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Pub Talk: Chinese fan culture special

With not much happening during the international break for China except friendly internationals, the lads do something a bit different today, and focus on fan culture in Chinese footy. And where better to discuss this fascinating subject than in the pub? No need to say more, this is going to be a good one. Mine’s an erguotou.

S: So today we are talking about fan culture. Where to start B?

B: This is a very interesting topic and while I think its something still in its infancy in China, there are some very passionate fans for every club, both of our sections show that. What are your perceptions on this topic?

S: It’s a really broad and fascinating topic, I could talk about it for days on end, right now I don’t know where to begin. But I can say that I think the fan culture here is definitely one of Chinese footballs trump cards.

B: Well, let’s begin with Shanghai, tell us a little bit about the group you know the most about, the lan mo (blue devils), as well as some of the other Shenhua fan groups.

S: Well, as some reading this know, I have a very long standing and fantastic relationship with these guys so my views are definitely coloured here. Lanmo were one of the first fan groups on the scene in China, founded around 2001, and they are undoubtedly one of the best known and respected on the scene as a whole. They claim a lot of “firsts” in China, but these are always hard to verify of course.

B: Right, I think there are many groups claiming the same “firsts” a lot of times. I think back when these groups really started, around the late 90s & early 2000s, there wasn’t a lot of communication going on, whereas nowadays many of the groups communicate via weibo & qq.

S: Yeah, no-one would know that much about what was going on elsewhere. It’s a it like trying to work out who invented a joke.

B: So as someone personally involved in a supporters group, what do you think their strong suit is?

S: They are very inclusive and internationally-orientated, I’ve even seen Japanese fans join them for dinner and post-game drinks and tomfoolery. I’ve never seen Japanese people and Chinese people socialize outside of a business context anywhere else, which is pretty interesting. There’s also plenty of members from other parts of China, waidiren, which is noteworthy considering how much prejudice there sometimes is towards outsiders in Shanghai.

B: Yeah, that seems surprising, especially if the numbers are that high. Then again, I think football is the great equalizer. Plus, while Chinese people tend to have a lot of prejudices towards groups, they won’t apply them to individuals.

S: I think so, that applies to a lot of places, especially in China. I think for me, football is a great universal language, and the Lanmo are all very fluent in it. I’ve heard some suggest the fan culture is fake or shallow here, but that is absolutely not the case, as far as I’m concerned, the Lanmo, and indeed other groups in China, are as good as fans in Europe and better in some cases.

B: I think the issue is that when people are talking about “fan culture” in China, more often than not they are referring generally to all the fans & not to the supporters groups. There is a massive difference between the two, in my experience.

S: Yeah definitely. It’s interesting that in China, these two categories are very clearly defined and separate. But where I am from, its more a blend from one kind of fan to another, fans don’t fit so neatly back home. For categories, I mean “fan groups” and then all other fans.

B: I think that’s unfortunate, but the problem lies in what I sense is a general distrust of the media, often due to previous negative experiences, which makes it much easier to just interview the “man on the street” outside the stadium rather than talking to the supporters sections

S: Yes. We’ve talked a lot about fan stuff between ourselves offline and it seems your experience is a little different from mine especially in this way, your guys have some problems with the media. Why don’t you tell us about your group, who they are and when you joined.

B: Well, you’ve had your own negative experience with Chinese media and know just as well that what you say to them and what the end result is when it gets reported is often very different. We’ve had some issues with that in Beijing.
But as to your general question, I’m a part of the Yulinjun (Royal Army) supporters group in Beijing. The group was founded in 2005, so it is fairly “young” by Chinese standards and is kept on the small side, a little over 300 people right now. My involvement has equally been on the short side, only since 2011, but I have quickly become very involved in it. I think that’s something cool about the groups in China, if they know you’re serious and committed, they are more than happy having you play an important role in the group, foreigner or not.

