The Beginnings of Volleyball in Chinatown
Origin of Volleyball
The First Inter-city Games
The War Years
The New Generation
Significance of the Tournament

The Beginnings of Volleyball in Chinatown

In the late 1930′s, there was not much for young Chinese laundry workers to do other than work. Just about ten years earlier, the Immigration Act of 1924 had effectively shut the door on all immigration to the U.S. from Asia. It declared that all Asians were “not eligible” for citizenship. It then went on to say that persons not eligible for citizenship were barred from entering the United States. Since Asian were not eligible for citizenship, this meant that any Asian who was not a citizen of the United States at the time the law was passed could not leave the country if he or she ever wished to return later.

The Immigration Act meant that most of the Chinese in Chinatown were effectively trapped there. They could not leave the country if they ever had a thought of returning to the US after their travels. Furthermore, discrimination and language barrier made the world outside Chinatown a hostile place. While Chinese laundries existed throughout the city and the state, the men and few women who worked in them were not an integral part of the social life of the surrounding community. They may have been fixtures in the community, providing a valuable service to their customers, but like any other impersonal fixture, such as a trolley or sewing machine, their inclusion in a social gathering or event was unlikely. To retain their humanity and a semblance of society, they had to fall on their own resources.

Though their world might not have been an especially welcoming place, it was made all the more difficult to bear for loneliness. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had started it, and subsequent immigration legislation had made it increasingly difficult for a Chinese immigration to start a family. Part of the intent of the 1882 law was to eliminate the Chinese community in the US entirely. To an extent, the Act and its successors succeeded. The 1890 Census counted 107,488 Chinese in the US By 1940 the total Chinese population in the US had declined to 77,504.

As a result of the Exclusion Act and subsequent anti-immigration legislation, Chinatowns in the US were virtually average, nearly three Chinese male for every Chinese female. A few merchants, diplomats and scholars were able to emigrate with their wives and children, but on the whole, the life of the working Chinese immigrant man was spent mostly in the company of other men.

Recreation for laundry workers was extremely limited. Laundry work usually meant 10 to 18-hour days, 6 days a week. Sunday was their only day off. On Sunday they could do what they liked, but there was not much to do. The usual “American” entertainment was either prohibited to them, or did not make much sense. Usually they “hung out,” visited Chinatown or visited with other laundry workers.

Henry Oi was one of those young laundry workers who participated in the original tournaments. At 76 he is now retired from business, but is still very active in the life of community. As a young man, he worked in his father’s laundry. He still remembers the hard work, long hours, and how little he earned. He still remembers that on his day off from the laundry, he would hang out with other laundry workers at a local drug store on the corner of Beach and Washington Streets in Boston Chinatown, but this was not very interesting. Life for the young people of Chinatown was mostly “a matter of no time and no money” he says.Some of them wanted to spend the few free hours they had to themselves doing something which was not breaking the law or getting into trouble. But more than this, they wanted something that would promote friendship. Friendship is essential to society. One thing they found they could do was go to the Chinatown YMCA.

The facilities of the Chinatown Y were quite limited. There, the young men found a table tennis table and a backyard. In this backyard they could play volleyball.

Origin of Volleyball

It is ironic that a games so popular with poor laundry workers was invented to accommodate the desires of American Businessmen for a less strenuous sport. Volleyball was invented in 1895 by William G. Morgan, physical director of the Holyoke, Massachusetts YMCA. He designed it as an indoor sport for the businessmen who played there and who found basketball – the YMCA’s other game invented in 1891 – too “vigorous.” Morgan called his new game “mignonette,” perhaps to characterize the more refined play for which it was designed. A professor from Springfield College, however, noted the “volleying” nature of play, and so proposed “volleyball.”

The game soon gained wide popularity, with both sexes, in schools, playgrounds, the armed forces, and other organizations in the US When volleyball finally went abroad, it went first to Asia with the first Far East Games in Manila, the Philippines in 1913. It later made its way to China, one source says, where it was introduced by missionaries at a school in Toisan called Poi Yen. However it may have gotten to Toisan, it became a very popular game there. In Asia, the rules of the game were slightly modified. Also, the dimensions of the court were enlarged, and the number of players on a team was expanded. This is the game which then made its way back to Chinatowns of the US and Canada, and is the games played in today’s men’s tournaments.

Volleyball made sense for Chinatown. Most of the laundry workers in Chinatown were very poor. Henry Oi remembers that his father’s laundry grossed only $50 a week from which all expenses had to be paid. Volleyball was a game that was accessible and affordable for young men with limited means. It was a game which allowed many people to participate together. All one needed was an equipment. Lacking the special equipment, one could improvise: if there were not net, you could use a rope or even a piece of string; you could use stone makers to define the limits of the court, or draw its boundaries on the ground with a stick; even if there was no ball, a ball could be made out of cloth. Since volleyball was already popular in China, it was a relatively simple matter to get a game together.

