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From the Qing dynasty, to collapsing roofs and the CSL: a history of Guangzhou R&F’s temporary home

Military parade ground, site of the first Provincial Games in China, political rallying point, Japanese military depot, home of the Guangdong-Hong Kong Cup, host of the Women’s World Cup, and finally a CSL venue. The Guangdong Provincial People’s Stadium has certainly witnessed a lot since it hosted the first Provincial Games in the dying days of the Qing dynasty.

The Guangdong Provincial People’s Stadium in Guangzhou is directly south of Martyrs’ Park and next to the China Plaza mall. It’s not the most visually appealing stadium and many shoppers won’t give it a second glance but its history is more interesting than they would probably give it credit for.

Now and then: a plaque at the stadium records the 1906 Games

The land the stadium now sits on was used by the military as far back as the Tang dynasty but it was in the early years of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) that it was first referred to as dongjiaochang or Eastern Parade Ground, reflecting its continued use by the military and its location to the east of central Guangzhou. Some Cantonese still refer to the modern day stadium by this much older name.

Towards the end of the Qing dynasty in 1906, Guangdong held its, and China’s, first ever provincial level athletics competition; the use of the Eastern Parade Ground as a sporting venue had begun. It wouldn’t look like a sporting venue for several years though as Sun Yat-Sen’s order to construct a stadium was hindered by budgetary pressures and only completed in 1932.

China’s political instability during this period was the cause of many financial woes and, as a large open space close to Guangzhou’s urban core, the Eastern Parade Ground was used by the political movements of the time. Many of the figures who would dominate China’s political scene in the twentieth century wrote their names into the history of the facility: Sun Yat-Sen ordered the construction of the stadium and was there in 1922; Zhou Enlai was part of a 1925 demonstration that started there and ended in death and disaster opposite the colonial enclave of Shamian Island; Mao Zedong was present at a mass rally on New Year’s day in 1926; Liu Shaoqi participated in a rally later that year; and Chiang Kai-shek held a ceremony to launch the Northern Expedition from there in July of the same year. They were all following in the much earlier footsteps of Lin Zexu who, in 1839, had inspected his troops here before launching his campaign against the British and their illegal opium imports.

Chiang Kai-shek giving a speech at the Eastern Parade Ground in 1926

Non-sporting uses of the Eastern Parade Ground continued when the Japanese occupied Guangzhou in October 1938 and put the stadium to military use. The valuable open space was turned into a transport and supplies depot, fringed with trenches and barbed wire. This made the area a target for allied bombing and in the fighting to retake Guangzhou the stadium was destroyed. It was quickly rebuilt and hosted the 15th Guangdong Provincial Games in 1947; the ninth to be held there.

When the communists took control of Guangzhou and the whole of China the stadium gained its current name – the Guangdong Provincial People’s Stadium. However, overshadowed by the newly built Yuexiushan, the Provincial Stadium’s stands at first had space for only 8,000. This was eventually increased to 11,000 and further improvements were made for the 1975 visit of the American track and field team.

Whilst Yuexiushan is more closely associated with the history of Cantonese football, the Provincial Stadium also played its part, hosting one off events such as the testimonial of legendary player Rong Zhixing and every home leg of the Guangdong-Hong Kong Cup played between 1981 and 2006. The 2006 game was particularly special as that marked the stadium’s centenary.

The Provincial Stadium also played an important part in the development of the international women’s game. The appearance of the stadium today dates back to an expansion to 27,000 seats and the additional of four floodlight pylons for an international women’s invitational tournament in 1983. Guangzhou also hosted the 1988 FIFA Women’s Invitation Tournament and then in 1991 the Provincial Stadium attracted international attention again as it hosted four games in the inaugural Women’s World Cup. A subsequent renovation to modernise the stadium, partly at the cost of a reduced capacity, was prompted by the 2010 Asian Games and the ground would go on to host six matches in the men’s football tournament.

39th edition of the Guangdong-Hong Kong Cup

On a domestic level, the Provincial Stadium has not hosted regular top flight football since Guangzhou Apollo (now Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao) were relegated from the Jia A in 1998. The nomadic Guangdong Sunray Cave played several second tier seasons there in the early 2010s but never gained promotion to the CSL. Sunray Cave struggled to attract fans to the Provincial Stadium which proved lucky one day in April 2013 when, at half time of a game played in the midst of a monsoon downpour, one of the roof panels fell in.

More recently, the Guangdong-Hong Kong Cup returned to the stadium in 2016 and 2017, and Guangzhou R&F used it for a mid-season friendly against German side Schalke last year. However, Saturday’s 2-0 win for Guangzhou R&F over Tianjin Quanjian was the first time that the Provincial Stadium has hosted a game in the CSL. It will host one more next weekend, R&F v Changchun, before the Cantonese side return home to Yuexiushan.

Freshly painted Yuexiushan

During the off-season Yuexiushan has been undergoing yet another renovation, forcing R&F to play elsewhere for the third time in what is now their sixth season in the CSL. This time, Yuexiushan’s VIP seats and corporate boxes have been improved, the pitch re-laid and the whole stadium, including the roofs of the North and South stands, given a fresh lick of paint. R&F are scheduled to return there in April to host Liaoning – who have a history of spoiling R&F homecoming parties – but to do so the Cantonese will have to leave behind a stadium which has a sporting history dating back to the Qing dynasty.

Donald began following Guangzhou R&F having moved to China in the same year that R&F moved to Guangzhou. The club's first foreign season ticket holder, Donald was able to watch three seasons at Yuexiushan before returning to the UK.

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