This interview below was originally published on March 11, 2015.
CAAM is proud to show first-time director Ursula Liang’s documentary, 9-Man, about a street volleyball game played in Chinatowns. Liang’s film is, in part, supported by CAAM’s Documentary Fund. Liang is also a sports journalist and started in the field with a gig at ESPN The Magazine, working her way up to be a sports writer and reporter there. She was also the sports editor for Hyphen, an Asian American arts, culture and politics magazine (of which I am also an editor).
Liang had been following the niche Chinese American sport for years, both as a volleyball player and as someone interested in telling this story. When she started digging deeper, she realized some of the original players were in their ’90s. One of the players in the film, Henry Oi, was 91 when she first contacted him; he passed away in recent months. Thankfully, Liang has preserved part of his story for future generations.
Through almost a chance encounter, Liang met her mentor, Stephanie Wang-Breal, at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (now CAAMFest) in 2009 at Wang-Breal’s world premiere of Wo Ai Ni Mommy. Now their meeting comes full circle as both of them have films playing at CAAMFest: 9-Man, and Tough Love by Wang-Breal, on which Liang also served as a co-producer. The tall, athletic sports journalist talks about how she ended up making a riveting documentary about a sport played by Asian American men.
When did you first hear about 9-Man?
I didn’t know about the sport at all until I started playing in a women’s tournament that is attached the men’s 9-man tournament. And then my brother started playing 9-man. When he started playing, I started to see something different in him that I hadn’t seen before. It felt like something really special. He joined when he was an adult—he had plenty of hobbies and friends, but this group of people held a very special meaning for him.
I started by contacting all the old guys and getting them on record. I had to write real letters to initially contact them, because they didn’t have emails and I felt that it was the best way to communicate with that generation. So with all the people in the film, we were corresponding by mail before anything else.
Did you envision it as a documentary story or in print?
I was very interested in a documentary. One of the main reasons was, I was a person primarily working in print. And I wanted to transition to something more visual. I saw the world of print declining and layoffs all around me. 9-man is a very dynamic sport—you feel the palpable energy. These were not the type of Asian American men that you’re used to seeing in the media. This is one that defied all stereotypes. A lot of the guys are tall, a lot of the guys have muscles, some are short, some are funny, some have Boston accents and they’re not foreign immigrants. It felt like a diversity of phenotype and personality and character that was really rich, and that you really needed to see to believe. I thought, maybe if people aren’t interested in this and it eventually gets on TV and they don’t watch the whole thing, at least they’ll see something different. If I can make even a small change in peoples’ perception of what an Asian American man is, then I’ll have done something.
Do you play any sports?
I don’t want to call myself an athlete; it seems like too grand a title for me. But I’ve been playing sports since I was very young. My father is Chinese, and I think he saw sports as a very American thing. One of the ways he spent time with us was playing sports. I remember playing lacrosse in the backyard. It’s not like we’re playing baseball or catch. It was lacrosse, the most American, or white, of all sports in this country. It was a way we connected.
I grew up in Boston in the ‘80s. That was the heyday of the Celtics. I remember my dad taking me to a game where we had obstructed view seats. I was basically sitting behind a pole, but the joy of doing those things together really affected me.
What sports did you play?
I played volleyball, I ran track, I ended up playing lacrosse, I played basketball but much later in the game and not very well, I played softball. I played soccer as a young kid. But I also came from a town where we were national champs in soccer one year so I was not good enough to continue on in Newton, MA. We played badminton in the backyard too, and we had a ping pong table in the basement. But volleyball was probably the sport that stuck with me the longest. I played at a competitive club level in college, and as a professional adult in New York, I was part of a league.
Can you talk about meeting Stephanie Wang-Breal at the film festival?
I’ve never lived in San Francisco, but I’ve been to the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (now CAAMFest) many times. In 2009 when I knew I was working on this film, and CAAM would be a place where I would eventually aspire to screen at, I went to the festival very intentionally looking for contacts and looking to develop my relationships in the Asian American community.