S: Yeah very much so. It’s interesting about the different sizes of groups. The thing with the Lanmo is that it is an umbrella group for a number of smaller groups, including our very own SEC, but there are plenty who are just there on the north terrace at Hongkou simply as lanmo. What’s behind the group number of the Yulin Jun? Are they selective who they let in?

B: Right, there have been talks in Beijing about uniting all the north terrace groups to create something similar in size to the lanmo, as there’s already a positive relationship with the group on the upper terrace of the north end, but the police aren’t fans of that idea. That’s the same issue with our numbers, while there is a process of “interviews”, it’s not too serious, however we’re not able to expand beyond 24 lower, so it makes things hard.

S: It’s funny, there are other groups at Hongkou as you know, the Blue Boys (Lanbao) at the South Terrace, and a few other smaller ones. The Lanmo and Blue Boys talked about merging a few years ago, but it came to nothing. There are some interesting defections and internal politics between fan groups of the same club also, I suppose its the same everywhere.

B: Right, I think that’s the case at many different clubs, there are some rivalries between the two different fan groups (or more). I know at Guoan, there exists one between the “official” group at midfield, the kuangbiao, which the Yulinjun founders broke away from, and the yulinjun. It’s usually these defections that lead to new groups being formed, and those that stay back tend not to be happy about them.

S: Yeah football is a tribal game at the end of the day, fans just want to be around others who have similar attitudes about supporting their team. What’s the Yunlin Jun really about then?

B: Most of all it’s an independent group, not connected to the club like the kuangbiao are & not a “cheer leading” group like they are. It looks toward European ultras for inspiration and believes in spirited, but not mindless, support for the team. There is also a spirit of “resistance” running through it, which goes back to its independence.

S: Do these values resonate with you?

B: I know you use the name shanghai ultra, but my viewpoint of the (East) European ultras culture is that it’s a very fine line between ultras and hooligans. The ultras culture is one that never really picked up in England, which is what I most often watched before coming to China. In the US, it’s incredibly international, especially in a city like Chicago, with huge Polish and Mexican populations, so its a mix of their barra bravas and European ultras, with home grown culture. I guess that’s a very long answer to a relatively simple question, for a shorter one, I’d say yes, those values are something that I hold deeply.

S: There’s definitely an extreme end to some Ultra groups which overlaps with hooliganism, but for me its about a lot of things, an absolute belief in your team, a dedication to support it as fully as you can for 90 minutes, to not cease support if your team falls behind, and standing up for the game. That last point is very relevant, I believe the all-seater rules did a lot of damage to UK football culture, and I think modern football largely, not to put too fine a point on it, is fucking gash.

B: While my viewpoint might not be quite as strong as yours, I do agree that it is excellent that we’re allowed to stand in China and that it’s the only way to watch a match.

S: Yeah its ironic that in communist China I can stand and watch a football game with a beer in my hand, but in Scotland, I’ve been ejected from East End Park twice for refusing to sit down – I was at the back of the stadium and not blocking anyone’s view. Pathetic! I never asked to be forced to sit down, I never imposed my view on other fans, modern football is all about turning fans into consumers to be exploited, using football as a channel to generate profits for those who do not give a flying fuck about it. I hate all these sychophants who can’t see past the Premier$hip, it’s a seriously over-rated league, sure, its great, but not the be all and end all, but it symbolizes all that is wrong with modern football. Dull, fake, shallow and soulless.

B: And with that, what do you think are the things about modern football that need to be corrected most in China, from a fan’s point of view/matchday experience.

S: Well part of the reason I fell into Chinese football fandom so easily is that the influence of “Modern Football” is not so pronounced here as in Europe, it’s more akin to the experience of watching your lower-league team back home, everyone is there to support their local club, and not to get a boner over big-name, ignorant, arrogant, pampered wankers. But there’s plenty needs to be done in China, fans are treated like shit here.

B: You say that and yet there were thousands that showed up to meet Drogba at the airport in Shanghai.

