19 years and 10 clubs later, Chiu Chun-kit has seen more over the course of his career than most players ever will. The ex-journeyman-turned-cult-hero talks about struggling to stay in the game during the Ice Age and why times are better now than they were back then.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
He did not intend for it to be so, but perhaps there has never been a truer description of the life of a Hong Kong footballer.
It is a profession where players enter willingly, while knowing that their jobs are unstable and greater riches lie elsewhere. Local players earn meagre salaries, occasionally encounter delays in payment, yet are intimidated into silence about any mistreatment out of fear of landing on a blacklist.
Former journeyman Chiu Chun-kit knows all about this struggle. Afterall, he started his career at the beginning of the Ice Age – a period of time between 2001 to 2006 when local football lacked big investors and average attendance hovered around 300 per match. Even local powerhouse – South China – faced financial difficulties, and their budget was slimmed to the point that they could not afford to sign any foreigners during the 2003-04 season.
“The players of today have it so much better than I did back in the day,” he said, remembering all the trials and tribulations he encountered at the dawn of his career.
Chiu’s story would the ultimate rags-to-riches story – except he has never been rich at any point in his career. One look at his biography shows that Chiu had only two international caps for Hong Kong over 19 years as a professional, while serving a lengthy list of former clubs.
That is only one side of the Chiu Chun-kit story.
The other is the story of a man with the iconic 80s rock star haircut, who worked his way into cult hero status within the local football community. How else can one describe a player whose fans have created a Facebook page in his honour – one which has amassed close to 1,000 likes?
Through it all, Chiu remains as humble as his beginnings.
Chiu Chun-kit’s interest in becoming a footballer began in 1994 when he watched broadcasts of the World Cup in the United States on television.
“I thought: Wow, being an athlete is so awesome!”, he recalled.
However, Chiu, never received any formal training growing up. Instead, his love of the game was fostered whilst playing with his friends in the streets of Shek Kip Mei where his family resided.
In his high school years, Chiu played as a centre forward for his school team before switching to centre back. He professes to have been a decent player for his school but did not harbour any ambition of becoming a professional until his teenage years.
“Two things happened to me around that time,” he said. “One day, a man watched me play in the streets and afterwards, he came up to me and struck up a conversation. At the end of it, he asked me, ‘You’re not doing well academically, so what do you want to do when you grow up?’ And that’s when I started to ponder my future.
“The other thing that happened was when a friend of mine mentioned to me about a newspaper ad he’d seen for Yee Hope’s academy selection day. He asked me, ‘You said you wanted to be a footballer, you’re 15-going-on-16, so what are you waiting for?’”
Due to his combination of size and pace, Chiu was selected by Yee Hope and soon thereafter, he was invited to train with the Hong Kong representative youth teams. In 2000, Chiu signed an apprenticeship contract worth $2,000 a month with Yee Hope and officially became a professional.
Just as quickly as his career began, it very nearly ended just as quickly. Yee Hope won the Senior Shield in 2000-01 but shockingly announced their withdrawal at the end of the season.
“The club decided out of nowhere to withdraw,” he said. “Back in those days, I suppose I was a bit naïve. I didn’t anticipate that sort of thing, but I knew that I wanted to continue playing. I just didn’t know what to do.”
Chiu went on trial with Rangers over the subsequent summer but was abruptly told there would be no place for him in the squad. Eventually, the defender signed with the only club who would take him – Double Flower.
For a ten year stretch between 1991 to 2001, Double Flower loaned their license to Instant-Dict, a company which manufactures electronic English Chinese dictionaries. During that spell, the club won two First Division titles, three FA Cups and one Viceroy Cup.
But in 2001, after winning the last of their FA Cups, Instant-Dict decided to drop their sponsorship and Double Flower were left to rebuild their squad on a shoestring budget. The club were not unique in terms of their finances as the Ice Age had befallen and the Hong Kong Football Association struggled to put together a six-team field for the top flight. Eventually, mainland based Xiangxue Pharmaceutical were added and the 2001-02 season kicked off with just seven teams.
Meanwhile, the players felt the full brunt of the economic downturn. Salaries were slashed across the board as there was a surplus of players and a deficit of clubs who were willing to sign them.
“Obviously, my salary in those early years was a paltry sum,” Chiu said. “It was the same for a lot of players, not just my teammates at Double Flower. Even someone as experienced Chiu Chung-man, who had played for 14 years [before joining Double Flower in 2001], only made several thousand a month. So, as you would expect, less experienced players like me were making even less. I only made $2,000 a month that year.”
