A late 1800s black and white photo of a Chinese-Australian football team

Is this ‘the great hidden chapter’ behind one of Australia’s biggest sports?

During Lin Jong’s AFL career, footy fans would sometimes mistake him as the first Chinese-Australian to play at the top level.

They were off by more than a century.

“It just shows you how under the radar [this history] is,” Jong says.

Jong, who is of East Timorese-Chinese and Taiwanese heritage, played for the Western Bulldogs from 2012–2021.

But at all levels of the game, across the country, many Chinese-Australians had come before him.

This is “the great hidden chapter” of Aussie rules, Patrick Skene, a sports, history and culture writer, tells ABC RN’s Saturday Extra.

The gold rushes

From the early 1850s, a series of gold rushes in Australia saw an influx of people from overseas hoping to make their fortune here, including tens of thousands of people from China.

Around the Victorian goldfields, Chinese communities formed and boomed. Some new residents became early adopters of the emerging sport Aussie rules football.

These communities were known as “the celestials”, a phrase which “comes from the Chinese concept that their emperor was a celestial”, Mr Skene says.

In 1882, there are records of Henry James Chin Kit — who is believed to be the first documented Chinese-heritage Aussie rules player — playing for Ironbark in Bendigo’s football league.

A decade later, in 1892, Victoria was in the midst of a crippling depression. So Chinese community members in Ballarat hosted an Aussie rules match to raise money for charity.

It would be a face-off between the Chinese miners and Chinese market gardeners of the city.

The miners were captained by Sydney merchant Mei Quong Tart, a major figure in the Chinese-Australian community.(Supplied: State Library of NSW)

“[The game] cut into a lot of the stereotypes about the Chinese out in these towns [like] they kept to themselves, they didn’t have civic pride, they didn’t participate,” says Skene, author of Celestial Footy: The Story of Chinese Heritage Aussie Rules.

“And here we have 45 Chinese players in front of 5,000 fans … They wanted to participate and help raise money.”

The market gardeners won 25–17.

A late 1800s black and white photo of a Chinese-Australian football team

The first Melbourne versus Chinese-Australians footy game in 1899, raising money for charity.(Supplied: State Library Victoria via Patrick Skene)

It was the first of many “celestial footy” matches around country Victoria over the next five years.

The Chinese-Australian community was increasingly becoming part of the Aussie rules story — until a sudden shift changed their place in this country.

“They [had] no idea what [was] about to happen to them,” Skene says.

The 20th century

In 1901, the newly federated Australia passed the Immigration Restriction Act, the basis of the White Australia policy.

Racism that the Chinese community had been subject to for decades was now codified into law.

Despite this, Chinese-Australian involvement in Aussie rules continued.

“The Chinese-Australian community had virtually no involvement in other national sports in the 20th century. But my records swelled to hundreds of participants in Australian rules football [across different levels],” Skene says.

In 1908, Carlton’s Wally Koochew became the first recorded Victorian Football League (VFL) player of Chinese-heritage, with George Tansing following weeks later for Geelong.

But when Koochew was selected for the team, a Carlton member returned his membership saying that, “by including a Chinese on the team, Carlton was dealing a death blow to the White Australia policy”.

Racist attitudes like that didn’t stop players like Les Kew Ming.

Ming was a World War I hero who played for North Melbourne. In 1928, he was named the “longest kicker in the land” for a 67-metre punt kick, followed by a 66-metre drop kick.

A black and white photo of a man in a World War I soldier's uniform

Les Kew Ming was known as the “fighting footballer”.(Supplied: Australian War Memorial, P08550.001)

There was also Ian Chinn of South Melbourne and Jack Wunhym — a Footscray and Yarraville player who was the first known player of Chinese-heritage to lead a VFL or VFA (Victorian Football Association) club.

And Skene says early last century, there were several all-Chinese teams that played in different leagues in Melbourne, based out of Albert Park.

