Could it possibly be so that a village in Hong Kong known for its laundry and dairy services provided nearly all players for the Chinese soccer team in the 1936 Berlin Olympics? That was the suggestion in a report produced by James Hayes, who wrote, “For unknown reasons, the old Tai Hang families produced a great many soccer players before the war.
I have been told that nine out of the eleven players representing China at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936 were Tai Hangmen, including the captain.” The story became more alluring on discovering that the Summer Games marked the first-ever appearance of a China delegation and that Great Britain had provided the opposition on its soccer debut.
Invitation From The IOC
China would not have participated had it not been for cajoling by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
When the summer games were being resurrected at the end of the nineteenth century, the committee had sent an invitation to participate in the court of the Qing Dynasty but had not received a reply. It is thought that the word Olympics was not understood, not surprising since 1,500 years had passed since the last event.
Advances in organized sports in China made participation four decades later attractive. The first sports law in its history had been issued by the government in April 1929, stating that “boys and girls must take part in sport. The aim is to develop men’s and women’s bodies for the country’s good.”
There was a considerable academic debate on the future of sport by then. Conservatives thought traditional non-competitive ones should hold sway; radicals thought the competition would help China adopt modern trends. The Olympic Games presented the nation with the chance to compete with the world’s best.
The Chinese Olympic Delegation
The 1936 Chinese team delegation comprised 69 athletes from seven sports (22 athletes were in the Chinese soccer team), 34 observers, and 150 self-funded journalists. It was the first national team appearance, a sole athlete having appeared at the previous Olympic Games in the United States. In light of the population of China, over 500 million in 1936, why should the soccer players have been drawn from Hong Kong?
This is even more surprising given that the soccer game owes its origins to China. It started in the form of cuju (Cu meaning kick; Ju leather ball) during the Han Dynasty 2,300 years ago. Recognition of this by the president of FIFA, Joseph S Blatter , is a belated honor. At the opening ceremony of the International Football Expo in Beijing on 15 July 2004, he stated that the organization concurred with the findings of the Chinese Football Association that the game of football originated in Linzi in the east of the country.
Initially played by soldiers and written into the military science of the day, it was taken up by the royal court and later became a national pastime. However, after several hundred years, it lost popularity and disappeared during the twentieth century.
When final athlete selections were made for Germany after intense training sessions in May and June preceding departure in July, the committee was more concerned with ensuring equal representation of athletes from the north and south of the country. Soccer presented other considerations. It was not only about teamwork but also tactics and understanding of western attributes.
In Hong Kong, the British introduced the game following their arrival in the 1840s. Some 60 years later, the first local Chinese team was started and became known as South China FC in 1908. The football team played British teams such as the Royal Garrison Artillery, the Royal Navy, the Royal Engineers, and the Buffs. More to the point, the Chinese had beaten them at their own game and won several League Championship titles.
It is also a fact that South China had been the de facto Chinese national team in the Far East Championship Games staged between 1913 and 1934 and had won nine out of the ten held. These successes led to the Olympic delegation being given to the Chinese Amateur Athletic Federation (CAAF), who invited South China to provide most of the party for the Olympic Games, under the captaincy of the incomparable Lee Wei-tong.
His life mission was stated as “bringing honor to China through dedication.” He was a believer in the intellect and strength of relationships, collective and personal, and the level of morale as an outcome of those. He wrote many theories on soccer teamwork and urged strength of purpose and intent. Joining South China at 16 years of age, he was dubbed ‘Asian Soccer King’ following a tour of Australia two years later and featured prominently in the sport for the rest of his life.
Soccer Players From Tai Hang
Tai Hang was an ancient village situated initially on the seashore on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island. In 1884 land reclamation began, a feature of Hong Kong’s topography to this day, and by the turn of the twentieth century, Tai Hang was nearly a kilometer from the water, separated from the bay by a vast tract of land. Here, in these wide spaces, the local soccer dream was born.