The First Intercity Games

The first games between cities were not tournaments. Henry Oi describes their purpose as “a social event. ” When volleyball started in Boston, there were not enough players to make up two teams. Determined to play, the group split in half, and one half played the other half. Word of these games somehow got to the small Chinatown in Providence, Rhode Island. About 1935 the Providence Chinese decided to get a team together and the two groups, Boston and Providence, met to play, though not in a tournament. Since the main reason they got together, was to get to know each other. The two groups played a variety of games – ping pong and basketball – as well as volleyball. The arrangement was that the Boston team would travel to Providence, or the Providence team would travel to Boston.

About 1937, people in New York heard about the games and joined in. The visits became an annual event over the Labor Day weekend because of a special Labor Day round trip excursion fare to New York which cost only two dollars. The three groups would socialize in the host city for the day, and then return home. After a while, however, Providence could not maintain a team and so, around 1939, the visits to Providence stopped.

In 1939 or 1940, a team from Newark, New Jersey joined the games. The three cities made up a group of five teams, three from New York and one each from New Jersey and Boston. Two of the New York teams are recalled to have had patriotic names: the Ching Nin Gou Kwok Tuan, or Ching Gou for short; and the Sham Man Chu Yi Ching Nin Tuan, or Sham Ching for short, in recognition of the struggle against the Japanese invasion of China. One of the New York teams was composed of Chinese students (called the “Chinese Students Team”). The Boston team was simply called the Bo Ching, the Boston Team.

Regardless of who won, the main purpose for the games was to develop friendship among Chinese. With the inclusion of the Chinese Students Team, this goal was furthered and expanded. Now, not only were laundry workers getting to know each other, but the tournament was also bringing them together with members of the “intelligentsia.”

The purpose that brought the first players together and the first cities together, then, was to promote understanding and friendship. Since Chinese in the US were few in number and their movements generally restricted to traveling to work and to Chinatown, the tournaments helped to relieve their isolation and that of their communities. In those days travel and communication were not as simple or convenient as they are today. Air travel was not accessible to a poor person; a cross country flight took 15 ½ hours and cost $149.50. Not everyone owned a telephone, and few people owned cars. The games broke down barriers of distance between cities and barriers of class between laundry workers and privileged students. At the conclusion of each tournament all the teams and players would go to a restaurant, eating together and mixing freely, regardless of what team they played for.

The 1939 games between Boston, New York and Newark, some say, was the first tournament. Others say that the first true tournament was held in 1944. There does not seem to be a record of who won this first tournament, though Henry Oi says that there were champions in all the tournaments and that trophies were always awarded. One list of tournaments does not indicate a tournament winner until 1957, when the New York Lum Ying was the winners.

The War Years

The tournament of 1941 added a second purpose to gathering. In addition to building community the players a lso added the patriotic goal of helping China. In US Chinatowns, conversions over dinner or at get together often included talk of the war in Asia, in which the US was still reluctant to become involved. There was great concern over the war since most of the Chinatown community had family – wives and children, parents and relatives – in China. During this time all the restaurants and laundries had pans on their counters for donations to help the Chinese resist the Japanese invasion. In the Chinatowns, everyone did their part. For the tournament in New York, the teams sold tickets at fifty cents a piece. The proceeds of the game went to a patriotic fund to help the Chinese government. As a result of selling tickets to the games, the tournament raised the remarkable sum of over $1000. That year, fifty players participated in the tournament.

Shortly after the tournament, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and the US entered the duration of the war while everyone joined over the Labor Day weekend, but only on a limited basis. For many Chinese in the US, the war brought new work opportunities. Work in industries and in trades previously been barred to them, were now open because of the manpower shortage. Others, like Henry Oi, joined the service. Some fought, while others work in support capacities like that unit which serviced the Flying Tigers Squadron in Burma.

The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, and three months later the war in the Pacific ended, and with it, World War II. The first tournament after the war was in 1946. Many of the teams were composed of returned veterans who wanted to continue friendships developed during their service. One of the New York teams which played at that time was comprised entirely of veterans and called itself the “1157,” after the veteran’s unit which was attached to the 16th Air Force. This unit served in Asia and their job was to service the Flying Tiger Squadron.

Around 1946 or 1947, Washington D.C. joined the tournament. An old photo shows the Washington C.Y.C. and the New York Wah Ching together in a group portrait. At this time the tournament was called the “Annual East Coast Volleyball Tournament.” The participation of the Washington team initiated the three-city circuit which continued into the mid-1970′s, except for the 1965, when Chicago participated and hosted the tournament.

