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“I am a Shenzhener” – Native football culture blooms in immigrant city

Shenzhen is one of China’s biggest, yet newest cities. As such it’s often said that everyone in the metropolis bordering Hong Kong is full of immigrants from somewhere else. Shenzhen-born Jason Wong busts this myth and explains how the city’s football team is spearheading its emerging identity.

Our City and Our Football Club

It was the first weekend of November, 2018, and I was studying as a visiting student in Edinburgh. Having noticed that the last round of Chinese League 1 was going on, where my native team Shenzhen FC was fighting for promotion, I set up my alarm clock at 6am UTC, hoping to watch the game in the early morning. I’m far from a die-hard fan of Shenzhen FC, and at the time I hardly expected them to win promotion as I had recently witnessed their humiliating home defeat against their promotion rivals , Zhejiang Greentown.

To my dismay, I woke up after 7am UTC, but checking my phone I discovered that Zhejiang was trailing behind while Shenzhen was in a comfortable 3-0 lead. So I watched the rest of the second half which saw Meizhou Hakka defeat Zhejiang FC, to send their Guangdong neighbour into the Super League. Three years after the Kaisa Group took over, Shenzhen FC’s misfortune was over – for now. Yet the unique problems facing the club, concerning football culture and culture of our city, may be far from over.

I was born in Shenzhen in 1998, and my maternal grandparents used to be farmers in Luohu, in the very core of the nascent city. It’s often said the city was a mere fishing village 40 years ago, this is not correct however. It grew from a small market town surrounded by a bunch of villages alongside the Canton-Kowloon Railway into a first-tier metropolis – an impressive story nevertheless. However, the speed of Shenzhen’s rise left little time for its residents to develop a shared identity: I remembered my years in primary and middle school, during which the usual question of greeting a new friend was ‘Where are you from?’, a question applied for adults even today. But I always found it hard to explain my origin as I told the story of my father who settled down in Shenzhen at the age of 14, and the fact that I was native born with a native mother would surprised many in those days, not to mention the Wai-tau Cantonese I spoke with my grandparents.

The slogan ‘Come and be a Shenzhener’(来了就是深圳人 lai jiu shi Shenzhenren) may be true in the sense that Shenzhen is open and diverse, yet how immigrants connect with their new home is another story: the upcoming Chinese New Year will see millions flooding back to their hometown, leaving an “empty city”. While there are increasing numbers of Shenzhen-born children in recent times, the strong connections between Chinese people and their ancestral hometown stand between many “Second Generation Shenzheners” (深二代) and their perception of a shared identity.

A Sculpture Depicting the Old Market of East Gate

As for our football club, my only memory before its relegation was a
0-6 thrashing to Manchester United, in a friendly match on July 23th, 2007. Despite the score, having the chance to play against top teams like Man United illustrated the standing of the old Shenzhen F.C in Asia, a level to which the club today look some way from.

During 2014, the club caught the eye of the public, not for of its revival, but due to its financial struggle and failure to pay the wages of players. A news report claiming that each player only received a bottle of herbal tea and a fee of 300 RMB to cover their expenses still seems shocking, yet the professional ethic of the players saved Shenzhen from further downfall. During those years of Guangzhou Evergrande’s domination, some may wonder why Shenzhen, a first-tier city, lacked a team in the top football league. But those who actually watched the games of Shenzhen FC during this time would never dream of promotion, as a safe position in League one seemed to be so precious. Despite the struggle of my local team, it was during those early years of CSL commercial success that I really started watching football.

The Skyline of Shenzhen Viewed from Southern Futian. Credit: Official Shenzhen Wechat account

Everything changed as the real estate giant Kaisa Group took over the club in 2016, clearing its debt and bringing in new players. The club, initially under the Chinese coach Tang Yaodong, planned to win promotion in two years. But the sweet moment of success came after three seasons, and the reign of five managers. 

A New Season, a New Journey

Time really flies, and the starting whistle of the 2019 season has already been blown. While Shenzhen fans may still be doubtful about the team’s improvement during the transfer window, the fighting spirit they showed in the first match at least brought them a joyful evening as the opening ceremony kicked start a new season. With a solid defence, simple but effective counter and some luck just like the end of last season, Shenzhen recovered from one goal behind and the injury of their captain to grab a 3-1 win over Hebei. The wonderful performance of Norwegian midfielder Ole Selnaes, two goals and one assist, cast aside any doubts as to his ability.

Shenzhen Players Celebrating a Goal during their First Match in CSL Picture taken from the official Wechat Account of Shenzhen FC

In the following match, Shenzhen F.C. grabbed another home win after conceding early. Despite relying on a rather defensive formation with three centre backs, the team showed ability and resolution in offence, dominating possession and creating many more chances than the visiting opponent, Tianjin Tianhai. In a thrilling finish, Shenzhen scored two injury-time goals to win 2-1 and to rise to fourth in the table in a surprise start to the season.

Coming down from the ecstasy of two somewhat fortunate yet well-deserved opening victories, we shall not forget that this is only the beginning of 30 difficult tests. But under the lead of manager Juan Lopez Carlo, the team can hopefully win the support of Shenzhen citizens old and new, and develop a unique football culture that contributes to the culture of our city. As a native born Shenzhener with native blood and native soul, I would like to be optimistic today and declare—our city is not a cultural desert, and our team has come to stay!

A Shenzhen native, a half-Cantonese. An Arsenal fan, a football referee at the campus league. An English major at Xiamen University, a former intern editor at Shenzhen Daily. A lover of languages, English literature and poetry...

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