AFL’s roots are partly Chinese, but Chinese Australians are now fighting underrepresentation

When Arthur Liu first set his foot in Melbourne 20 years ago, the very first person he met gave him advice on how to become a “true Australian”.

Fast forward to today, the father of two boys has not only become a die-hard fan of the Essendon Football Club himself, but also passed his love of footy to the next generation.

“My eldest son, Lionel, now has more footy knowledge than me,” Mr Liu told the ABC.

He said the seven-year-old knew many players’ names and how many goals they kicked last season.

As Melbourne gradually re-opens, Lionel (left) will soon begin his Auskick training.(Supplied: Arthur Liu)

Mr Liu said his younger son, Lennon, was “not as knowledgeable as his brother”, but he could at least “recognise each AFL team’s logo”.

Mr Liu has set up mini goal posts in his backyard, and this year he signed up Lionel for Auskick, the AFL kids program.

Auskick could be the beginning of a career in footy, which AFLW player Darcy Vescio knows all about.

The Carlton Football Club player’s interest in footy also had paternal roots.

“My first footy experience was through playing Auskick, mainly because my dad was a big football fan, and my old brother started playing Auskick,” Vescio said.

‘Something just needs to be done’

Darcy Vescio playing AFL in a sport ground.
Vescio is working toward creating a more inclusive game.(Carlton FC: Julian Wallace)

Vescio, who is one of the sport’s multicultural ambassadors, was born to an Italian father and a Chinese mother, and raised in the regional Victorian town of Wangaratta.

She is one of only a handful of AFL players of Chinese ancestry.

“[The AFL leadership] definitely have identified the need to reflect Australian society in Australian football.

“The AFL wants to be the most inclusive sport in Australia … something just needs to be done.”

Lin Jong jumps to catch the ball during a game, his leg outstretched towards the camera
Lin Jong (centre) is the only male player of Chinese ancestry in the professional league.(AAP: Julian Smith)

In 2020, about 15 per cent of AFL players were born overseas or had one parent born overseas. This was up from 13 per cent in 2019, according to AFL data.

Last year, the AFL said 87,000 players in community football and 21 per cent of Auskick participants had a multicultural background.

“There are some 700 players in AFL, and around 400 in the AFLW, and considering there are more than 1 million Chinese Australians, the Chinese players in the leagues are very few.”

The AFL’s long Chinese history

A black and white photo shows the team members of a Chinese-Australian VFL team.
A team representing the Young Chinese League in 1933.(State Library of Victoria)

The AFL’s Chinese roots run deep — players of Chinese ancestry played their first game in the gold rush town of Ballarat on August 27, 1892.

A Ballarat Evening Post report at the time said it was a fundraising match, and about 5,000 locals watched on.

“I think one of the most incredible yet least known stories in Australian sport is how the Chinese community embraced AFL in the mid-19th century,” Rob Hess, a sports historian at Victoria University, told the ABC.

But Dr Hess said the sport’s uptake by Australia’s Chinese diaspora was “not surprising”.

In the 1890s, people who stayed behind in regional Victoria after the gold rush took up occupations in market gardening, mining and commercial laundries.

Dr Hess said these people formed footy teams by their occupation and participated in the game with enthusiasm.

An empty football field with a grandstand at one end
The very first game between Chinese footy teams happened at Ballarat’s Eastern Oval.(ABC News: Kai Feng)

But in 1901, the newly created federation of Australia unveiled the White Australia Policy, which barred non-European migration to the country.

Dr Hess said around this time, players with Chinese heritage including Wally KooChew and Les Kew Ming also started to play at a higher level, such as the Victorian Football League.

Leader, 23 May 1908, p. 26, Koochew, second from left in middle row, courtesy of State Library of Victoria
KooChew, pictured in 1908, second from the left in the middle row.(State Library of Victoria)

Ming was one of more than 200 Chinese soldiers to serve in the Australian Army, and according to Dr Hess “a famous war hero”.

Upon his return home, he was considered to be one of North Melbourne’s best players, according to AFL history website Australian Football.

Despite this long history, Chinese Australians are among the most underrepresented ethnic groups on AFL fields, in its boardrooms, and in club membership, which Mr Pi said was due to a couple of factors.

“From my experience, everything is about academic success among the Chinese diaspora,” Mr Pi said.

“Another factor is, for a long time [the AFL] didn’t really engage our new migrants, not just of Asian backgrounds. That has really changed over the last few decades.”

Mr Pi said the AFL needed to do more to make multicultural communities feel welcomed, but migrants should also stop seeing sport as irrelevant to their children’s development.

‘People need to know they belong’

A man holds a football in an office.
Jamie Pi became a AFLPA accredited player agent this year.(Supplied)

This year, Mr Pi attained a master’s degree in sports management and became an AFL Player Association (AFLPA) accredited player agent.

He hopes to attract more Chinese and other Asian players to the oval to change the monocultural stereotypes of the game.

“There are now more and more migrant faces all around on our ovals, not just of Asian backgrounds,” Mr Pi said.

“I want to bring a fresh face, a different look to this profession.

He said the AFL was also working on institutional change to bring more minority ethnic groups into the sport, which he said would “definitely pay dividends”.

“There will be more and more players at the elite level from multicultural backgrounds … I’m sure we will see that in the next decade,” Mr Pi said.

A man dressed in a red Sherrin football suit waves to hundreds of fans lining the street during the grand final parade.
AFL fans of Chinese ancestry make up a small portion of the game’s supporter base.(ABC News: Dylan Anderson)

Melbourne’s Mr Liu said the uptake of footy among his children would also pay dividends, by giving them skills other hobbies may not give, as well as getting them outside.

“Compared to individual sports like tennis, footy is a team sport, it requires good cooperation and communication ability, that’s something really hard for adults to teach,” he said.

“Sport is a good way to train those skills.”

As Melbourne gradually reopens after its long lockdown, Lionel will soon begin his training in Auskick.

Meanwhile, Vescio is also hoping to resume the advocacy associated with her role as an AFL Multicultural Ambassador.

She believes young people from ethnic minorities who might be thinking about a career in football should “absolutely go for it”.

Darcy Vescio extends her leg out straight in front, just after a kick
Carlton’s Darcy Vescio kicks a goal during the round 1 AFLW match against Collingwood in 2017.(AAP: Joe Castro)

“Even if you don’t see yourself reflected in the club and you want to try out, just get involved at a community level that might involve anything around the club,” she said.

“I think people need to know they also belong in the game and they make the game better.

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