Chinese Australian rules footballers in 1899

Callum Ah Chee on the cusp of 141-year first for football’s Chinese-Australian community

Brisbane Lion Callum Ah Chee is potentially two wins and just eight days away from becoming the first Australian man with Chinese heritage to win a flag.

Key points:

The Chinese community has a history with Australian rules football that dates back 141 years
Brisbane’s Callum Ah Chee has the chance to be the first Chinese-Australian man to win an AFL premiership
A new book offers details of the first all-Chinese football game in Ballarat in 1882

Chinese-Australians have been playing Australian football for 141 years, according to a new book, Celestial Footy.

“I was shocked at the depth of the tradition,” author Patrick Skene told ABC Sport.

“There is no other multicultural sporting tradition that reaches as far back into our history as 1882 when Chin Kit first played in Bendigo. Rugby League wasn’t even invented yet.”

Skene has written 24 stories of Chinese-Australian football pioneers, including the history of AFL brothers Brendon and Callum Ah Chee.

Their great-great-grandfather, Owen, was a Cantonese immigrant who became a respected founder of the town of Derby, Western Australia.

Owen’s wife Nellie was a Nyikina Aboriginal woman. Together they had 11 children.

“I’m Aboriginal and really proud of that side of my heritage,” Callum Ah Chee told Skene.

“But I’m also proud of my Chinese side.”

Callum Ah Chee says he is proud of both his Indigenous and Chinese heritage.(Getty Images: Michael Willson)

If Brisbane beats Carlton today and Collingwood in next week’s grand final, Ah Chee will do more than simply make history.

“[It would] show not only that there has been a great number of Chinese-Australians who have played the game, but they’re also representing excellence in the sport as well,” Skene says.

“The only thing left to do would be [win] a Brownlow Medal or Norm Smith Medal.”

Skene explains 19th-century Chinese-Australians played football as a “passport to acceptance” in far-flung country towns.

“Pulling on your boots and running out with your mates is the great Australian way of being part of your town,” he says.

He also points out his research “crushed stereotypes” that Chinese communities did not assimilate.

“They embraced Australia’s native game over the global sports.”

Skene has examined the community sporting involvement of Chinese miners and market gardeners in 1890s Ballarat.

In 1892, the first all-Chinese charity football game was held on Eastern Oval.

Chinese Australian rules footballers in 1899

A Chinese-Australian Australian rules football team in 1899.(Supplied)

“The people of Ballarat had never witnessed such a spectacle,” Skene wrote.

“Golden Point, Ballarat’s Chinatown, was shut down for the day as residents left their homes, kitchens, laundries, shops, market gardens and gambling dens to watch this strange Victorian game.”

Players of Chinese heritage went on to play football at the highest levels in various states.

Wally Koochew made his debut for Carlton in the VFL in 1908; George Tansing played for Geelong in the same season.

Les Kew Ming played for North Melbourne in 1922 and 1923.

The Darwin Buffaloes had a rich tradition of Chinese heritage and winning premierships, with stars including Ron Chin and Joe Sarib.

In 1947, a team called the Young Chinese League contested matches in Melbourne and country Victoria and would play for a total of 50 years.

Brothers Les and Neale Fong became WAFL Hall of Famers.

Dannie Seow played for Collingwood in the 1980s.

Sophie Li sits on a teammates shoulders while the rest of the Adelaide Crows gather around them

Sophie Li won an AFLW premiership with the Adelaide Crows.(Getty Images: Mark Brake)

“Dannie was the first Chinese-heritage footballer to play for a VFL club since Ian ‘Snow’ Chinn played for South Melbourne in 1942, and the first since the end of the White Australia policy in 1973,” Skene wrote.

Lin Jong was a Western Bulldog VFL premiership player, but he missed out on the AFL flag in 2016.

Sophie Li became the first woman of Chinese heritage to win a national-level premiership with the Crows four years ago.

Her father Peter’s ancestral village is Sunhui (Xinhui) in Guangzhou, although he was born in Hong Kong.

Current AFLW star Darcy Vescio has written the foreword and designed the cover of Celestial Footy.

“My grandfather on Mum’s side, Cheong Lip Louey or just ‘Goong’ to us kids, migrated from China via Hong Kong, after World War II,” Vescio said.

“I love my Chinese-Italian heritage.”



Author: Russell White