That land became The Queen’s Recreation Ground, used for polo and by the Army and Navy for sports, and it was where all the aspiring young Chinese came to play soccer in the years leading up to the Berlin adventure. Lee Wei-tong, whose house faced Causeway Road and the grounds, liaised with the British for young Chinese to learn and play soccer
The British Colonial administrators took an optimistic view, evident from the Legislative Council minutes dated 19 September 1929. “On any day and at any time, one has only to wander through any part of the Colony to get an idea of what a hold the love of sports is getting on all and sundry.
It ranges from the small boy who kicks a ball about in Statue Square to the vast crowds who attend football matches. In a cosmopolitan Colony like Hong Kong, it is desirable to encourage the coming together of the various nationalities. What better means can there be to assist this than in the field of sport and on the public recreation grounds of the Colony?”
Chinese Soccer Team Home Town
Besides Lee, some but not all of the China Olympic soccer team dwelt in the village itself. Its adjacency to this ‘field of dream’s gave rise to the comments published in the Royal Asiatic Journal 33 years later. South China soccer ground is located close by So Kon Po, a valley with the hill overlooking Tai Hang to its northern side. Little wonder that the area is known as ‘The cradle of Hong Kong soccer.’
South China’s prominent position was consolidated during this period. The club won the First Division League Championship in 1927, 1931, 1933, 1935, and 1936 – Olympic year. The Senior Shield was also claimed five times, from 1929 to 1936, especially sweet, as it was the first trophy ever put up by the British.
Raising Funds For The Chinese Soccer Team
When 14 of its players were selected for the 22-player Chinese soccer team squad for the Berlin Olympics, the pressing need was to raise funds. Official funding was lean, and the solution was to arrange matches that would attract good-paying crowds.
Accordingly, exhibition matches were played in Shanghai against a Nanjing-Shanghai team and a Shanghai Foreign All-Stars team at the end of April, after which the party set sail on a tour of South East Asia. They would play matches in Saigon, Singapore, Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya, Medan, Rangoon, and Calcutta before finishing in Bombay to join the rest of the China delegation.
A demanding total of 27 matches were played in 62 days. Arranged at little more than two-day intervals, they enabled a great team spirit to develop. The South China players blended well with the remaining eight players from the mainland, Indonesia and Malaya. The tour was a success, raising HK$200,000, which covered the soccer players’ Olympic expenses and those of some of the other athletes.
The Chinese soccer team won 23 matches, with four draws, no defeats, and over a hundred goals scored. The 8-3 victory over the British Army in Rangoon was a highlight. Captain Lee Wei-tong, unsurprisingly, was the leading scorer with 18 goals in 17 appearances.
Traveling To Berlin
Meanwhile, the China delegation boarded the Italian Steamship SS Conte Verde, an 18,000-ton vessel that set sail from Shanghai at noon on 26 June. Stopping at Hong Kong, it then berthed at Singapore Wharf on 2 July, being greeted by over 1,000 Chinese and an unfurled banner proclaiming ‘Bring Glory to China abroad.’
Picking up the soccer players in Bombay, it docked in Venice on 20 July. Then, on 22 July, a train was taken to Munich, where the delegation transferred to the overnight Berlin sleeper train, arriving in the city the next day. From the railway station, a short transfer was made to the splendid Olympic village at Elstal-Doeberitz, nine miles from the stadium and ten miles west from the lights and attractions of the city.
This village had everything that an athlete could dream of by all accounts. An enormous gymnasium, theatre, post office, a training field which was a replica of the stadium’s, a swimming pool, Turkish Baths, a large lake with swans and storks; all were built in a landscape of pine trees and meadowland.
In addition, there were 150 single-story cottages, each accommodating 25 athletes, which led to a crescent-shaped building containing 38 kitchens, each specializing in a different national cuisine.
An American athlete wrote, “The Olympic Village was a sight to behold. They had everything there. They had wild animals running over the grounds, and green grass mowed like a golf course.” A Norwegian journalist cabled his newspaper that it was “a part of heaven.”
Great Britain soccer captain Bernard Joy recalled later, “The village had so many facilities for training and was such a delightful spot that I thought we should have stayed there most of the time. Instead, however, one of the team members had his wife staying in a Berlin hotel, and many of the others went to the Berlin amusements with a deal of freedom.”
