Tom Fong remembers the sound waves blasting across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Chinese Youth Club’s speakers, reverberating into the distance.
Watching Chinese Americans play their variation of volleyball in front of the White House showed him just how far the sporting community has come.
“Who knows if Obama was there, but a couple hundred D.C. folks were there and heard it.”
The story of “9-man” volleyball and the Chinese Youth Club (CYC) of Washington, D.C., is a testament to Chinese American survival in a country that has not always been quick to welcome.
Volleyball came to southern China in the early twentieth century, most likely brought by missionaries. As the sport’s popularity grew both in China and Chinese communities in the United States, the modern-day version of 9-man volleyball began to take shape in the 1930s. Fong says people gathered to play as an escape from the “everyday toil in their laundries or restaurants or other menial careers that they were forced into.” All they needed was an alley or street, a rope as the net, and a ball.
Today, there are nine to a side, a larger court, a lower net, and rules that encourage faster play. 9-man is played on blacktop, which the sport’s oldest players view as a more dangerous surface. They call the standard six-man volleyball “sissy ball.”
Some of the changes, like playing on blacktop, came about due to the physical and social circumstances of urban Chinatown communities. Chinese immigrants rallied around the sport, which helped Chinese neighborhoods endure American bigotry. CYC, and other sources, claim the first U.S. tournament was held in the Northeast on Labor Day 1939 (others say 1944), with Chinese Americans coming together to watch teams from Boston, New York , and Newark compete.
“Years ago, nobody knew what 9-man was,” said Garry Goon, CYC president and lifelong member. “It was played in a parking lot. Nowadays we’re up front. The Smithsonian even invited us to set up a net on the National Mall.”
9-man helped Chinese Americans build a sense of community and stay connected. While Washington’s Chinese American community is spread throughout the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland, 9-man helps keep things cohesive.
In 1882, the U.S. government enacted the first of several rounds of legislation restricting and then eventually barring Chinese immigration. According to Fong, the purpose of these laws was to “restrict the flourishing of our people. They sought to derail the putting down of roots.” Laws restricted the rights of Chinese immigrants already in the country—where they could live, who they could marry, their political and judicial rights, what kinds of work they could pursue. As a result, they were segregated from life and interactions outside of their communities.
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Goon remembers D.C.’s Chinatown as a real community. But when the city began building the Washington Convention Center in Chinatown in 1980, community members spoke up, saying the plan would be detrimental to the neighborhood. No one listened.
“The original convention center killed Chinatown,” Goon claimed. “I have no qualms about saying that because I was there.”
The houses where the majority of Chinese Americans lived, including Goon and many of his friends, were cleared to make way. The Chinese businesses supported by those people then left. Now Chinatown is “American chains [chain stores] with Chinese characters,” according to Garry. “Our Chinatown has lost its identity. But we keep that with us as we move out into different parts of Maryland and Virginia.”
Goon grew up at a time when there wasn’t much opportunity for Chinatown teens to play organized sports. CYC was the first to introduce them. A generation younger, Fong began playing 9-man in the 1980s. It made a big impact on him. Having played in and emceed many tournaments through the years, he has seen how a first tournament can change a person’s outlook.
“Sports and athletics are an entry into the minds of young people,” Fong said. “A player feels part of a community. He is hooked. He sees the vitality of people who look just like him.”
In Fong’s experience, many Chinese Americans struggle with being the only Asian person in their class or even school. Eighty percent of 1,200 tournament participants no longer speak a Chinese language. However, at tournaments, they often meet teams who speak only Chinese. Sometimes these teams are made up of recent immigrants “who wear the cheapest tennis shoes they can find,” and want to maintain a connection to home by playing a game they grew up with.
Fong believes the tournaments help “to bind our community.” He remembers a tournament when Toronto’s team, Toronto Ngun Lam, recruited an Olympic-level Chinese National Army player nicknamed “The Dragon,” or ah lung. He was so tall, with such a huge wingspan, that when he would approach the net, jump, and reach for the ball, spectators would anticipate the spike with a drawn out “ahhhh... lung!” When he hit the ball, the entire crowd would erupt in ecstatic celebration. “Whether you cheered for that team or not, you caught yourself doing the ‘ahhhh... lung.’” Shared experiences like this are “a way to shrink this country and our community,” Fong said.
CYC and their 9-man program have created a community where people feel they can count on each other and will stay connected for most of their lives. In 2016, CYC honored fifty people who Goon has known for most of his life.
“There’s not many people in this world that can say they know and stay in touch with fifty people that they’ve known for over fifty years,” he boasted. “That’s what CYC does, keeps us all together.”
Today’s tournaments have a more carefree atmosphere than they did in 1939. You might see a rookie player in a tutu or Fong and his brother perform a rap about Chinese takeout. But the desire to ensure the longevity of the community hasn’t changed. When working with young players, Fong wants them to understand the importance of the sport for their predecessors as a way to connect with their culture and history. Players must respect the sacrifices of the people who came before them.
Goon tells young players, “What you do for one in the club, you do for all in the club.” The actions and decisions of each individual can have long-lasting effects on the entire community. He recounted the story of a senior player who helped pay the room cost for two younger players going to the New York tournament. He told Goon he was “just giving back what was given to me.” This sense of a shared responsibility among CYC members helps keep the club and 9-man alive.
Tournaments have been criticized for a policy that requires two-thirds of a team’s players to be 100 percent Chinese with the other third required to be part Asian in ancestry. In her 2013 Washington Post article about DC’s 9-man tournament, Elizabeth Chang asked, “Why would people whose forebears had been shut out of opportunity accept limited opportunity from members of their own community?” According to Fong, the effort to preserve the cultural heritage of the tournaments is a “complex and almost bipolar issue” for Chinese Americans. Originally tournaments were restricted to people who were 100 percent Chinese, but as people found non-Chinese partners, like Fong’s sister who married an American man of German descent, the rules had to change.
Fong believes in embracing diversity, referring to the “browning of America,” knowing that the club will continue to include members of mixed race, and that tournament restrictions will eventually have to change. Goon takes a more cautious approach. He appreciates the legacy of the tournaments for how they act as a platform for recognizing shared experience and promote community building locally and nationally.
“America is the great melting pot,” he said. “We all come from different places. If we all learn to respect those differences, we can all become better Americans.”
The Chinese Youth Club of Washington, D.C., is its own melting pot. The club was initially exclusively Chinese. Today, Goon says, it is “definitely more inclusive,” with many members of other ethnicities. The lion dance group is open to anyone who wants to join, and everyone is encouraged to participate in their charitable efforts, like D.C.’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
Fong has made it “a mission” to expand the inclusion and diversity of what visitors see at the Chinese New Year’s Parade. It now includes an Afro-Brazilian all-women drum corps, the Wizard Girls, Screech and the Racing Presidents from the Nationals baseball team, and other members of the D.C. community. He remembers the first year they included a Mexican mariachi in the parade; elders of the Chinese American community were initially hesitant. Then they saw the smiles on the faces of the attendees. At the parade review, they all gave “double thumbs up” for the mariachi.
Reflecting on the struggles of Chinese Americans, Fong and Goon believe it’s vital to encourage the preservation and celebration of cultural heritage.
“The separatist thinking, after Charlottesville, doesn’t help the growth of our country,” Fong explained. “We’ve seen what happens when there’s insular thinking and exclusivity.”
Emma Cregan is a media intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University.