From Race to Citizen: Football of the Hong Kong Nation
Translated by Chen-t'ang 鎮棠, written by Chris Lau Kwun-shing 劉觀成 (Aug 2015)
|("HK TILL I DIE; THE POWER OF HONG KONG", 11 June 2015, Hong Kong vs Bhutan - Passion Times)|
|("Hongkongers are Bravo!", 11 June 2015, Hong Kong vs Bhutan - Passion Times)|
|“Do not underestimate any opponent. In this team, there are black-skinned, yellow-skinned, and white-skinned players. We must be cautious against a team with so many colour layers”.|
The passion towards football soared for Hongkongers in June 2015. A provocative poster sparked off the passion for the Hong Kong team. Tickets of three matches with Hong Kong as host were all sold. Hongkongers no longer watch matches of other teams, but our own team. Many people might only know the HK Team from its championship during East Asian Games 2009 or its recent powerful form, but football has rooted deeply in the territory for over 100 years. This articles aims to introduce the history of football in Hong Kong, to delve into the establishment of the Hongkongers subjectivity, and the relationship between football and the Hong Kong nation, as well as how to deepen civil education through football.
The First "Others": the White
The way to establish one's identity is through the demarcation between "us" and "them". Football started from the UK, and took root in Hong Kong, a former British colony. At first, only the White played football. The first football club by the White, Hong Kong Football Club, was founded in 1886; the first Chinese football club in Hong Kong, South China Athletic Association, was founded in 1910. Qing dynasty declined at that time, and Chinese seemed to be suppressed by the White, and thus felt aggrieved.
Thus, in order to defeat "them" -- the White, some local Chinese started their team. With "them", the ethnic identity formed quickly. Around 1918, South China participated in the Hong Kong First Division Football League, and won the champion in 1923-24. After that, the Chinese teams won most of the matches, and thus formed sense of superiority.
Football star and nationalism
Hong Kong football clubs gradually became stronger, yet the team members did not gain the identity of Hong Kong, because the best players were representing the Republic of China (ROC) team, while the weaker ones played for the Hong Kong team. After 1949, ROC went Taiwan and lost the continental China to the Communist Party, hence the People's Republic of China (PRC; its football team usually referred to China PR). During 1954 to 1971, most of the ROC team members were from Hong Kong. This team was so bright that it won two champions in Asian Games, and even entered the quarter-final in 1960 Roma Olympic Games, and we can still see the strength of the team. But what about the players' ethnic identity? Some said the reasons why they represented ROC: some may join the ROC team because of the pro-Taipei background, or could be part of the team which could join the Roma Olympics with better privilege, rather than "emotionally attached to the Chinese nation (zhonghua minzu)". We could not determine the response of the Hongkongers at the time, but if we looked up in the lines of pro-Taipei newspaper, "Hongkongers were supporting the team for bringing honour to ROC - but these might be biased. Usually few in the ROC team were from Taiwan, and the rest were from Hong Kong; or the entire ROC team was from Hong Kong, as well as most who actually played in the field. Hongkongers wholeheartedly supported local football games: last season the average number of audience in a Hong Kong Premier League match was around 1,000, but the battle between South China and KMB in 1951 attracted over 30,000 football fans to a stadium which could contain only 15,000. We could not possibly know people's feeling towards the ROC team, but we can be sure about the passion towards local matches. We could infer that even under the name of ROC, the reason why Hongkongers were so connected to football was brilliant football stars.
Rise of Subjectivity: The Real Hong Kong Team
As United Nations passed General Assembly Resolution 2758 and the rapprochement with PRC went well, no Hongkongers participated in the ROC team after 1971. In 1974, the ROC team was kicked out of AFC, and had declined since then. Before that time Hong Kong Team existed, but with mediocre players, but since then the real Hong Kong team was formed, and attracted a lot of local football fans. The awareness of "Hongkongers supporting Hong Kong team" started to grow.