The Chinese soccer team settled in well at the Olympics. Many friendships had already been formed when attending an eight-week summer training camp held at Shandong University in Qingdao (ironically a former German possession) the previous summer.
The Olympic Games
The Olympics started on 1 August. During the marches of the competing nations at the opening ceremony, the athletes led by Lee Wei-tong did an eye right smartly, whipping off their white straw sunhats and holding them across their hearts as they passed Chancellor Hitler.
Many athletes and nations had misgivings over Nazi propaganda, and there was consternation over the number of security police employed at the village. But there was no doubting the effective marketing of the XXI Summer Games. TV was broadcast live for the first time. 4.5 million entry tickets were sold for the 129 events, and 1,000 special trains were run to Berlin from outlying areas.
The soccer tournament involved 16 countries playing in eight knockout matches, leading to a winner after quarter and semi-final matches. The last four games would be staged in the Olympic Stadium, but the preliminary games were not. Instead, three grounds in Berlin were selected – Post Stadium, Hertha-BSC field, and the Mommsen Stadium, chosen for China’s Olympic debut.
Chinese Soccer Team Versus Great Britain
In the draw for the preliminary round, the Chinese soccer team was drawn to play Great Britain, considered to be a stronger football team and one of eight classed as Group A, but one that had had little time to train together. Captain Bernard Joy later recalled, “We muddled our way forward in the same state of unpreparedness as when we entered the Second World War three years later.
Fortunately, that far-sighted statesman of football, Stanley Rous, saw the danger and warned the leading English amateurs to start training in case they were needed. So half a dozen of us from the London area met on two evenings a week at Fulham’s ground.”
The Football Association in England had still not decided by June whether to send a national football team or not. The Minutes of 8 June record, “It was agreed to enter provisionally for the Olympic Games, and make a final decision at the Meeting of the Committee on 27 June.
In the meantime, inquiries are to be made of Amateur International Players as to whether they would be able to make the journey to Berlin if selected to play.” After approaching the home associations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland with the proposal to send combined representation, final selections were made on 14 July, just three weeks before the first match.
The two teams arrived at Mommsen Stadium, built-in 1930 and today a protected landmark. The kick-off was at 5.30 pm, past midnight in China, on Thursday 6 August.
The Olympic Chinese football team included eight of the Hong Kong players. The eight comprised a solicitor’s clerk, a bank clerk, an insurance salesperson, the owner of a fleet of trucks, and four traffic police. The remaining three, Chui, Chan, and Suen, came from the mainland.
The teams lined up as follows:
Chinese Soccer Team: Pau Ka-ping; Lee Tin-sang, Tam Kong-pak; Chui Ah-Fai, Wong Mei-shun, Chan Chan-Wo; Tso Kwai-shing, Fung King-cheung, Lee Wai-tong, Suen Kam-shuen, Ip Pak-wah
Great Britain: HHC Hill (Yorkshire Amateurs); GG Holmes (Ilford), RP Fulton (Belfast Celtic); J Gardiner (Queen’s Park), B Joy (The Casuals), DEA Pettit (Cambridge University); J Crawford (Queen’s Park), JR Kyle (Queen’s Park), JM Dodds (Queen’s Park), M Edelston (Wimbledon) and LC Finch (Barnet)
Conditions were ideal – dry with a light wind and a temperature of about 15 degrees.
The Chinese soccer team won the coin toss and elected to have the evening sun and breeze behind them. In the beginning, they were barracked by the crowd, which was gradually won over by the skills shown, particularly in heading.
It is conjecture to say that the cuju style was exhibited since no film has ever been found, yet the reports indicate that it was. Accurate passing and heading skills within tight spaces are features of the ancient sport, and all those hours of training in Tai Hang were now on international display.
Both goalkeepers had made saves before the first significant incident … in a goalmouth melee, Suen had the ball in the British net. The referee raised his whistle. Infringement by Ip, no goal, and free-kick for Britain! Chui Ah-Fai then received an injury and needed to leave the soccer field. He returned, but the kind of mishap would bring a substitution today.
Tam Kong-pak, left-back, was everywhere, fielding offensive and defensive headers. Fung King-Cheung had a 30-yard free-kick tipped over the crossbar by goalkeeper Hill. There was no score at halftime.