The New Generation

In 1943, perhaps in reaction to Japanese propaganda accusing the US of racism, perhaps in consideration of the potential market China presented, Congress repealed the provisions of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese were now no longer barred from entering the US, though the number of immigrant visas allowed was still quite small. In early 1946, Congress passed the War Brides Act allowing service men to bring their foreign-born wives to the US without regard to the immigration quota. As a result of these Acts and subsequent changes to immigration law, the Chinese community in the US began to grow and take on a new character. Families began to become a more common sight in Chinatown, and a new generation of American-born Chinese arose.

By 1961 there were a sufficient number of American-born Chinese, who were old enough, to form the first “jook sing” team to participate in the tournament. This team was the Knights athletic club from Boston. Until that time the teams were comprised predominantly of immigrants. The entry of the Knights into the tournament was greeted enthusiastically. Subsequently, the Washington C.Y.C. And the New York Freemasons formed American-born teams to participate the following year.

The tournament and its participants changed with the times. The participation of Canadian teams was acknowledged by changing the name of the tournament was changed to the “Annual North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament.” As the Chinese laundries declined in number, more players from other parts of Chinatown society began to participate. Restaurants began sponsoring and fielding teams. In some ways, these teams had a more difficult time since restaurant workers worked varying shifts and several restaurants. Nevertheless, they made an effort to participate, often coming to Chinatown early before their shift began to practice and then putting their shift vests and leather shoes to go to work.

A Milestone for 1976 the first time women played in the tournament. Earlier that year, Reggie Wong, a member of the Knights athletic club and tournament chairmen, received a call from Frank Gee of the New York Vikings. Frank said that the Vikings had put together a women’s team and wondered if Reggie had any plans to start a women’s team in Boston. By the 1976 tournament, “Reggie’s Angels,” Boston’s first women’s team, played an exhibition games with Viking’s team proving that women should participate too. Volleyball was a sport for all, and women demanded that they have the opportunity to compete. Tradition did not give as chairman of the the tournament, still had to persist in advocating their cause before opposition to women’s participation could be put to rest.

Women’s participation became official the following year at the Toronto tournament. That year, six women’s teams competed for a women’s tournament championship. The first women’s tournament championship was finally won by the New York Skylarks.

Over the years the number of teams and players have grown, and the tournament has attracted wider interest. From a one-day affair, it expanded to two days in the late 1960s, and by the early 1980s, the number of teams and the complexity of competition required a three-day tournament. By the late 1950s, the tournament spanned the country. In 1959, the Kong Fung team from San Francisco won the tournament championship in New York, and in 1962, the Los Angeles Hung Fung won the championship at the Boston tournament. In 1974, San Francisco joined the list of cities hosting the tournament and three years after that, Toronto hosted its first tournament. Finally, in 1986, Montreal hosted the 42nd tournament, establishing the six-city rotation which exists today.

Significance of the Tournament

Over the years the tournament has grown and evolved, yet it still retains the central purposes of bringing communities closer together and providing a recreational opportunity for young people. These two purposes are not exclusive of each other and combine in ways that are not always obvious. Clearly, volleyball is one way of maintaining community. The young people play the game, while the older people who were once the young players now coach and watch.

At the tournaments, old men continue to attend making shrewd comments and becoming excited over a good match or play. The coaches are the businessmen and professionals of the community, and so the young people have role models who are not just guides to a profession but also serve as examples of caring adults.

Volleyball is part of the history of Chinatown. The generations of players pass down not only their skills and culture, but also continue that part of the community’s history. More than mere history, it is continuity and the building of ties between the generations.

This year, the tournament is organizing, what is affectionately known as “lo chai” (old wood) teams. In earlier years, these teams were composed of members of the original teams. There are too few of the original lo chai left, and so the tournament is allowing “younger” men, 45-year olds, to play. Each team, however, must take on the name of one of the original teams. In this way, the original players and teams will be honored.

Another way that these tournaments build community is to serve as a common ground of communication and as a way that culture can be exchanged and spread. All culture does not have to be “high culture.” Culture is also the way that people conduct their lives, manage, and enjoy themselves. Many spectators drive up to Boston from Washington DC, and it was pointed out that some of these people were the first ones to set up their deck chairs, umbrellas and coolers so that they could enjoy the games in comfort. While, perhaps a minor innovation, it made people in Boston feel freer to enjoy themselves also.

Finally, volleyball builds the community by bringing young people back into Chinatown from the suburbs. Asian youth, growing up in the suburbs are in some ways as isolated as the laundry workers of an earlier generation. Though youth today may be more integrated into the surrounding culture, they may be cut off from their Chinese heritage and the people who make that heritage come alive.

Playing on a volleyball team is sometimes the first chance these young people have to really learn about Chinatown and its culture, and as important, to meet young people from Chinatown. Thus, the bringing together of laundry worker and Chinese students in the 1930s has modern counterpart in the meeting of young people from the suburbs and the city. The young people meet around a common purpose, and yet, they can also learn about and from their differences in a friendly atmosphere. As Henry Oi said, “friendship is essential for society.”

Reference: 55th North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament Program Book. Boston, 1999