Playing opportunities were scant for the defender who says that his lack of formal training as a youngster hindered his development.
“I’d only played competitively for five or six years at that point and I really didn’t know anything,” he recalled, candidly admitting that his work rate was not enough to overcome his deficiencies in tactical awareness. “Honestly, I’ve never asked a boss to treat pay me enough to live comfortably. All I’ve ever asked for from them was to pay me $5-6,000 a month.”
After a year with Double Flower, Chiu switched to then-newly promoted side Fukien. The team, who were coached by current Kitchee director Alex Chu, were run on a budget of only $1 million.
Reflecting on his decision, Chiu says that he joined the club because they offered more opportunities to train at a time when many footballers were retiring early to switch to other professions. Case in point – players such as Yeung Hei-chi and Yiu Hok-man, winners of Hong Kong’s Best Young Player award in 1994 and 1997 respectively, both retired in 2002 to become firefighters.
“I was fortunate because I was still living with my parents at the time so I could afford to take a meagre salary just to keep playing,” he said. “But it wasn’t just [Fukien] players who suffered during the height of the Ice Age. A lot of the guys at Sun Hei and Happy Valley – who were perennial title contenders at the time – had to take pay cuts, too. Frankly, transport costs ate up a lot of [players’] incomes and there wasn’t a lot we could do with the money we had left over.
“I was broke. So, what did I do? Well, at the time we trained at Happy Valley Recreation Ground so I would purchase Star Ferry fares at the student rate to cross the Harbour. I looked young enough that I could still pass for a student. If a fare inspector came around, I’d flee. Even if I’d gotten caught once or twice, it would still be worth it because chances are, you’re not going to get caught ten times a year. This was an easy way to save $300 a month.”
Chiu also recalls spending his nights at Fukien’s North Point headquarters in order to save money. At night, both he and a teammate would lay down sleeping bags inside the club’s 100 square foot equipment room and sleep on the floor. In the morning, they would load the team’s training equipment room into Chu’s car and the coach would drive the pair to training.
At home, things were not much better. Chiu’s parents frequently left Hong Kong for work and though his mother would often prepare a dozen meals for him in advance, sometimes they would be eaten before she returned home.
“Most of the time, my paternal grandmother would take care of me. But if she wasn’t around to cook, I’d mix some soy sauce with rice, sprinkle in some sausages or prawn crackers and call it a meal,” he confided. “I was broke. What could I do?”
To make things worse, the length of a standard player contract was 10 months.
“Imagine you’re a young Kobe Bryant and you really want to be a basketball star,” he posited. “So, in the offseason, what would you do? You’d do extra training on your own to improve. Why? Because next season, you want to break into the starting eleven so that you can work your way up. But the problem was that [Hong Kong footballers] can’t do that because in the offseason, you don’t get paid.”
Despite his salary rising to$3,000 a month in his first two years with Fukien, and $4,200 in his third year, Chiu was still forced to take on other jobs during the offseason to make ends meet. He wound up finding employment as a restaurant worker, a job which came with the perk of free pool membership. The defender would spend his mornings at work and his afternoons swimming at the pool in order to maintain his fitness levels for the upcoming season.
Chiu admitted that when facing the hardship of being a footballer in his early 20s, there were numerous instances when he would privately break down and cry.
“I asked myself: Why is it that, as a ‘professional’ footballer, you’re only ‘professional’ for ten months?” he mused. “Other than on matchday at Mong Kok Stadium where there would be reporters around, you could never really feel that you were a professional footballer.”
Fukien self-relegated at the end of the 2004-05 season, meaning that for the second time in his career, Chiu had to scramble to find another club. On the recommendation of Lee Ping-hung and Lam Ka-wai, Rangers offered Chiu a contract which he swiftly accepted. However, his salary was reduced to $3,000 a month.
So, why did he accept a pay cut?
“Because I really loved football, that’s why I hung in there,” he answered. “But honestly, I didn’t have much ability, so I felt that a low salary was reasonable. I was grateful that any club would give me an opportunity. No one was making a lot of money at the time, so it was up to each player to decide whether to keep going.”
After mulling over his decision, Chiu decided to work part time as an electrician and plumber in order to supplement his income. But working multiple jobs proved difficult for him and the defender was fined on multiple occasions for missing training due to his other jobs. His confidence suffered as a result and soon, so did his play.