The first match between Hong Kong and China PR is the 1975 Asian Cup Qualification. Both sides were competing for being qualified in the next round. Hong Kong lost 0:1 to China PR. After the match, pro-Taipei newspapers said Hongkongers cheered for the Hong Kong team, and feel disgruntled about the brutal Chinese team. Pro-Beijing newspaper did not have a particular stance towards Hong Kong or China PR team. In 1959 Asian Cup Qualification, there were opinion of "Hong Kong team should not win ROC team", but there was no similar opinion towards China PR team. The passion towards Hong Kong team can be seen in Hong Kong vs Korea DPR (North Korea). Hong Kong team had an advantage in the early second half, but lost 2:3 to them. From newspaper reports, there were fans holding banners "Make it to Tehran, Hong Kong!" in the cheering team. In 1977 and 1986 World Cup Qualification, Hong Kong team won Singapore and China PR. When the team returned, they were well-received by fans with banners like "Hong Kong team, the best in Asia!" and "Hongkongers are bravo!" (the top picture), which is still commonly used by the fans nowadays. These away games were live on TV, so every Hongkonger could experience the peaks and valleys with the team.
Compared to the '60s, the passion towards Hong Kong team reached its peak from mid-'70s to the '80s. A clear delineation was seen: support was for Hong Kong team, not ROC team. The identity on football shifted from the White-Chinese racial differentiation at first, to the rise of Hong Kong football stars, then to a genuine, strong identity of Hongkonger.
The Fall of HK Football and the Chinese Nation Complex
Since 1990s, the football development in Hong Kong met its ebb, and no longer befit the name of "Football Kingdom". In November 2012, the world ranking of Hong Kong team fell from 90th (in '90s) to 172nd. The ebb is due to several reasons, including the HKFA's policy (which will not be explained here). As the strength of local teams no longer attracts the passion from football fans, and with satellite transmission, Hongkongers chose to watch better foreign matches. Before 1997, "democratic reunification" was a trendy phrase, and the Chinese Nation identity was strengthened, and it could be seen in the sports field. Sports is important in the ethnic identity and emotions. Many Hongkongers will support Team China in the Olympics (and the Chinese media called them the National Team after 1997 - translator's note), and felt thrilled when Team China won hurdle races, diving or table tennis, sometimes even more than Hong Kong team.
According to HKUPOP, the Chinese identity for Hongkongers was the highest in 2008, the year Beijing held Olympic games. Sports and people's emotions are often interconnected - for example, Koreans will be thrilled if they knock Japan down; or the tense atmosphere when the English team is competing with Scotland. The identity of Hongkonger declined as there were very few sports connection in the recent decade; but on the contrary, the identity of Chinese rose as the mainstream media has propagated.
HK football and Revival of the Hongkonger Identity
This June, a poster (the second from the top) from Team China read "Do not underestimate any opponent. In this team, there are black-skinned, yellow-skinned, and white-skinned players. We must be cautious against a team with so many colour layers", mocking there were members with different skin colours. After the public outcry, this poster ignited Hongkongers on supporting Hong Kong Team. This poster has provided an imagination of the Hong Kong Nation -- civic national society. There are players who are black-skinned, white-skinned, from China or from Hong Kong, but they are part of the Hong Kong Team. Putting it to the Hong Kong nation, a Hongkonger is not defined by his race, but rather, his civility. If the naturalised players are willing to wait for 7 years and be trained by the Hong Kong team, they can become part of the Hong Kong team. Football fans were thrilled whenever there were goals, no matter made by local Hongkongers or naturalised players. The linkage between players and fans is not a racial matter, but civility, or else local fans will not cheer when a White scored a goal.
