CHINATOWN — Nineteen-year-old Jairon Hsieh jumped 40 inches in the air and smashed a volleyball over the overstretched fingertips of not one, not two, but six blockers at the front of the net.
Heat radiated off the concrete in Armour Square Park near Chinatown, on Chicago’s only court designed for Chinese 9-man volleyball. It’s a sport started by working-class Chinese Americans on the East Coast in the 1930s, known for its gritty style of play and lack of elbow room.
Nine players, instead of six, take to each side of the net. Players call it “organized chaos.”
Chicago United — a team entirely made up of young Asian-American men from the Chicagoland area — have been preparing for this weekend’s North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament in Oakland, California. The annual national competition draws more than 60 teams from across the U.S. to the streets of Oakland’s Chinatown.
Per tradition, all participants must be of Asian descent. The competition is in its 76th year — making it older than the NBA.
Chicago United is the only team of its kind in the Midwest. Team organizer, coach and player Tony Chan said playing the sport is a commitment to preserving Chinese American culture and building a sense of belonging.
“You try to find people that look like you, that go through the same experiences as you, that enjoy the same things as you, and you can relate through that,” Chan said. “That’s how we view our club. It’s a way for other fellow Asian Americans to connect, play volleyball and just build brotherhood.”
At only 35 years old, Chan, a tech entrepreneur, is the team’s oldest player (players call him “Dad”). He grew up in Chinatown and trained most of his now-teammates when they were high schoolers at traditional volleyball clinics around the neighborhood.
In 2014, Chan and a group of local players caught wind of 9-man pickup games happening on Sundays at Armour Square Park.
Alex Yeung was among the former high school and college volleyball players that hoped to give the older men playing 9-man a run for their money. The longtime 9-man players holding down the court in Armour Square were immigrants and blue-collar workers, equipped with sharp elbows and a keen understanding of the nuances of the intricate streetball game.
“We played on concrete, shirts off. The old guys are smoking and drinking beers in between plays,” Yeung said. “It was close.”
Chan was hooked. Chicago had once hosted its own competitive 9-man squad in 1966, but the team failed to be passed down.
While other cities with large Asian populations like New York and Vancouver have long had 9-man teams in the double digits, Chan looked to re-start Chicago’s first. He knew where to find the city’s best Asian volleyball players, and Chicago United joined the 9-man circuit in 2018.
The team is bringing 32 players to this year’s nationals — all paying their own way, cramming into hotel rooms at four or five players each. Yeung says the upstart team, significantly less experienced than competitors, has gone from “average” to “above average,” and fell just short of qualifying in the top-16 “Gold Bracket” at last year’s nationals.
Two Chicago United teams will compete in Oakland: a younger team of college kids and players in their 20s and an older team of players in their late 20s and 30s.
Chan hopes to keep growing Chicago United so there will not be another generational gap in the unique cultural tradition. Practices at Armour Square Park bring young Asian-Americans to Chinatown, and afterwards, Chan makes sure to grab a table for more than 30 hungry dudes looking to support a local business.
“The most important part is being able to stick together,” Chan said. “It’s important to have the youth involved in all things Chinatown. Without the next generation, there won’t be a Chinatown. There has to be a handoff.”
A Sport Built By Immigrants
Nine-man began almost out of necessity, according to Chan and Dr. Bobby Guen, president of the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 stayed in effect until 1943, isolating Chinese Americans in low-income neighborhoods and embedding racism that deterred participation in mainstream American sports.
Guen said 9-man brought together Chinese American immigrants, who predominantly worked in restaurants and laundries, for their own high-stakes athletic contests, played in the streets of their own neighborhoods. Workers would roll up their sleeves, dust themselves off and get ready for their grueling shifts after a few games.
“The lowly waiter became a star,” Guen said. “The old days I would crash into poles, I dove and pieces of glass got on my knees. It was badges of honor.”
The sport at its essence is rough and physical, played on unforgiving concrete. The tradition of all-Asian teams — at least two-thirds Chinese, one-third other East Asian participants —has been preserved to create a sense of ownership through the lasting impacts of exclusion faced by Asian Americans.
Chan said the sport continues to break down stereotypes that depict Asians as non-athletic.
“Asian Americans are overlooked as athletes. We’re seen as passive, we’re seen as just kind of to ourselves, quiet and timid,” Chan said. “But if you listen to them here, everyone talks a lot of sh*t. Chinese people, Asian Americans, are some of the best sh*t talkers.”
Brotherhood ‘Took Me Under Their Wing’
Constant chatter fills the air of a Chicago United practice — from ball-busting banter to menacing growls after big plays. Action moves at a blink of the eye as players fly across the court and try not to trip over each other.
The unique rules of 9-man aim to promote longer, faster-paced rallies. Six blockers or spikers usually stand in front and three “backrow” players hold down the fort in the back. On a third touch, players can catch and throw the ball against the net to get an extra fourth hit. 9-man’s signature play, a “fastball,” allows a center-positioned spiker to palm the ball, snap their wrists and smash it over in a dunking-like motion.
Kevin Braceros, 22, is new to the team after playing traditional college volleyball at North Central College in suburban Naperville. Learning the nuanced rules of a game that feels both familiar and foreign takes time, and Braceros remembers well the first time he became victim of a “fastball.”
“They ran a fastball in the middle. It was my first-ever fastball I’ve seen playing. I turn, look, and it hits me straight in the face,” Braceros said. “Everyone was just laughing, ‘Welcome to 9-man.’”
At nationals, Braceros will team up on the younger team with Jairon Hsieh, a Deerfield resident and sophomore at UCLA with a 40-inch vertical — “I do a lot of squats,” he said.
Hsieh thought about playing college volleyball, but enjoys being around his fellow Asian American during his summers off from college. Nationals will be his first official tournament with the team.
“The first day I got here I knew almost no one. And I was pretty shy. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know the game,” Hsieh said. “And a couple of the older guys just took me under their wing and taught me how to play. Just hyping me up and making me feel really welcomed and comfortable.”
Chan gathered the team around him after practice, offering words of encouragement.
As the new team on the block, Chicago United is tempering expectations and hopes to attack Nationals just one point at a time. The brotherhood can only grow stronger, and a couple weeks ago, Chan officiated Yeung’s wedding. Most of the original players were in attendance.
“One percent better every day guys,” Chan said in the huddle after practice. “And now, who’s going to Dim Sum?”
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