“That season was the first time I’d ever thought about retiring,” he admitted. “For one, the pay was minimal and second, it was tiresome. I’d go to work, then go to training, and some nights, I’d have to go back to work. There was many a night where I felt like I just didn’t have the energy to do both anymore. And though my work ethic was still strong, and I tried every day at training to improve, I didn’t feel like I was getting better as a player.
“My family was worried about me. They said to me: ‘It doesn’t look like you’ve had any tangible achievements. You’ve been playing for six or seven years now, your salary is still only a few thousand a month and the club you’re playing on isn’t exceptional, so do you really see a future for yourself in the game?’
“Fortunately, [his Rangers coach] Lee Ping-hung gave me this advice. He told me: ‘Lam Ka-wai’s strengths are playing the ball. Your strengths are stepping into passing lanes and intercepting the ball. So, why don’t you simplify your game to winning back possession in midfield and laying it off to Ka-wai? Who cares what other people think? You have to take advantage of your opportunities while you’re young because when you’re older, the chance will be gone.’
“And he was right.”
After his season at Rangers, he decided to give himself one more year. If things did not improve, he would quit the industry.
Chiu signed with Tai Po in 2006 on the advice of former Yee Hope teammate Chan Sze-wing. It also marked the first time in his career where he was paid $5,000 a month.
The ex-journeyman still looks back fondly on his four years with Tai Po and credits his time with the Greens with resurrecting his career.
“Tai Po was the turning point in my life,” he remarked, in hindsight. “It made me who I am today.”
Although his salary was still relatively low compared with other professions, the club provided its players with food and accommodation. Players would train in the morning, return to their dormitories in the afternoon to rest and then train again after dinner. It was a lifestyle that Chiu had never experienced.
“The years I spent at Tai Po were the closest I’d ever come to living like a full-time athlete, up to that point,” the defender said. “Yeah, the pay wasn’t good, but I was happy.”
It was during his first year at the club that Chiu met current Lee Man head coach Chan Hiu-ming, who was hired by Tai Po in 2006. The defender credits Chan with teaching him the intricacies of the position and improving him as a player.
“He stimulated my brain in a way that it had never been stimulated before,” Chiu recalled. “And honestly, I think every coach should have the ability to make their pupils think in ways they’ve never thought before.”
Over his four years the Greens, Chiu won the 2008 FA Cup and played in the group stages of the AFC Cup. His performances attracted the interest of both Pegasus and South China, the latter of whom were bankrolled by local businessman Steven Lo. This was the same Steven Lo who had saved the Caroliners from relegation after the 2005-06 season with the promise of big investment. In retrospect one could argue that it was in part due to Lo’s investment that ended local football’s Ice Age.
The choice was clear for Chiu, who would sign for the Caroliners in 2010. With big clubs come big expectations and for the defender, it was no different. Chiu was expected to fill the boots of Hong Kong international Chan Wai-ho who had left the club over the same transfer window to join Rangers.
But his performances were less than stellar and South China eventually brought Chan back during the winter transfer window. Chiu was left to rot on the bench, making just a handful of appearances for the club in the second half of the season.
“I lacked the right psychological preparation at the time,” he said, reflecting on his difficult spell. “It was too much too soon. The club wanted to use me as a starter, but I wasn’t able to develop quickly enough.”
After the Caroliners declined to renew their contract with him, the defender moved on to mid-table club Citizen.
“The most important thing in life is to be able to confront failure,” he said of moving back to a smaller club. “When I debuted as a player, a lot of people said I would never be good enough. I felt that was unfair. I think I proved them wrong in the end, though.”
Chiu spent two seasons at Citizen and earned his only two Hong Kong caps whilst at the club, before signing with Yuen Long in 2013. It was the third time in his career that the ex-journeyman had moved to a newly promoted team, but the first time that he would also serve as an assistant coach. He settled in quickly and was asked by the club to appear in their advertisements, making him one of the public faces of the club.
But instead being dragged down by the pressure, Chiu says that the burden of responsibility led him to develop a special sense of loyalty to the Tangerines – a loyalty which the defender believes, in hindsight, held back his career. Chiu had played well in his first season at Yuen Long and helped the club avoid relegation. He was contacted soon thereafter by a Chinese Super League club who were interested in his services.