“This was the great meeting place for the Chinese community. They’d come down and would see Chinese-Australians playing Aussie rules,” he says.

“And [the teams] did very well. As far as the published accounts go, they always held their own.”

In the 1930s, these teams consolidated to one team organised by the Young Chinese League — a Chinese-Australian social club — that played until the 1980s.

‘Sporting apartheid’

Chinese-Australian football history is not confined to Victoria, the birthplace of Aussie rules.

Darwin, for example, had a majority-Chinese population until World War I. So when Aussie rules arrived in the Top End, the Chinese-Australian community played a significant role in the sport.

Skene cites one “forgotten” story from 1927, when the white Aussie rules clubs of Darwin formed a new league that excluded Indigenous players.

This new “whites-only” competition was dubbed the North Australian Football League, which Skene calls “sporting apartheid”.

In a show of solidarity with Indigenous players, Darwin’s Chinese community helped fund a breakaway competition called the Darwin Football League. They also participated, with dozens of players from the Darwin Chinese Soccer League switching codes.

“This Asian-Aboriginal league was so exciting … that it got bigger crowds and eventually forced the white teams to come back into the fold.”

Skene says his research shows that time and time again, fierce racism was always a factor.

“The act of stepping on the field … knowing that you’re going to receive some racial abuse is an act of bravery … [especially] back in the day. That shows how much they loved the game.”

Lin Jong’s story

As the 20th century progressed, so did the careers of some Chinese-Australian players. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, Les Fong played for West Perth in the WAFL.

But the growth of the Chinese-Australian community wasn’t reflected in the top tier AFL competition.

More stories from Saturday Extra:

Lin Jong remembers growing up, not seeing anyone like him in the game.

“When you’re a kid, you’re looking for players that you can see yourself in. I never really had that,” he says.

Jong says he faced particularly bad racism during his junior days.

“It was pretty awful. When you’re a teenager, you can’t really process those things. I just brushed it off … Looking back now, [it was] really bad and really hurtful.”

Jong played 65 games at the Bulldogs over a decade, with a career highlight including the Norm Goss Medal for best afield in the 2016 VFL grand final.

And he says there have been efforts across the sport to become more inclusive, which is having effects on and off the field.

“[To] people out there who think there’s some sort of barrier to following or watching AFL, [I’d say] long gone are the days where it’s just for white Australian people.”

Three AFL players in red, white and blue raucously sing, with arms around each other

Lin Jong and teammates celebrate after the 2016 VFL grand final.(Getty: Adam Trafford/AFL Media)

ABC RN contacted the AFL with questions about Chinese-Australian representation across the game but did not receive a response.

But each year, there are more examples of players with Chinese heritage making their mark in the AFL.

There are brothers Brendon and Callum Ah Chee, who have Indigenous and Chinese heritage — with Callum playing for the Brisbane Lions in this year’s AFL grand final against Collingwood.

And Bailey Banfield, who has Chinese heritage on his mother’s side of the family, has played 75 games for Fremantle since 2018.

Diversity in the AFLW

Australians with Chinese heritage have also made an impact on the AFLW.

Sophie Li won an AFLW premiership with Adelaide in 2019.

Current star Darcy Vescio, a Carlton player with Chinese and Italian heritage, was closely involved in Skene’s book — including writing the foreword and designing the cover art.

“It did surprise me … how much involvement and impact the Chinese community has had in Australian rules for a very long time,” they say.

Carlton's Darcy Vescio smiling and looking up, in front of a grey wall at an AFLW press event in 2020

Carlton’s Darcy Vescio says they “love being able to be a visible face of difference” in the AFLW.(AAP: James Ross)

Vescio, who Skene calls “Carlton’s Cantonese-Calabrian all star”, was the first AFLW player to reach 50 career goals and is a two-time AFLW leading goalkicker.

And Vescio says this “hidden chapter” of Aussie rules should be better known by many more Australians.

“[This is] a game that’s made up of many individual stories and communities coming together,” they say.

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Author: Russell White