How Caroliners sowed the seeds for Chinese sport

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 June, 2010, 12:00am

When a group of young Chinese soccer players formed a team 100 years ago, they would never have dreamt it would have such an impact on the game's development in Hong Kong - and to the development of sport on the mainland.

After the British set foot in this small fishing island in the 19th century, sport was introduced through the British school system to a colony that had never seen the like before.

Many young Chinese students took up soccer, basketball, athletics and other sports through the modern education system.

Soccer was one of the most popular, but after graduating from school there were no teams or clubs for the Chinese to join.

'You have to understand that sport was quite exclusive in those days and there were only clubs for the expatriates,' said Pang Chung, a former long and triple jumper who has been involved with the South China Athletic Association since 1947 and is now honorary secretary of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee.

'Soccer was only played by the foreigners through the early sports clubs system, which had yet to open its doors to the local Chinese.'

In 1886, the first soccer team was established by expatriates - the Hong Kong Football Club in Happy Valley - and the Shield competition was introduced 10 years later.

In 1908, a league competition started among clubs including Hong Kong Football Club, Kowloon and the Buffs, the first league champions.

It was only natural that the Chinese wanted to set up a sports club of their own.

But there was another important reason for the Chinese to pursue sport - they wanted to improve their physique and help defend their country.

In 1894, China, still under the reign of the Qing dynasty, was badly defeated by Japan in the first Sino-Japanese war. Two years later, a British writer in the North China Daily News, a newspaper published in Shanghai, called China the 'Sick Man of East Asia', a comparison to the Ottoman empire, which was known at the time as the 'Sick Man of Europe'.

'To Chinese people, this was a great insult. Although people in Hong Kong lived in the British colony, they only considered themselves Chinese and the land as part of China,' Pang said.

'They all wanted to help their country and one of the best ways was to improve their fitness to prepare themselves to fight.

'Playing sport was one way to become fitter and stronger. Even if they couldn't defeat the enemy on the battlefield, they could still beat them on the sports field.'

In 1908, a group of young Chinese led by Mok Hing, later a graduate of the University of Hong Kong and chairman of the Hong Kong Football Association, founded the Chinese Football Team in Hong Kong.

Two years later, they renamed it the South China Football Club.

They used a college in Western district for get-togethers, while training took place on grass pitches in Tai Hang.

'The name 'South China' was easy to understand because Hong Kong is in southern China,' Pang said. 'And they also wanted to represent the region at the first National Games in Nanjing, then known as Nanking, the following year.'

Spearheaded by Mok and Tong Fook-cheung, later known as the first-generation king of Chinese soccer, the 40-plus players from southern China clinched the title at the Games, even before they had an established club. In 1913, two years after they became the national champions, South China were selected by the newly established Republic of China to represent the country at the first Far East Games in the Philippines. They lost 2-1 to the hosts.

After the Hong Kong Football Association was founded in 1914, South China joined two years later under the name South China Recreation Club, and started in the Second Division. In 1918, they were promoted to the top flight as Second Division champions and won their first league title in 1924.

In 1920, the club became the South China Athletic Association and started developing other sports, such as athletics, swimming, tennis, volleyball, baseball and basketball.

But it was not until 1927 that the multi-sport club developed into a modern model with the government allotting the present site at Caroline Hill to the association. A soccer pitch, running track, volleyball and basketball playground were built to serve the community.

South China achieved another milestone in their history when 14 of their players were selected to represent China at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936, including captain Lee Wai-tong, widely regarded as the best-ever Chinese player.

Although China lost 2-0 to Great Britain in their only match in Berlin, where eight South China players featured, they had become popular with many overseas Chinese, having toured Southeast Asia to raise funds for the China delegation to attend the 1936 Games.

Departing from Shanghai on a French steamship, they travelled to Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Burma and India where they played 27 matches in two months, winning 23 and drawing four.

South China - also known as the Caroliners because of their location on Caroline Hill Road - played a leading role in producing elite athletes for Hong Kong, and some also represented China before the People's Republic was established in 1949 - such as swimmer Yeung Sau-king, who took part in the Berlin Games.

Soccer remains the strongest traditional sport at the club, especially in domestic competition. Their current soccer team have already set their sights on winning the AFC Cup next season, with participation in the AFC Champions League as their ultimate target.

From a group of secondary school students without a single pitch for training, South China Athletic Association has developed into a multi-sport club with more than 50,000 members and 25 sports departments.

This month, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen laid down a time capsule to help celebrate the club's 100th anniversary.

Members can now enjoy various facilities at their 17-storey, multi-purpose complex at Caroline Hill. These include an Olympic-standard swimming pool, diving pool, a two-storey golf driving range, billiards room, indoor shooting range, squash courts, tenpin bowling alleys and other auxiliary facilities.

'We have come a long way over the years,' said Pang, who has been the club's honorary secretary for more than 20 years.

'We may not be able to produce as many athletes to represent Hong Kong as before because this responsibility has now being taken up by the government and the respective national sports associations.

'But our goal of serving the community through sport has never changed. We can still perform this role and be a broad base for sport for all.'