“[In 2014], there was a CSL club in Shanghai who called because they wanted me to go on trial with them,” he recalled. “At first, I thought it was a joke, but they kept calling back. They offered me double my current salary in Renminbi. The only catch was that I had to fly to their training camp in South Korea at my own expense.”
The ex-journeyman would decline the offer – a decision which he now labels “idiotic”.
“At the time, I was 30. My thinking was: Yeah, I could’ve cashed in while I could but what happens after I return to Hong Kong?” he said. “At Yuen Long, I was a starter, I had a coaching gig and they even invited me to shoot adverts. I felt that all my plans should’ve been with the long-term in mind.
“And even if I’d gone in trial, the club would still expect me to play 90 minutes for them after I returned. The timing would’ve been too tight. Since I was still under contract with Yuen Long, I [ultimately] decided to stay out of respect for the club.”
Unexpectedly, the Tangerines re-organized their club structure in 2015 and Chiu’s loyalty was not rewarded.
“At the end of the 2014-15 season, they came to me and asked me to take a drastic pay cut,” he claimed. “Looking back [on the decision to stay], I really want to curse. I was such an idiot.
“The local football industry is too small. If you expect clubs to reciprocate your loyalty for them and they decide to fold, then what can you do?”
The defender elected not to renew his contract with Yuen Long. However, he did not receive any interest from other clubs and was faced with the prospect of hanging up his boots at 31. Eventually, Wong Tai Sin extended Chiu an offer, but it was below his expected rate.
“No matter how difficult it was to justify being a footballer, my wife would always support me,” he said. “That is, until I decided to join Wong Tai Sin. My wife had reservations about it because she didn’t think the situation was good. The salary was low, and they also had financial difficulties in the past so, I didn’t know what to do.”
In the end, Chiu’s family suggested to him to sign with Wong Tai Sin while working part-time gigs on the side. Although the club were relegated at the end of the 2015-16 season, the players received plaudits for their performances. Chiu joined Rangers the following season and then Lee Man next, where he was named the club’s inaugural captain.
However, the Bees’ results were below the standards set by their owner Norman Lee, and the coaching staff was sacked at the end of the season. Chiu knew then that his career was near its sunset.
“Unfortunately, that’s how local football operates. When the coaching staff goes, the new one wants to bring their own set of players in,” he said, with exasperation. “[Lee Man] told me early on that they weren’t going to re-sign me, so they didn’t give me many minutes in the second half of the [2017-18] season.”
The lack of playing opportunities made it difficult for Chiu to demonstrate that he still had ability. The defender went unsigned for the first half of the 2018-19 season before agreeing to a half season deal with Rangers, who had dropped down to the First Division. He was not retained by the club after they were promoted back into the top flight and has not played since.
Chiu and his business partner Louis Liu established the Inter Academy Hong Kong in July 2018, where he now coaches both youth and adult training courses. The academy has faced challenges of its own emanating from the pandemic, but it has allowed Chiu to give back to the sport.
“I’ve never actually said the word ‘retirement’ but in recent years, I’ve had my hands full running a football academy and I haven’t trained as a result,” he said. “I don’t believe I’ll ever have the chance to officially retire and say goodbye to the fans. That, I think, is my biggest regret in life.”
The ex-journeyman will openly admit that he lacked talent compared to many of his contemporaries but credits his work rate and steely determination with helping him to earn respect from fans, coaches and bosses alike.
“At Fukien, training would begin at 4:00 pm but [teammate] So Loi-keung and I would still be there, training on our own, until 7 or 8,” Chiu recalled while thinking of individuals to whom he owed a debt of gratitude. “When I was at Rangers, I have to thank Lam Ka-wai for delivering cross after cross for me to practice my heading.”
The defender also thanked Lee Ping-hung for bringing him to Rangers in his first go-round at the club and coach Chan Hiu-ming for tutoring him on proper positional sense, thus allowing him to extend his career.
Chiu, who now has a family of four, believes that the players of today have it better than he did back in the day and does not believe that local football will fall into another Ice Age.
“Eastern and Kitchee are both clubs who run massive operations,” he described. “Indeed, there are fewer professional clubs but when there are still clubs who operate on the scale of those two…I think that as long as [players] continue to work hard, act like professionals, and play well, then naturally, fans will turn up.
“I don’t think we’ll enter another Ice Age again.”
This interview was conducted in April 2021.