None of you reading this blog post will be old enough to remember the Californian or Victorian gold rushes of the 1850s and 1860s, but they serve as a useful analogy for the football shirt scene in Hong Kong. The former British enclave was handed over to the British as part of the Nanjing Treaty of 1842, about the same time that thousands of men and women sought their fortune in the US and Australia.
We’ll come back to this concept later, but before we go any further, you should note that the football shirt market in Hong Kong is fundamentally different to that of the UK. Each shop is nestled inside office buildings as high as 25-storeys, in and amongst the numerous cosmetic and mobile phone stores. Some are probably no bigger than your living room, making them extraordinarily difficult to find, however each of them has such a wild array of clubs you feel as though you are on an actual gold hunt.
Armed with a printout map and a large bottle of water each, two of the FSM team tackled Mong Kok – known for two things according to my Hong-Kong born work friend, its ‘dodgy’ and ‘dodgier’ street markets. Chuck in the humidity and thousands of keen shoppers, and the streets of Mong Kok made Oxford Street look like Last of the Summer Wine*.
The first action we were tasked with was an easy one, to collect five pre-ordered shirts from Hong Kong’s leading club side, containing a rather unique player. If you follow the 2017 AFC Champions League, then you will have no trouble recognising Eastern Sports Club (SC) and a certain Jaimes McKee. The Birmingham-born striker has spent his entire career in Hong Kong, while also featuring regularly for the national side – so we felt it rude not to pick up this shirt too!
Having departed the first store, we quickly discovered that lying three floors below was another, but with less of a focus on the domestic league. Nevertheless, the pink Kitchee SC 16/17 away shirt is something to behold – the more keenly eyed of you will notice that Kitchee were unlucky losers in an AFC play-off versus K-League side Ulsan Hyundai earlier this year. Which player did we select? Look no further than captain Lo Kwan Yee, colloquially known as the Hong Kong Messi, and having made over 250 appearances for the club since 2007.
That’s the domestic market tied up, but what about the other Asian markets? Well the obvious choice is Japan. At a broader level, the economy known for its high manufacturing base, where nearly every other good exported is of genuine quality, unlike some of the products available in South East Asia. This applies to football shirts as well, which means that J-League shirts are not cheap!
To give you an idea of how hidden some of the football shirt shops are in Hong Kong, sometimes you just have to rely on the old-fashioned ‘word of mouth’ technique. Our reliable Kitchee seller informed us that his friend owned a store selling Japanese club shirts, so who were we to be sceptical? We certainly were not disappointed by the selection upon arrival. Row after row of J-League shirts greeted us, tightly packed against each other and protected by their transparent suit covers, the colours giving off the vivid impression of a newly opened packet of Starburst (remember those?!)
With a specific focus on the soon to be retired generation, we decided on two players from this store. If you take an interest in the Japanese national team at the World Cup Finals, you will do well to remember Mitsuo Ogasawara, a one-club legend who has made over 650 appearances for the 2016 J-League champions Kashima Antlers. More of you are likely to have fonder memories of Yuji ‘Bomber’ Nakazawa, himself who has made in excess of 500 appearances for Yokohama Marinos. Their shirt previews are below, but we were both immensely satisfied with our efforts in securing these. Note that we purchased one final J-League shirt from another store; the ever-popular Yasuhito Endo of Gamba Osaka, revered by many as one of the most talented Japanese players of his generation despite having never pursued a career abroad.
So what did our shirt hunting trip to Hong Kong teach us? This place is a hipster haven for football shirts, with each shop run independently unlike the draconian behemoths of the UK, such as Sports Direct. At every store we found there was a refreshing focus on customer service, and a welcome variety of shirts on offer.
Which leaves me to return to the gold mine analogy. Although we were never going to find our fortune in Hong Kong, there was zero chance that we were going to ignore this market. This is a giant step forward for FSM in securing relationships with a host of suppliers to provide you with the rarest football shirts available. Enjoy!
*Last of the Summer Wine is a 90s British sitcom set in the rolling hills of West Yorkshire