Briton charts fall and rise of rugby in China

SHANGHAI - When Briton Simon Drakeford learned a man with his family name played rugby for Shanghai in 1907, it sent him on a journey to document the history of the sport in China.

The mission took him from musty newspapers in the Shanghai library to the archives of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in London and interviews with descendants of former players.

In doing so, he found that the rise of rugby, its demise after the Communists took power in 1949 and its revival as Shanghai became an international city again in the 1990s, mirrored the history of China itself.

His namesake Thomas Drakeford, who travelled to Shanghai as a merchant in the early 1900s, turned out not to be a relative.

But the research led to the discovery that when the Shanghai rugby club takes to the field today, players are fulfilling a historical legacy stretching back to the late 1800s, shortly after the Chinese port city opened to the West after the Opium War.

"When you're playing for Shanghai, you have the burden of history on your back," said Drakeford, 47, a life-long rugby player now living in Shanghai.

What started as a pursuit during his free time has become a book, and he is now seeking a publisher. "I'm an accountant, not a writer, but I know the material is great," Drakeford said.

"This is telling the story of Shanghai through the lens of a rugby club."

Drakeford dates the beginning of the sport in China to 1867, when Shanghai set up its first football club, since at the time there were no separate rules for football and rugby.

By 1875, a game recognisable as modern rugby was played in Shanghai, but it would take three decades before the city had a dedicated rugby club.

Shanghai had hundreds of clubs at its height, ranging from the exclusive Shanghai Club for business leaders to the Shanghai Paper Hunt Club, whose members chased their quarry on horseback.

"Shanghai was a very clubby city," said Tess Johnston, author of several books on the expatriate experience in old China. "There were clubs that shut out people by race and social class."

The rugby club had no Chinese members and only a handful of people with mixed Chinese heritage in its history.

The golden age for rugby was the 1920s and 1930s, when Shanghai acquired its reputation as both "Paris of the East" and "Whore of the Orient". Large numbers of foreign troops were stationed in Shanghai, providing opposition for the local club.

"During the massive boom times when Shanghai really got its reputation as a decadent city, the 1920s to 1930s, the rugby club flourished," Drakeford said.

World War II saw players go off to fight and rugby was never the same.

The last game Drakeford found after the founding of the People's Republic of China was in March, 1950, between the club and the "Retired Gentleman" team which apparently lacked stamina since the match only lasted 20 minutes.

"Quite a sad end to what was the glorious 1920s and 1930s," Drakeford said.

In the mid-1990s, a small band of foreign expatriates started playing touch rugby and a defeat at the hands of the government-backed Shanghai Sports Institute - the only others playing at the time - helped the formation of the club.

"It was a real sting, which gave us the impetus to get ourselves ready for a rematch," said Sam Crispin, one of the founders of the club.

The Shanghai Hairy Crabs Rugby Club - named after a popular local delicacy - now has around 60 playing members and a permanent clubhouse and playing field in a city suburb.

Much like the British settlers who brought the sport to Shanghai, the dedicated amateurs are in it as much for the chance to socialise as for the game.

But the biggest difference between the new club and old is the inclusion of Chinese players. "It's much more diverse, in nationality and social class," Drakeford said.

China itself has a national rugby team which could make a bid for the Olympics in 2016, but the sport never really caught on, unlike another British export, cricket in India.

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