Establish Our Strength through Football
Hong Kong is a small place, and it is hard to build up recognition with hard power, so we can only strengthen our subjectivity with soft power, such as culture and sports. The hard power of South Korea is not comparable with Japan and China, not to mention on the world. So Korea made itself well-known by soft power, such as Korean culture and sports (Taekwondo and football). The strength of Hong Kong football is not comparable to those years, but there were some surprising moments too. In 2009 East Asian Games, Hong Kong Team defeated the Asian football giant Japan in front of over 30,000 spectators, and won the first gold medal in football amid international sports events. The football clubs played well in Asian competitions. In 2009 AFC Cup, South China entered the semi-finals with the cheer from over 37,000 fans, but lost to Kuwait Sporting Club 0:1. Last year (2014), Kitchee also entered the semi-finals of the AFC Cup with the entire Mong Kong Stadium full with fans, but lost to Erbil from Iraq 2:3 in two rounds. This year (2015) is the first time when two Hong Kong teams entered the quarter-finals of the AFC Cup. Hong Kong Premier League (HKPL) was formed last year, and football clubs not only started their promotion for decorating, but also started finding better fields for training. Eastern Sports Club even hopes to be listed in five years, and has set targets of winning the AFC Cup in 4 years and AFC Championship in 7 years (the highest honour in Asia football club). HKFA hopes that the amenities for football in Hong Kong can be improved after the opening of Tseung Kwan O Football Training Centre in 2017. With the passion, it is expected that the football development of Hong Kong will be improved, and Hong Kong can be more influential in the football field.
Stay Local, Support Hong Kong Football
Recently there is a documentary Finding Cheung Chi Doy, focusing on the long-forgotten football star and introducing out once-famous hero. Cheung was the first Chinese player in the top football clubs in Europe. He once played in Blackpool, a League One team (the top league in England at that time). Most Hongkongers do not know this part of history because there is no introduction to the past football history.
In order to enhance national recognition, Hongkongers need to support Hong Kong football, and should not confine our vision only on football matches elsewhere, and to attach importance to training the next batch of potential players. The vital key is the support from Hongkongers - buying tickets and watch the matches, or even providing suggestions for improvement. With pressure, the HKFA will change its tack. In terms of policy, the government should train players and provide a long term planning. There is a severe lack of football training venues. The clubs or Hong Kong Team cannot help but use poor venues, and are given time restriction when using them. The administration shall build a large training venue as soon as possible, as well as set up a well-structured youth system. Belgium is a good example. With good policies, the ranking raised from 71st (2007) to what is now the 2nd, with stars like Eden Hazard and Thibault Courtois.
Regarding Youth System, clubs can work with schools to encourage students playing football, so as to change the situation of "too much emphasis on marks but too few on PE". On the other hand, the government shall improve the quality of football fields. In 2013, the Hong Kong stadium scandal smeared the name of Hong Kong when we host a match, as the supposedly grass pit become a mud ground. There was a mistake in the renovation of Mong Kok Stadium, where the capacity was reduced. We can be sure that the risk of players getting hurt will increase if the venue is poor. Besides improvement over all fields, the authorities concerned shall build a cost-efficient standard football field.
Also, the government and HKFA should unswervingly combat match-rigging. After a match in 2014, 17 players were brought away by ICAC because of suspected match-rigging. In 2011, a young Hong Kong player was abetted by a Communist Party member to buy his fellow teammates off and rig the results. Not only on the football field, we do not tolerate any corruption in any fields in Hong Kong. Integrity is one of the core values of Hong Kong. Hong Kong football can only flourish under fair competition. If Hongkongers support Hong Kong football, our once pride can be reinvigorated, so as to stop the intrusion of Chinese element, and become a genuine city with values and culture.
From 1986 to 2009, Hong Kong team had produced several great moments for us. I hereby quote the book of Dr John Lee Chun-wing, Football Kingdom: "To some people, football might only be a game where 22 people chase after a ball; but for football fans, what happened on the field is certainly not a meaningless chase." To me, football is the game after our dreams. Even clouds might overshadow Hong Kong, we Hongkongers shall go after our dreams and make miracles.