old timers trying to pass on the knowledge through coaching and the young generation of players holding on to the sport that they can exclusively call their own all show various key components that make a culture thrive.
Although the film tries to disregard stereotypes of mainstream media, I think it does a seamlessly great job at showing camaraderie, compassion and self-discovery.
“Ultimately, I hope the film will be seen as both a love letter to nine-man and Chinatown and a call to consider the complicated experience of Asian Americans and to question the hypocrisies within our own communities,” Liang said.
Jermel-Lynn Quillopo is a multi-faceted, energetic individual with experience in both print and broadcast journalism. “Social Encore” aims to tell diverse stories about Hawaii’s food, events and people; share your tips with Jermel via email or follow her on Twitter.