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Bridgeport, Chinatown, McKinley Park

Chinese 9-Man Volleyball To Be Played Sunday In Chinatown’s Streets — For First Time In 56 Years

The free event is a chance to “uphold the heritage and the history that came before us, and connect the community to a sport that is uniquely ours,” organizer Tony Chan said. 

Chinese American players and community gathered in 1966 for Chicago's first and only street volleyball tournament.
Courtesy of Tony Chan
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CHINATOWN — A sport rooted in Chinese American tradition is coming Sunday to Chinatown — for the first time since 1966. 

A showcase of nine-man volleyball featuring players from Chicago United, a local team of young Asian American men from the area, will be played noon-5 p.m. Sunday at Chinatown Square Plaza, 2133 S. China Place.

The free event is a chance to “uphold the heritage and the history that came before us, and connect the community to a sport that is uniquely ours,” organizer Tony Chan said. 

The sport was started by working-class Chinese Americans on the East Coast in the 1930s. It’s known for its gritty style of play and lack of elbow room — rough, physical and played on unforgiving concrete, Chan said. 

Nine players — instead of the typical six for volleyball — take to each side of the net.

Chan said he’s worked for years to organize a nine-man event in Chinatown. The sport was traditionally played in major cities by immigrants and their descendants.

Credit: Courtesy of Tony Chan
Newspaper clippings show a team from New York won Chicago’s last 9-man volleyball tournament in 1966.

RELATED: Chicago’s Only All-Asian Volleyball Team Hopes To Make Noise At This Weekend’s Chinese 9-Man National Tournament

The sport gave Chinese American men an outlet to compete despite lasting anti-Chinese racism, which deterred people from participating in mainstream American sports, Chan said.

Chan hopes the showcase in the square can make the sport visible once again — and continue a sense of belonging for Chicago’s Asian American community.

“Kids are going to come by on Sunday and see high-flying Asian American men who look like them. That representation is important,” Chan said. “For us, the sport is about making connections and friendships with fellow Asians in the area. It makes it more than just volleyball.” 

Credit: Mack Liederman/Block Club Chicago
Chicago United — a local team of 40 Asian American volleyball players — will compete in the streets of Chinatown on Sunday.

While the sport has continued to flourish on the coasts, Chicago was “kind of on an island by itself when it comes to other Asian American populations,” Chan said. 

In 2014, Chan caught wind of nine-man pickup games still happening Sundays at Armour Square Park, played among former blue-collar workers and immigrants who had kept alive the memory of the sport. 

Chan, 35, was hooked, and he launched the Chicago United nine-man program in 2018. The organization has grown to 40 players competing on two teams at events across the United States, Chan said. 

A rejuvenated nine-man community has made playing in the square possible again, Chan said. 

Leaders in the Chinatown community were excited to host the event during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Chan said. 

“It’s important to do this because of the history,” Chan said. “There are people that came before us that sacrificed much to allow us to be able to play.”

Credit: Mack Liederman/Block Club Chicago
Chicago United practices at Armour Square in 2021.

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