Strangers President Danny Moy

The New York Strangers’ home court is in Manhattan’s Seward Park. This weekend, the Strangers and team president Danny Moy are in Washington, D.C. for a national nine-man volleyball tournament. (Christine Laskowski/Only A Game)

This Labor Day Weekend, Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. will be home to the 69th annual North America Chinese Invitation Volleyball Tournament. It’s the Super Bowl of a sport better known to its players as “nine-man,” a volleyball offshoot with nine players instead of six, at least two-thirds of whom must be 100 percent Chinese. One of those teams is the New York Strangers. Reporter Christine Laskowski caught up with the Strangers as they were training for the big event.

A New York Court In High Demand

On a Sunday morning, the Strangers’ ladies and men’s teams were hard at work practicing for the nationals. There are two volleyball courts in Seward Park in the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood. The men’s court, though, has an extra yellow line around the perimeter– about a foot wider than a standard six-player volleyball court. It’s referred to as the “nine-man line.” It’s a point of pride for Strangers President Danny Moy.

Regular volleyball features six players per side. Nine-man requires a wider court, which is marked by a yellow line in New York's Seward Park. (Christine Lakowski/Only A Game)

Nine-man requires a wider court than regular volleyball. In New York’s Seward Park it’s marked by a yellow line. (Christine Lakowski/Only A Game)

“We worked together with the parks department to give us permission to paint the nine-man court. This is the only nine-man court that’s in New York City,” Moy said.

The Strangers aren’t the only team in town, which puts the court in pretty high demand sometimes. Other Chinatown teams and even one from Brooklyn come to use it.

In fact, most of the cities participating in the national tournament this year have multiple teams. The Boston Knights, Montreal Freemasons, Toronto Flying Tigers, San Francisco Rage and Houston Lonestars are just a few of the 55 men’s nine-man teams set to compete this weekend. Strangers founder Rick Leung is looking forward to it. Rick immigrated to the US from China back in 1982. He remembers what it was like in those days.

“We were new immigrants in a new area. Everything’s new to us, you know, we got no friends, no nothing, no nobody,” Leung said. “I was living around by the park over here, Seward Park, I was living out on East Broadway, so, and I start coming out to the park and … then I made some friends. They [are] from [the Chinese city of] Taishan. They all know how to play volleyball, but I didn’t know how to play.”

A Labor Day Weekend Tradition

Many people think of Chinatown as a great neighborhood to visit for authentic dumplings and dim sum, but historically, Chinatowns existed as urban ghettos for Chinese laborers. Volleyball was cheap and provided an outlet for men with limited mobility and time off. In fact, many of nine-man’s rules and traditions can be traced to the resourcefulness and necessity of those early years. Without access to a proper ball, players would sometimes use a rolled up towel instead. Labor Day Weekend was also the only extended period of time teams from different Chinatowns could get together and compete, which is how the first national Chinese volleyball tournament began in Boston all the way back in 1944.

It’s a celebration, through volleyball, of community.
– Mike Fan, New York Strangers
The spirit of the Labor Day tournaments was less about who won or lost, but about friendship and community among Chinatowns. Strangers’ player Mike Fan tells me it’s an attitude among nine-man players that is still strong today.

“I like traveling with my friends and my teammates and playing in different cities. I think San Francisco has a beautiful venue. It’s a really different city than New York. [Los Angeles] is always fun just to go explore. We usually, my friends and I, go a week ahead and explore just everything in L.A. and then we play,” Fan said. “So, you make it an event. It kind of enhances Labor Day. It gives you something to do and to plan around.”

But according to Fan, who is originally from D.C., the move to have the upcoming tournament on Pennsylvania Avenue and not in Chinatown is bittersweet. For a sport created due to forced isolation, there’s a new challenge to keeping it alive: gentrification.

“There’s no Chinatown in D.C. There’s one block, there’s an archway and then you walk through the archway and then there’s nothing behind it,” Fan said. “Ever since they built the Verizon Center on top of the old Chinatown, it’s pretty much 99 percent gentrified.

Chinese Heritage Required

Even nine-man’s most controversial rule: that two-thirds of the players must be 100 percent Chinese and the rest of Asian descent, may be changing. Danny Moy says that as more nine-man players have families with non-Asians, it’s become more difficult to enforce a rule that excludes people from sharing the tradition with their kids.

“People want to try it, they’re curious. They want to see. And especially volleyball players, non-Asian volleyball players will like to really try to get into our action,” Moy said. “And you know, maybe later on, maybe we’ll host a tournament, just for non-Asians, just to give them a feel how it is, let them play the same rule we play. And hopefully we’ll do that as a hosting team, next year. We’ll see.”

Over the course of several Sundays, I watched 15 and 50-year-olds help and harass each other in English, Cantonese and Toisanese. I definitely got the sense that while everyone wants to win, nine-man and the tournament in D.C. is not just about coming home a champion. Fan assures me that it’s so much bigger than that.

“I think what nine-man means to New York and Chinatown, I think it has a really big role in … fostering tradition and heritage,” Fan said. “It’s a celebration, through volleyball, of community. And then on the youth side, I think it’s a really good way for them to get mentorship and learn through sports from older players. And it’s just the cycle that repeats itself.”