Identity and politics in Hong Kong football before Tuesday’s China clash

The Hong Kong national football team will play their “big brother/Darth Vader”, PR China, tomorrow in what is billed as the most important match for Hong Kong in decades. After the improbable draw in Shenzhen last September, subsequent hard-fought victories away in Bhutan and Maldives have kept the team in contention for a place in Russia 2018 and, perhaps more realistically, a return to the Asian Cup in UAE in 2019. 

The valiant performance of team Hong Kong greatly impressed local fans to the extent that football has uncharacteristically become the talk of the town; interest has surged and it is widely assumed that the red flag (signalling a full house) will be raised for the contest in Mong Kok on Tuesday.

As usual when it comes to any kind of Hong Kong/China relations these days, this highly-anticipated matchup has not escaped controversy. Hongkongers were not best pleased with the Chinese FA’s (supposedly) light-hearted attempt at distinguishing the “black-skinned, yellow-skinned and white-skinned” Hong Kong players earlier this season; while those north of the Shenzhen River were aggrieved by the continued booing by some Hong Kong fans of the March of the Volunteers, the national anthem for both countries. Indeed, the HK club was fined by FIFA last month, albeit only to the tune of HKD40,000.

It is often suggested that sports and politics should not mix. However, this notion remains a romantic ideal and ignores the political relevance and resonance of a representative team. Simply put, political reasons often provide the main impetus of support for such a team, if not its entire purpose of existence. 

Despite a reasonable chance of qualification, it is fair to suggest the recent surge of identification with team Hong Kong has been driven by the growing unease between the two sides of the same coin. Indeed, this is a recurring event: throughout Hong Kong history, representation in football has mirrored and redefined the city’s identity and psyche.

Much like elsewhere, but significantly earlier than the rest of East Asia, football first arrived in Hong Kong on the decks of the British Royal Navy and the Artillery Corps. This gave the city a head start in its development; Hong Kong boasts the oldest existing football club (HKFC, founded 1886), knock-out cup (Senior Shield, 1896) and league competition (1908) in Asia. 

At its advent, football was an exclusively British affair with the Chinese barred from playing. This changed in 1904 with the creation of what would become South China AA. Intended to ditch the notion of the Chinese as “East Asia’s sick man”, the team united the indigenous population and regularly challenged the British teams for dominance. China AA was eventually accepted into league football in 1917 and began its journey to become by far the most decorated Hong Kong club in history, with its first title being claimed in 1922.

Meanwhile, the clamour for a Chinese team grew beyond the city limits. In 1910, missionaries organised (what was recognised later as) the first All-China Games, and asked southern China to send a football team. Being decades ahead of its mainland counterparts, a Hong Kong team duly won the tournament, thus ushering a 60-year tradition of HK players representing the Chinese national team. This team went on to win the Far Eastern Championship, a precursor to the Asian Games, a record six times in a row, cementing China’s position as the kings of football in Asia. 

Chinese nationalism and the desire to represent the nation in the Olympics saw the trend continue even after 1949, with many Hong Kong players finding themselves propelled to appear for China instead of Hong Kong. The best of what the Hong Kong football could offer – including Cheung Chi Doy, the first and to date only HK-born player to appear and score in a European top flight team (for Blackpool in 1961) – all pledged their allegiance to the Republic of China, and were instrumental in the two Asian Games wins in the 1950s. 

The situation changed in the 1970s. As the ROC lost most of its position as “China” to the PRC, Taiwan also brokered a deal to no longer select Hong Kong players for its representative sides. It was only then that some of Hong Kong’s best started to play for their own team again. 

The 1980s was a decade of uncertainty in Hong Kong, and the unease surrounding the handover often cast China in the role of a powerful villain. The pitch was no exception. Combine that with frequent meetings in qualifying groups due to geography, and it is no surprise that a fierce rivalry, if only a one-sided affair, developed. 

Team China has naturally dominated the match ups, but Hong Kong has had its moments, most notably denying China a World Cup place with an away win in 1985. The result became a burgeoning symbol of Hong Kong identity, but sparked riots on the streets of Beijing.

The fortunes of Hong Kong football declined in the 90s and 2000s. The local league was marred by match-fixing, while on the international level Hong Kong was no longer the force it used to be. Moreover, the post-handover period led to renewed identification as Chinese among many Hongkongers, which further diluted the purpose and emotional ties to a separate representative side. 

However, local football is making its comeback. The 2009 East Asian Games gold, the first ever tournament win in Hong Kong history, may have kickstarted the process, but it is the resurgence of localism and the heightened conflict and resentment between Hong Kong and China that once again brought the team into the forefront. Football is one of the few areas in the post-handover Hong Kong where our difference from China is clearly demarcated. As Hongkongers, particularly the younger generation, seek to reject an overarching duty to be Chinese as Beijing requests, the team allowed the projection of an individual, perhaps even independent, Hong Kong identity.

Football has aptly provided a platform in which to showcase the city and present an alternative projection of a different and distinct Hong Kong society. A cause, on a level playing field, for Hongkongers, to say, “We are Hong Kong!” till the end.

I write “level playing field” with an ironic smirk. Despite the recent purple patch and the home advantage, even the most hardcore supporters struggle to deny that team Hong Kong remains firmly the underdog in this contest and that Russia is perhaps just a pipe dream. 

Nevertheless, as we saw in September, nothing is impossible in football. To quote Yapp Hung-Fai, Hong Kong’s goalkeeping hero: “We must believe in ourselves from the start until the very end.” Team Hong Kong has defied expectation many times – who says tomorrow cannot be another chapter of surprise?

Justin Cheuk writes the blog When HK Meets UK, which focuses on the differences and similarities between Hong Kong and UK culture. Check out his growing Facebook page here.

Photo: AFP

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