By Justin Kor
It was a chilly winter day on Nov 19, 1947 and skinny Chia Boon Leong could feel in his bones the winds blowing in from the Huangpu River. His young 22-year-old body was aching after touring with the Lien Hwa (United Chinese) team on a gruelling tour of 23 football matches in 42 days – a game every other day. Chia would be the only one to appear in all 23 games.
This time, he was up against Shanghai’s defending league champions, Tung Hwa, and it was his third match in four days in Shanghai. But fatigue had to wait. Chia was ready to strike. The tenacious inside left was everywhere on the pitch. One moment, the attacker was resolutely sprinting back into his own half to help out in defence.
The next one saw the lightning quick Singaporean dribble away with the ball. Coming up to an opponent, he nudged the ball to the right and feinted to his left. He left his opponent for dead, not knowing whether to chase man or ball. It was one of the dribbler’s many tricks.
His team won 5-3. A few months later, he was chosen to represent China in the 1948 Olympics in London, an achievement that has not been replicated by any other Singaporean.
To this day, he remains the only Singaporean footballer to have actually played at the Olympics, albeit under another country’s flag. Two others, fullback Chua Boon Lay and goalkeeper Chu Chee Seng, went to the Olympics but never played.
“Maybe it was the way the crowd reacted to my performance which made the Chinese officials decide to choose me for the London Olympics,” says Chia, who despite being the youngest and the smallest, was widely regarded as Lien Hwa’s best player.
Carnival of Canidrome
The runs during the Shanghai match kept him warm. Winter had just set in, with temperatures dipping to a chilly 5 degrees – not easy for a select group of boys from Malaya and Singapore who were more accustomed to the sweltering heat of the tropics. To combat the cold, they wore sweaters under their white jerseys and rubbed oil on their bodies.
But in the cold, Chia seemed to be a one-man furnace. The attacker’s stamina appeared limitless. “Somehow or another, I got comfortable with the cold,” he recalls. “Maybe it was the cold, I could run better.”
It went on like this for 90 minutes – he covered the length of the pitch to help his team in any way he could.
His industry charmed the home crowd, which was supposed to support home team Tung Hwa! At the now-demolished Canidrome – within the heart of the French Concession – the screaming and cheering capacity crowd of 12,000 had forgotten the civil war ravaging their country.
They were enamoured with the diminutive Chia, watching him pump his tiny frame – all of 160cm of it – up and down the field. They screamed and cheered every time he had the ball.
When the home team lost, the crowd didn’t mind. After the match, at least a hundred people surged towards Chia, mobbing him as he walked to the team bus. The crowd was so large that the police had to escort Chia out by another way out of the stadium.
“When the other players reached the crowd, they let them through. But when I reached them, they surrounded me,” says Chia with a laugh. “It took about 20 minutes for me to get on the bus. I was the last one on.”
More than 70 years later, Chia, now 93, still regards the match as the most memorable of his career. This despite him not scoring a goal.
“What I remembered most was not so much the game, but the post-match reception by the crowd. They were so natural and spontaneous. I still flush with pride whenever I think of this incident. It was a once in a lifetime feeling.”
At the Olympic Games, the China national team played their only match against Turkey, with Chia in the starting 11. Despite their best efforts, they were trounced 4-0, unable to match the Turks in terms of strength and size. The Chinese team also saw their main striker lost to injury, and back in those days, no substitutions were allowed.
“The opponents were so big that we were bouncing off them in challenges, and they were very aggressive as well,” recalls Chia. Despite the loss, the Chinese team received praise in the local papers for their attractive style of play, with Chia in particular being mentioned for his speed and skills.
Back then, Chinese law stated that an ethnic Chinese could represent China, despite not being born in the country. This meant that although Chia was a British subject at that time, he was considered a Chinese national.
Chia also made unforgettable memories off the pitch. He counts marching past the royal family at London’s iconic Wembley Stadium during the opening ceremony as one of his most memorable moments.
“I was at the back of the contingent because I was the smallest,” he says with a smile.
He would later have a more intimate interaction with the royals, when he was the only player in the team selected to visit Buckingham Palace, where he would shake hands with King George VI, his wife Queen Elizabeth, and his mother, Queen Mary.
More than 60 years later, Chia would have another encounter with the royal family again in 2012, when he met Prince William and his wife Kate, in Singapore.
“When I told the prince I shook hands with his great-grandfather, he was very surprised. How many people in their lives can have the privilege to say something like that?”
Short Boy from Pasir Panjang
Chia’s background was more rustic than royal. Before he was terrorising defences in the region, he started his footballing journey by playing five-a-side matches with a tennis ball on a sandy pitch in front of his Pasir Panjang kampong house.
Playing with a tennis ball on a small pitch allowed him to develop his close ball control. “I had little coaching. The ball work came rather naturally to me – it was mostly self development.”
However, because of his small size, many thought he could never succeed as a football player. It only made him more determined to prove his doubters wrong.
“I had to strengthen my instinct for survival. I learnt how to be trickier, fitter, and faster to outwit the bigger opponents.”
What he lacked in physical presence, he made up for it with an indomitable spirit and enormous industry. And instead of relying on brawn, he used his head to play the game. Newspapers of the day often called him ‘the brains of the Singapore attack’.
Nicknamed ‘Twinkletoes’ because of his skilful ball control, he is widely regarded as one of the best football players in Malaya during the 1940s and 50s.
With him as the main orchestrator, Singapore won three Malaya Cups in a row from 1950 to 1952. His reward after winning the first Malaya Cup? “$10 dollar bonus and a celebratory dinner back in Singapore,” reveals Chia with a laugh.
In 1975, the New Nation newspaper lauded him as a player who was “swift as a hare, with brilliant ball control and unlimited stamina as his chief assets, he is a schemer of immense value to any forward line”.
His vital role to the team did not go unnoticed by supporters, who voted him as Malaya’s most popular footballer in 1954. His prize was a two-month training stint in England, where they managed to train at Arsenal, which was his favourite team growing up.
But at a relatively young age of 30 in 1955, he surprised many by retiring from the sport. “I noticed a lot of ex-players played until they weren’t good – I didn’t want that, to be booed out of the stadium by the crowd.”
Love for the game
Following retirement, Chia worked as a senior financial executive with radio service company Rediffusion. But with so much passion for the sport, it was difficult for him to completely exit the game. He returned to football in 1978 when he became a council member of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS).
At FAS, he was also team manager of the Singapore national team from 1978 to 1979, before heading the welfare committee of the council for seven months. He returned for a second stint as team manager before retiring in 1980.
Today, the football man is very much a family man, with a loving wife, three sons and two grandchildren. He still watches football on television, with his favourite player being Lionel Messi, whose built and style he could identify with. “He likes to challenge the opponent directly, in one-on-one situations,” said the dribbler of yore.
These days, Chia likes to garden and maintain his scrapbooks of old newspaper clippings of his footballing days. Once in a while, he would flip to match reports of that unforgettable match against Tung Hwa, scanning every sentence which brought him back to 1947.
“I’m very lucky to have gotten the best treatment as a footballer. I’m glad my wishes were fulfilled, or I wouldn’t have gone to places as diverse as Shanghai and London,” he says, recalling a time when most people in Singapore did not travel overseas.
“Regrets in life? Maybe only that I couldn’t watch myself on television to see how good I actually was,” he says with a smile.