Advent Calendar – 17th December: Sun Jihai and the British-Chinese Experience

With Advent now under way and the countdown to Christmas now on, Typical City is looking at an incident, player or match specific to the club that corresponds with each date. Today, Alex tells us why his memories of Sun Jihai are a bit different to the norm…

Unlike a lot of people I was delighted to see Sun Jihai inaugurated into the English football Hall of Fame ahead of many players who probably deserved it more in footballing terms. Yes, it might have been an “obscure Chinese player” getting into the Hall of Fame in a “grubby little fix” via “corruption worthy of Sepp Blatter” as a political gesture towards a the head of a dislikeable government which treats its own people abysmally, but I still loved it. Why?

Well, anything which gets under the skin of the easily outraged, tabloid comment section bores is always funny. That’s a given.

I also loved it for more personal reasons.

Going to a school which was 99.9% white, any deviation in ethnic background was readily apparent and inescapable. This was especially true when playing school football. Chinese people are rubbish at football, apparently. All one billion of them. Including people like me who happened to be a bit Chinese, but were actually British.

It’s easy to forget, or just not notice, that there are no Chinese footballers to watch on the telly. Certainly there aren’t any good ones. This isn’t meant as some sort of takedown of British culture. It’s completely understandable that it’s never noticed bearing in mind that the vast, vast majority of footballers have role models they can relate to on that level. It’s also not meant as some sort of screed about the immigrant experience as, not being an immigrant myself, I have no idea what that would be like.

But as a teenager whose entire school life and short lived football career was defined by my “being Chinese” in an environment which was whiter than snow, Sun Jihai was more than just a full back – he was someone to look up to.

Sun was the first Asian player to play for City after signing in February 2002 and the first Chinese footballer to score in the Premier League. He was a decent full back who had the affection of the City fans for his hard work, dedication and performances on the pitch.

(As a quick aside, I have always been grateful to the City fans for embracing Sun. It could so easily have gone a different way and I think if I’d gone to games and seen the only Chinese footballer on the pitch being racially abused it might well have ruined football for me forever. So thanks, everyone!)

The number of British Asians playing in the Premier League and Football League is truly abysmal. Have a think now. How many British Asian players of East Asian descent can you think of? Bearing in mind how massive a part of our shared culture and community British Asians are, it’s not a lot is it?

A 2004 study found that there were only 7 British Asians playing football in the UK. A follow up in 2008 found that less than 1 in 100 academy players were British Asians. Why has there not been a follow up study since? Who knows! British people of East Asian descent are incredibly rare in our leagues. Personal experience tells me that people like myself don’t love football less than anyone else. They support their teams, go to games, desperately want England to win. They share in the joy and the misery, the celebrations after a goal and the disgust at bad refereeing.

And of course we all know what happens when a Premier League club happens to sign the kind of player the tabloids normally decide to call “oriental” and make takeaway puns about – They were obviously only signed to sell shirts! This isn’t helped by it probably being true in some cases, such as when Manchester United signed Dong Fangzhuo, but generally it’s just a stereotype born out of good old fashioned racism.

Like I said above, this situation isn’t unique to me and I doubt my case is as extreme as that of many others out there, but I wanted to take this unique Advent Calendar situation and use it to be a bit self indulgent. To talk about an issue which bothers me but doesn’t really fit elsewhere via the medium of my unusual footballing hero, Sun Jihai.

Sun didn’t change my life – it wasn’t anything as dramatic as that – but what he did was dull the racist barbs a bit for people like me who had previously been missing something a bit as a kid. He was a good player, he worked hard and played for the team. The football landscape clearly hasn’t changed in this country because of him but he did alright by me.

Through a childhood soundtracked by words like “chink” and looking at today’s football world infested by imbeciles like Dave Whelan (who managed to come up with a racial slur even I’d never heard – “chingaling“) Sun Jihai was someone to look up to and seeing him in the Hall of Fame makes me smile every time.

Thanks, Sun!

And as much as I don’t really approve of a Chinese media superpower being involved with City at all, I hope that they will at least bring an upside of normalising the involvement of Chinese people in our football leagues.

If anyone out there has a similar experience or whatever that they want to discuss a bit further please let me know. I’m certainly not claiming to be the sole authority on this issue and am more than happy to talk about it all day.

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Written by Alex Timperley

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