According to the Hong Kong Telegraph, “the Chinese football team had just as much of the game, if not more, as Britain, but their passing though excellent, was too close and overdone. It enabled a rattled British football team to jump in the first time and save some harassing positions.
However, reports are unanimous that the Chinese headed brilliantly and displayed a superior brand of soccer.” The South China Morning Post noted, “The heading of the Chinese players was a feature of the game,” while Great Britain captain Brian Joy wrote, “It should have been an easy task for us, even though they had a very effective center-half… in the matter of ball-control and positioning the Chinese were superior, but in an energetic twenty minutes after the interval snapshots by Dodds and Finch gave us victory.”
In the 54th and 65th minutes, those two goals resulted in a final score Chinese Soccer Team 0, Great Britain 2.
European Games For The Chinese Soccer Team
A European tour followed. A sequence of matches began in Frankfurt and took in Vienna, Geneva, Paris, Le Havre, and Amsterdam before concluding in London. There was just one victory – a 3-2 win against Servette FC in Geneva – and a thrilling 2-2 draw against Red Star in Paris. Nevertheless, the players appeared to have found many admirers.
The Mayor received them at a reception in London after playing a match against Islington Corinthians at Arsenal’s ground on the last day of August. The British took to the visitors, families inviting them into their homes, and children hunting for autographs.
The best Chinese soccer player while in Europe was Lee Wai-tong who was offered a professional contract with several European clubs. We believe he declined this opportunity as he was retiring from soccer upon returning to Hong Kong. All the Chinese athletes performed with honor but returned home empty-handed.
Only Fu Baolu in the pole vault proceeded beyond the preliminary round. In its report, the delegation stated, “We were a far cry from many countries in the results and athletic abilities. We were ridiculed as having brought back nothing but a ‘duck’s egg’ “.
The passing of 86 years has given a new perspective to the adventure. As the English poet Samuel Butler (1612-1680) so aptly put it, “The first undertakers in all great attempts commonly miscarry, and leave the advantages of their losses to those that come after them.” Today the People’s Republic of China has its soccer team, and it competed in the recent Summer Games.
|Date||City||European Team||Score||1936 China Team|
|13th August||Frankfurt||South-West Germany||8-1||China|
|15th Auguest||Wien||SK Rapid Wien||4-2||China|
|16th August||Wien||SK Admira||11-0||China|
|20th August||Geneva||Servette FC||2-3||China|
|22nd August||Paris||Red Start Olympique||2-2||China|
|23rd August||Le Havre||Le Havre||6-0||China|
|27th August||Amsterdam||AFC Ajax||5-3||China|
|31st August||London||Islington Corinthians||3-2||China|
|1st September||London||Casual FC||5-2||China|
What Became Of The 1936 Olympic Soccer Pioneers?
The Pacific War robbed the Hong Kong players of their best years. Lee Wei-tong played until the age of 43 and represented the Asian Football Confederation as an able administrator. Tam Kong-pak was the last survivor, passing away in 2006 at 94. His son, the entertainer, Alan Tam Wing-Lun, has spoken frequently of his father and has been immensely helpful in providing photographs and memories.
This story does have a happy ending. Anthony Chan, the Artistic Director of Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, has adapted the story for a musical. (He said, “As a gesture of support for Beijing 2008, this new musical (‘Field of Dreams’) is inspired by a real-life Hong Kong story … when China was under siege from within and without, and Hong Kong was still a colonial enclave.” The 1936 Chinese soccer team won the hearts of the Europeans.
The Chinese Football Association next tournament they qualified for was the 1948 Summer Olympics and its sole FIFA World Cup appearance in 2002. In 2016, they announced that it’s their intention to create 50,000 football academies throughout the country by 2025 to generate better talent. This was welcomed by Chinese fans who want to see their country performing more on the world stage.
Rhett is an Australian-born, globe trotter who is a UEFA ‘A’ Licence Soccer Coach. With his family, he has traveled and coached soccer in more than 30 countries, while attending World Cups, European Championships, and some of the biggest local derbies in the world!