S: Sure, but a large proportion were genuine Shenhua fans, let’s face it, it was a very exciting moment no matter what.

B: In any case, I do think the comparison of lower league football is apt. Salaries are obviously many times above the local average, but they still aren’t that high. The players are often far more accessible, often with practices that are open to the public. For the most part, they don’t have the same arrogance and egos that exist.

S: Yeah that is what it is, my hometown club, Dunfermline Athletic, have spent a lot of time yo-yo ing between the top and second teir levels in Scotland… sadly now in the third, but it’s the freshness and unpretentiousness of Chinese football which resonates with me.

B: Well, that’s the positive side, what’s the negative side from a fan’s viewpoint?

S: I think the CFA in general does too many stupid things which insult the fans, like scheduling games in the middle of the working day for example.

B: Yes, fortunately those are rare, but the afternoon on a workday matches are downright stupid.

S: Yes and other restrictions, fans at Hongkou are no longer allowed banners, thanks to the overzealous local police.

B: We heard rumors about that and even started chants, but it seemed like you had plenty up when the match began.

S: There used to be a lot more, there used to be flags hanging down from the upper tier, but now no longer, and no more Tifo… modern football perhaps isn’t so far away after all…

B: I think there’s a constant give-and-take with the police here. A lot of times the clubs are fairly receptive to the fan groups, but police, especially in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, take a much tougher stance.

S: It’s interesting to note that you can see fans in some stadiums, like Guizhou, set off flares during games, but this is not tolerated at all in Shanghai or Beijing.

B: Right, I know that Qingdao and Guizhou are both allowed to use flares, but oddly the away ends are not allowed to use them. That’s something that has often frustrated supporters.

S: Hah, I know all about different rules for the away and home ends, earlier when I mentioned I was thrown out of Dunfermline’s East End Park for refusing to sit down, there were several hundred Rangers fans standing at the opposite end….

B: So on the subject of away ends, how long have Shenhua fans been travelling? I recently was talking with some Guoan fans and their impression is that away support has really only built up over the past 3-4 years.

S: That’s funny Guoan fans think that, I was with 100 Shenhua fans who came to Fengtai stadium in 2007, quite a respectable number for a trip which took a bit longer back then.

B: I wish, in general, that Chinese stadia would be more prepared for away supporters. At most stadiums, you’re lucky if you can even purchase water in the away end, let alone food or beer.

S: That’s another thing. There’s drinks and some very basic snacks available at Hongkou, but very little. You’d think in China of all places, food options would be plentiful.

B: Right…I’ve seen how food options at other large venues, like train stations, have become something that has been focused on in recent years and yet there’s been little to no change of food offerings at stadia in China over the past 10 years. Not much difference in what’s available at Hongkou or Gongti from when I first started going in 2001.

S: Curiously though, there’s always beer available at Hongkou, at least for home fans, and that is something which is very much taken advantage of by the SEC.

B: Yeah, that’s a nice touch. Since midway through 2009 or so, beer’s no longer available at Worker’s Stadium.

S: That’s surely a huge regret.

B: Of course! Well, we’ve talked a lot about the supporter’s sections, who tend to not waver at all in their support for one side, but what about the general fans who are a little more wishy washy or are “city” fans.

S: Yeah this is an area which is less clear. We can’t forget though that there are regular fans who goto games but simply sit in regular sections, and they aren’t as visible as fan groups.

B: I don’t disagree that there are plenty of these fans that are fully behind their team, but there are also those who might support all the teams in a city.

S: Yeah, this is something which I can’t really get my head around. It’s a consequence of fan culture in China being barely two decades old, not to mention that most teams have been around for a much shorter period of time.

B: Right, in Shanghai, at least with a team like East Asia, there’s a “younger brother” relationship. In Guangzhou, you have two sides that haven’t been around very long. In Beijing, the other side isn’t in the CSL and has tried to build their support on the backs of Guoan.

