‘They see my skin and I’m speaking Cantonese and are shocked’ – how Ghana-born Hong Kong footballer Christian Annan embraced new identity and culture
Popular player delights audience in fascinating discussion about Hong Kong football and national identity
A fascinating day of discussion about Hong Kong football and its place in the city’s culture took place at the Education University of Hong Kong this week.
Organised by Dr Lawrence Ho Ka-ki of the social sciences department and football culture researcher and aficionado of the local game Tobias Zuser, it brought together FA officials, academics, fans, current and former players and coaches and others to discuss topics such as national identity, youth development, fan culture, gender, the “past, present and way ahead” and more.
Mark Sutcliffe, chief executive of the Hong Kong Football Association, gave a strong defence of his restructuring of an organisation simply “dysfunctional” when he took over, and highlighted some of the often-unreported progress made.
It may not always seems so, but there is no doubt local football is in a much better position than it was when he took charge of an organisation that at that point had not even bothered to prepare accounts for the previous five years – though he admitted there was plenty of work still to do.
One of the most interesting talks was about the nature of Hong Kong football and national identity, with professor Ma Ngok of the department of government and public administration at Chinese University of Hong Kong and Christian Annan, the Ghanaian-born Hong Kong international.
He came to Hong Kong in 2005, and delighted the audience with tales of culture clashes, learning Cantonese and how he fell in love with the city.
“Definitely I am a Hongkonger,” he said. “When I go to China or Taiwan and start speaking Cantonese to someone they find it very surprising. They look at the colour of my skin and I’m speaking Cantonese and ask ‘where are you from?’ and I say ‘Hong Kong’ and they’re surprised!”
Unlike many expats – myself included – who shamefully speak little more than taxi and menu Cantonese despite living here for several years, Annan dove into the language, and its penchant for regular misunderstandings.
“I would ask my teammates words’ meanings and write down how they sounded to me in English,” he said. “Slowly, slowly I picked it up – I had to start with football language and from there I progressed.
“I remember one time I was in a restaurant and wanted a tissue and said to the waiter “zi gan” and he looked at me strange and got me a spoon – “ci gan” – I was already eating with a spoon!
“I try to let my Chinese friends laugh at me and my Cantonese – so when they speak English I can laugh at them! But they also teach me too.”
The most recent Hong Kong squad announced has four mainland- and 10 foreign-born players (several have lived in HK since childhood), about half the 29 total.
But all will be supported by fans when they play Jordan, more so since the national team has increasingly become a way of embracing and projecting a Hong Kong identity separate to mainland China.
Professor Ma recalled following Hong Kong football in the ‘glory days’ and how the SAR effectively didn’t have a ‘proper’ national team until the seventies, with players often representing the ‘free China’ team, ie Taiwan, rather than the crown colony. When the Republic of China beat Hong Kong in the Asian Cup in 1959, 21 of the 22 players involved were Hong Kong Chinese.
“In the 80s all the Hong Kong team players were ethnic Chinese,” Ma recalled, “but now the team is multi-ethnic with a mix of Hong Kong, mainland and naturalised players.
“But nonetheless, we support them – it’s an important part of Hong Kong culture, we take whatever works. It testifies to the cosmopolitan nature of our society.”
Annan, who had no idea where Hong Kong was when an agent shipped him over from Accra, is also testament to that. His wise advice for fellow immigrants had the audience roaring with laughter.
“Definitely the locals treat me more friendly when I speak Cantonese. Go buy something and ask ‘how much’ in English – if it’s 10 dollars they’ll tell you 15 or 20,” he said. “Come back the next day and say ‘gei cin’ and it’ll be 10 dollars!
“Most foreigners, expatriates, come to Hong Kong, they just want to do their job and go home, they don’t care about the language, but it’s a very good advantage – it’s all about passion, loving the culture and embracing it, and you want to be part of it.”