Chinese volleyball game in the crosshairs of development

A modest asphalt court that served as a nursery for a unique style of volleyball played by Chinese immigrants across the country now stands in the way of development, touching off a battle over preservation.

The prime slice of Chinatown real estate is steps from busy South Station and is home to a 1930s-era steam plant with towering smokestacks and a modern state government office. But it is also the site of Reggie Wong Memorial Park, a simple basketball and volleyball court where the game known as nine-man developed over generations.

Nine-man holds a special place for those of Chinese descent, said Tunney Lee, an urban studies and planning professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose father was a player and organizer.

The game traces its roots to a style of volleyball developed in Taishan, a southern Chinese city where many of the earliest Chinese immigrants hailed from, and became a critical social outlet for immigrants largely isolated from broader American society.

“Part of the image of the Chinese was that of weaklings who were passive and servile,” Lee said. “Volleyball was a skill sport with strategy, teamwork and aggressiveness.”

Standard volleyball has six players on each side. At its most basic, nine-man involves more players, a larger court and modified rules. Today’s organizers say the first intercity game happened in Boston in 1935, between locals and a team from Providence, Rhode Island.

The competitions steadily grew over the years, with Chinese communities in New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles regularly fielding teams to play on the streets, alleyways and parking lots of Boston’s Chinatown.

The North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament, which started in the 1940s a few blocks from Wong Park, carries on the intercity rivalry today, hosting an annual competition in a different Chinatown each Labor Day weekend.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration began seeking proposals last month to purchase and develop the 5-acre site that’s home to Wong Park as a centerpiece of his pledge to generate revenue and spur development by unloading underused government land.

Chinatown activists and nine-man enthusiasts have voiced their concerns at community meetings this past year, prompting the administration to require developers to propose ways to carve out a public park somewhere on the site at least as big as the current court.

Patrick Marvin, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the land sale, notes the state is requiring prospective developers to guarantee the park remains public. It is also calling for other open space areas on the development site.

But some in Chinatown want the state to require a larger park with more amenities. They also want guarantees that a temporary space will be carved out during construction so organized games can continue uninterrupted. And they worry not enough housing built on the property will be affordable to lower-wage Chinatown residents.

The park is the latest battleground in the decades-long debate over gentrification in one of the nation’s oldest and largest Chinatowns. The neighborhood, with narrow streets lined with independent storefronts and eateries, has withstood waves of redevelopment dating to the 1950s, when an interstate highway was cut through it.

Russell Eng, who coaches teen volleyball at the park, named after his uncle, says it keeps the Chinese community connected even as more increasingly live in suburbs, some of which have sprouted their own satellite Chinatowns.

“Today’s Chinatown is geographically wider than what it was when I growing up there,” he said. “Reggie Wong Memorial Park serves as the center of the universe for them.”

Ursula Liang, who made the 2014 documentary “9-MAN: a Streetball Battle in the Heart of Chinatown,” says Boston’s predicament isn’t unique.

In her current hometown of New York, the Boston-area native says asphalt parks where nine-man is played are being converted into fields for soccer and other sports to draw new residents.

Said Liang: “What concerns me is that while most of these proposals tout things like economic growth and community improvement, ultimately the ideas that win out benefit politicians and businesspeople more than anyone else.”