Creating ‘Us’ on the Pitch: Identity Politics in Hong Kong Football
The Hong Kong national football team will play their ‘big brother/Darth Vader’, PR China, on Tuesday 17th, 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 has 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 has greatly impressed Hong Kongers to the extent that local football has unexpectedly 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 things usually are these days between Hong Kong and China, this highly-anticipated matchup cannot escape controversy. Hong Kongers 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; while those north of the Shenzhen river were aggrieved by the booing of some Hong Kong fans over the March of the Volunteers, the national anthem for both countries.
It is often suggested that sports and politics should not mix. However, this notion remains 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 and popularity with team Hong Kong was driven by the growing unease between Hong Kong and China. Indeed, this is a recurring event: throughout Hong Kong history, representation in football has shaped and redefined the city’s identity and psyche.
Much like elsewhere, football first appeared in the shores of Hong Kong on the decks of the British Royal Navy and the Artillery Corps but significantly earlier than the rest of East Asia. 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 (1908) competition 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 Chinese population and regularly challenged for dominance over the British teams. It was eventually accepted into league football in 1917 and began its journey to become by far the most decorated Hong Kong club with its first title 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 took the place and duly won the tournament, thus ushering a sixty-year tradition of HK players representing the Chinese national team. It would go on to win the Far Eastern Championship, a precursor to the Asian Games, a record six times in a row, cementing Hong Kong’s position as the kings of football in Asia. Chinese nationalism and the desire to represent the nation in the Olympics has propelled many Hong Kong players to appear for China instead of Hong Kong and the trend continued even after 1949. 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 (for Blackpool in 1961), all pledged their allegiance to the Republic of China and was instrumental in the two Asian Games wins in the 1950s*. In the first half of the 20th century, Hong Kong looked the Chinese nation and the footballers followed.
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 is only since then that the best of Hong Kong players played for its own team, although its emotional pull quickly became apparent. The 1980s was a decade of uncertainty in Hong Kong, and the unease surrounding the handover has often cast China into the role of a powerful villain, much like on the pitch. Combine that with frequent meetings in qualifying groups due to geography, it is no surprise that a rivalry, if only a one-sided affair, developed. Team China has naturally dominated the matchup but Hong Kong has had its moments, notably denying China a World Cup place with an away win in 1985. These results, transmitted through television, were widely celebrated and became a burgeoning symbol of a Hong Konger identity.
The fortunes of Hong Kong football declined in the 90s and 2000s. The local league was in a dire state marred by match-fixing while on the international level Hong Kong was no longer the force it used to be. Moreover, the handover has led to renewed identification as Chinese among Hong Kongers which further diluted the purpose and emotional ties to a separate representative side. Growing up in this era, I can attest that not much is known on Hong Kong sports while our attention was channelled towards China. I remember supporting China against brazil in the 2002 World Cup; and how during the Beijing Olympics the Chinese team was well-supported in the city as well.
However, local football is making its comeback. The 2009 East Asian Games gold, 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 the difference from China is clearly demarcated. As Hong Kongers, particularly the younger generation, seek to reject an overarching duty to be Chinese as Beijing required, the team allowed the projection of an individual, perhaps even independent, Hong Kong identity.
It is at this juncture that Hong Kong was coincidentally drawn in the same group as China. Given the political quagmire in the recent years, things have naturally become quite heated. The row over the poster provoked and challenged Hong Kong’s position as an international city and multicultural society, where people can become Hong Kongers if they so wished, just as many of our ancestors did when they arrived from China. Meanwhile, some supporter’s booing of Hong Kong’s own national anthem stems from their frustration that an identity and political system not of their own choosing was enforced upon them (hence it is often suggested that a Hong Kong song should be sung instead). Regardless, 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 Hong Kongers, to say ‘We are Hong Kong!’ til the end.
I say ‘level playing field’ with an ironic smirk. Despite the recent purple patch and the home advantage, even the most hardcore supporters to struggle to deny that team Hong Kong remains firmly the underdog in this contest; and qualification to Russia is perhaps just a pipe dream. Nevertheless, as we have seen in September, nothing is impossible in football. To quote Yapp Hung-Fai, Hong Kong’s no.1: ‘we must believe in ourselves from the start until the very end’. Team Hong Kong has defied expectation many times – who says Tuesday cannot be another chapter of surprise?
*There are many factors as to why these players chose ROC over PRC. Anti-communist sentiments may be one, but perhaps also because they mostly played for clubs backed by ROC supporters and that only ROC could play Olympic football then.
This post is my first collaboration with Coconuts HK and first appeared there. I am grateful of the opportunity and hopefully this post will be the first of many!