S: It’s also strange how Shanghai has had way more CSL teams than any other city, and yet all are relatively poorly supported, even Shenhua.

B: It’s something that always seems difficult to explain. Perhaps Yao Ming helped basketball to capture the interests locally.

S: It could be, it’s hard to say, Shanghainese have some unusual attitudes in some ways compared to elsewhere. There’s something odd going on though, we’ve had Inter Shanghai, Shanghai Zobon, Shanghai United, Shanghai Shenxin, Shanghai East Asia and Shanghai Shenhua all play in the CSL, yet its only really in the last couple of years we saw Dalian and Guangzhou have other CSL teams. It’s a strange world out there.

B: I don’t think its odd that Shanghai has had all those sides, what I find surprising is that nobody else has seriously tried to challenge Guoan in Beijing. There’s some talk that Wanda might attempt it in the next few years, but we’ll see.

S: Right, it is more odd that other cities haven’t made more of an effort. Do you think its a good thing that Beijing only has one CSL team?

B: I do think it’s good that the attention is far more focused, it hasn’t divided up loyalties at all. You look at back in the day Inter Shanghai had okay attendance, and now that they’re in Guizhou, you have some fans who are turned off on football, though they might come back to one of Shanghai’s other sides. Beijing temporarily had two sides, but it was so brief that it didn’t have an impact.

S: That was the Shenyang side, right?

B: It was Liaoning Whowin

S: That was a very strange affair, did they change their name ?

B: It was an unbelievably weird saga. They moved down to Beijing because they were struggling to make money in Anshan or Jinzhou or whereever they were playing at the time. They moved down to Beijing thinking it was a bigger market, they promised to not change their name, then they found out nobody in Beijing was interested in supporting a team named Liaoning. So they became Beijing Sanyuan for a few months, before comedian Zhao Benshan, among others, put up the money to get them back to Liaoning. To be honest, I was a regular at the Olympic Stadium to watch their matches, that was an unbelievable Liaoning side.

S: I bet Zhao Benshan’s mates thought it was the start of one of his jokes when he said he was going to pay the money to move a team called Liaoning in Beijing back to play in Liaoning.

B: Haha, very much so. So one of the biggest issues facing fan culture here, other than clubs moving, are the “Euro snobs”, what do you think is the best way to deal with them?

S: I think the best way is to be open and inclusive and encourage everyone to go along and get a taste of CSL action for themselves. That applies to everyone anywhere as regards watching a local league. No-one claims the CSL is the same technical standard as the EPL, but its often more entertaining. There’s many who are eager to knock Chinese football, but most have never even watched a single game. Much like the authors of all these shite articles written on the net about the game here which can’t get past the first sentence without mentioning corruption. Before the cliche was “empty stadiums” but finally even the dumbasses who write these stories saw this wasn’t true. So progress is being made!

B: Yes, I think nothing can beat actually attending a match and witnessing what the atmosphere is like inside the stadium. If you’re a real football fan, it’s likely to get you back.

S: Exactly, better than sitting in the pub watching on telly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just no substitute for being a part of it.

B: And like you said, the fans in China are open and inclusive. Guoan has a large foreign following and yet the fans always get excited to see foreign faces. I’m sure its the same down in Shanghai, and even more so at other venues around the league where foreigners are a rare sight.

S: It is, there’s always been foreigners at Hongkou as long as I can remember, long may it continue, football is obviously a way to bring people of different creeds, colours and cultures together, this is something special and I’m proud to be a part of it in China, its meaningful.

B: Exactly, I’m equally proud to be playing a role in it and hope that through , we can get more people to enjoy football here.

S: Indeed, that is what we are all about. I hope to pen some guides and background information for new fans wanting to get in on the action at their local club, the basics are the same for each city, football lovers will be welcomed by our Chinese friends on the terrace, come what may.

B: Cheers to that!

S: Cheers B!

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.



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