When Patrick Chin was growing up in Rockville, his sports heroes weren’t playing in the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball. They were men who looked like him, including even some relatives, who played Chinese volleyball.
“You grow up watching your uncles and older cousins play. You sit there idolizing all of them. You immediately think they are the best,” said Chin, who is Chinese American. “They are the rock stars of your community. It’s something that you aspire to when you are younger.”
At a time when Chin struggled to find nonstereotypical Asian role models in mainstream society, he found them playing Chinese volleyball.
“Until recently, there was very little representation in sports and pop culture in general. This really pulls us away from the high-kicking martial artists that we grew up watching on TV. This shows Asians in a very different light,” Chin said.
While Memorial Day marked the unofficial start of summer, Chin and others are already looking forward to Labor Day weekend, when the 78th annual North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament, or NACIVT, will be held Sept. 2-4 at the Baltimore Convention Center. The event is expected to attract 5,000 people, and it will feature 150 teams and 2,500 athletes.
In addition to the competition, the event is expected to provide a boost to the local economy, particularly to Asian American businesses. Some struggled during the pandemic due to discrimination and an uptick in hate crimes. Organizers have promised a night market-type event — these typically allow for eating and shopping outdoors — along with other activities that will support Asian businesses.
The tournament — like the sport — will provide a safe space for Asians and a way to continue to promote intercultural awareness and pride. May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
“I get to look forward to doing something that I love with people with shared experiences, and they look like me. We celebrate our culture together. It’s a great way to be a part of something bigger and be part of a community,” said Robbin Lee, the executive director of the nonprofit Baltimore Homecoming, who is also a tournament organizer.
Chin loves that the tournament attracts high-level athletes while fostering a sense of connectedness.
“It gives people something to look forward to. It gives young kids something to strive for. For the elderly, it’s a reunion. My parents and their friends came. This is very special,” he said.
The tournament rotates through the seven cities with the largest Chinatowns. Baltimore is subbing for Washington, D.C., because there was not enough space there to accommodate the tournament, according to organizers.
Chinese volleyball, also referred to as nine-man volleyball, was popularized in larger Chinatowns throughout North America by Chinese immigrants with ties to Taishan, a city in the Guangdong province of China. In the U.S., players played on courts in the streets of Chinatown — usually at the end of the workday.
The rules of Chinese volleyball are similar to those of mainstream volleyball, with a few exceptions.
Players do not rotate in the same way. And they tend to specialize in certain positions. Only three players are allowed to serve per team. Blocking must be completely vertical because it is illegal to break the plane of the net.
The rules for some Chinese volleyball tournaments dictate that two-thirds of the players on the court have to be full Chinese. Other players must be of Asian descent.
“That has been a rule that has been problematic but also needs to be discussed,” Lee said. “That’s an internal discussion that remains year after year.”
Chin describes the matches as “raucous” good times with lively crowds chanting and cheering on competitive players, who are often “talking smack.”
The end goal is to “make it inside the tape,” Chin said, explaining that semifinal and final-round matches are played inside cautionary tape to provide a buffer between players and spectators.
“In the crowd there won’t be smack talk. They are in the fellowship mode,” Chin said with a laugh. “In the match on the court, there is a lot of shit talking. They are there to compete, and they will do anything they can to win.”
Chin estimated that he has reached the finals and the semifinals at the tournament a handful of times during his 28 years of play.
The reward for winning the entire tournament? Pride and bragging rights.
“To be able to win the tournament is a big deal. That’s enough. You get bragging rights for the year. And you get to say for the rest of your life, you won,” Chin said.
Despite its widespread popularity among Chinese Americans, the sport is relatively unknown outside of that community.
“This is an underground sport. We don’t advertise it, and we don’t market it,” Chin said. “I have kind of liked that we have flown under the radar. This is huge in our community. It’s kind of like this nice hidden secret that we have had.”
The Chinese volleyball community has been “really insular,” Lee acknowledged.
“We want this to stay special to our community,” Lee said. “Recently, we have had efforts to celebrate it. We’ve been opening up our community.”
Chin, who also coaches youths who play Chinese volleyball, said the sport traditionally has been looked down upon by the mainstream volleyball community.
“It was considered dirty volleyball and lower class,” he said. “Quite a few coaches just would say, ‘That’s not real volleyball’ or refer to ‘that weird stuff that you guys do.’ A long time it wasn’t legitimate in the volleyball world’s eyes. They would look down on it.”
Lee, who grew up playing competitive mainstream volleyball in Olney, was only introduced to Chinese volleyball as a teenager. Women play with six players in their matches.
“There weren’t that many Asian women playing volleyball [in Montgomery County]. They recruited me on their team,” she recalled.
Lee, 30, said she immediately fell in love with the sport and the community it provided her.
Lee said she realized the importance of the Chinese volleyball community during the pandemic, when practices and matches were halted because of social distancing.
“I definitely felt a hole in my soul during the pandemic. I realized how few connections I had with other Asian peers,” Lee said. “I needed to share that connection with the community. Without that, I did not feel like a person.”
Lee calls the tournament a “preservation of culture” that is necessary in 2023.
“In a world where we are often isolated, and distanced, this is an opportunity to bring people together on a national scale. That shows our togetherness,” Lee said.
In recent years there has been an uptick in anti-Asian crimes, including a number of mass shootings. Former President Donald Trump fueled some of the tensions by referring to COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, as the “Chinese flu.”
Stop AAPI Hate, a San Francisco nonprofit, received reports of nearly 3,300 such incidents in 2020. Those incidents included harassment, assaults, internet trolling, workplace discrimination and shunning.
In 2021, the tournament changed its host city to Oakland, California, to show support for an area where older Asians had been attacked and Asian businesses suffered due to discrimination.
“All we see on our end was people of Asian descent being attacked. Businesses were struggling. It was a difficult time for people in Oakland,” said Chin, who owns Choi’s Chicken and Trout in Cherry Hill. “What better place to go to than Oakland? We wanted to bring all these people there. Fortunately, we didn’t have any incidents and we were able to keep people safe there.”
Even though Jacob Yu said he hasn’t experienced racial discrimination, he knows support systems like the Chinese volleyball community would be there to help him.
“I think, because we have such a tight-knit family, it really helps everyone feel comfortable in that environment. It really brings us together as a culture,” he said. “Being able to go back to the nine-man community is a good change. It is a nice community. I think they are very supportive.”
Yu, 19, who studies molecular and cellular biology at Johns Hopkins, has been playing Chinese volleyball for the past two years since being introduced to it while playing competitive mainstream volleyball throughout high school in Northern Virginia.
“I love playing. There is a sense of community I never felt with [mainstream volleyball],” he said. “I feel like most people don’t know, aside from the Asian community.”
Although Yu won’t be playing in the coming tournament in Baltimore, he said it is great that the event will take place in Charm City.
“Any event that helps nine-man prosper is a good idea,” he said.