I had a friend pick a film that we were going to see together, and it happened to be Stephanie Wang-Breal’s Wo Ai Ni Mommy. I saw her world premiere, and I loved that film. I noticed she had the name of a prominent New York City editor—it’s Spike Lee’s editor—in her thank you’s. So I thought she might be based in New York. I waited in line afterwards to talk to her and went up to her and said, “I really loved your film, do you live in New York, I would like to help you, here’s my card.” She called me immediately when she got back to New York and we met and she asked me to help her with her project. And I started working on Wo Ai Ni Mommy from there and that film went on to be nominated for an Emmy. She went onto become my most supportive mentor and the person I learned everything that I would need to know about post-premiere [and in] Asian American documentary film. I just learned by watching and by helping her. I would not have been able to make this film without her giving me that opportunity. So I sort of see CAAM as the place where the roots to my success started.
The film is dedicated to my dad and my brother—and my nephew. Those are the Asian American men I grew up with. They are really dynamic people—they’re smart, sensitive, strong, athletic and creative—all those things you don’t see in mainstream media representations. I wanted to make this film for them so that other people could experience what I experienced growing up with a family of really dynamic Chinese American men.
What are some of the different roles that your family members and others played in making the film?
When you’re making an independent film, you really have to rope in everyone that you can. I always want to give thanks to Michelle Chang, my editor. I could not have done it without her. She’s a Chinese American woman from the Midwest who grew up watching football, and we had so much in common politically and idea-wise. I’d never made a film before, so I needed her guidance in so many ways.
But then also, when you don’t have a budget to pay people, you have to fill in a lot of roles. My mom is the one who helped me get a shot of a guy riding a motorcycle. She drove me while I was filming. She chased the motorcycle on the highways of Boston to try to get that shot. My dad was the one who made sandwiches for the crew when we were all sleeping in lines on the floor of his apartment. My brother built our website. My sister, who I could not do anything without her—I lean on her an incredible amount—she did a lot of our graphic design for the project and was also a production coordinator and was on set and has always been my sounding board. Maybe the title of sister is the title that I wish you could put in a film credit—it means something really specific, it means someone you can absolutely count on that you trust and love, and will tell things to you straight and will help you in any way you want.
Because of my sister, a number of other people helped on the film like Seng Chen and Lanlian Szeto, and Michael Chung who’s one of our lawyers and many other things. It definitely took a village to make this film. And much of my village is in the Bay Area. John Fan, our creative director, is also in the Bay Area.
As an Asian American woman athlete and sports journalist, what’s it like?
I think things have changed since I started working in this business—there are definitely more women and Asian American women working in sports. I felt like an anomaly when I started. There was only one other Asian American working at my company. In some ways it’s an advantage. The stereotypes people have about women sometimes can be valuable. People like talking to women and revealing themselves to women, which is really important for documentary and for vérité-based films. It’s easier on the subject side but almost more difficult on the organizational side. When you’re dealing with co-workers and production counterparts who are male, and you’re in a position to be an authority figure, it can be a lot more difficult. I found it challenging to be on all-male crews and working on stories in this hyper-masculine space.
But I know what I’m doing, and I think that subjects oftentimes are more receptive to women. So people should see women as advantages in this world of sports and production and journalism.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I’m super excited to screen at Great Star Theater. This feels so very 9-man. It’s a historic theater, which I have a feeling is a little rough around the edges, and it feels so perfect for this film. It feels like it’s going to be a really special night. And it’s right in Chinatown so we can bring business to Chinatown by having people come to the screening and go eat and drink afterwards. I’m also really excited that CHOPS will be able to join us. He is our co-composer who is one third of the groundbreaking group the Mountain Brothers will be there—he hasn’t seen the film in a real theater yet—and he is also hosting Directions in Sound. I’m really excited to have him out there as part of CAAMFest and our debut in San Francisco.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.