China’s first Olympic hero may well have been a basketball player about half the size of Yao Ming – who didn’t even play for China. He was a leading scorer for the British in the fabled 1924 Paris Games – a globe-trotting amateur from Amoy whose life as athlete and artist reached wondrous heights before lapsing into unearned obscurity.
Chiu Teng Hiok, the remarkable son of a prominent Chinese pastor, was airbrushed out of history by the political winds of China. Chiu helped Britain win in basketball in a Paris field of 17 teams – the most in any nonmedal sport. In China, he played hoops in missionary schools and YMCAs. In Paris, he dribbled on a grass court at Colombes Stadium, hittingshots termed “pretty” by sportswriters of the day.
Once back in England, Chiu the artist emerged as China’s first major modernist painter; in 1929, Queen Mary visited his solo exhibit at the Claridge Gallery in London. By age 30, Chiu had worked on four continents – a post-Impressionist painter without borders. But he never forgot the Paris Games; his art-show catalogs always referred to the Olympics.
Yet prior to the Beijing Olympics, the achievement of China’s native son received not even a footnote. Barely mentioned also are three Chinese tennis players invited to Paris, including national champion L. Wei, who came in 19th in men’s singles out of a field of 82, according to International Olympic Committee records that list them playing for “China.”
Today China is pushing a different “first Olympian” – sprinter Liu Changchun. Sprinter Liu defied the Japanese government in Manchuria that wanted to send him to the 1932 LA Games, and he escaped to play for China’s Nationalists instead.
Western media have brought up Eric Liddell, born in China in 1902 to a family of Scottish missionaries. Mr. Liddell won the 400 meters for Britain in Paris, and helped inspire the 1982 film “Chariots of Fire.”
But “Chiu was the first Chinese to participate on a winning team in the Olympics,” says Kazmirez Poznanski of the University of Washington in Seattle. “He left with the British basketball team on a train from Victoria station for Paris on 17 July, 1924.”
Why China has not recognized Chiu, the three tennis players, or a Chinese competitor in the 1928 Amsterdam Games is unclear. Chiu was Chinese, not a member of the official British delegation. “There’s no evidence Chiu changed his passport,” says Mr. Poznanski. One explanation is politics. Chiu wasn’t political. But in Mao’s China, that was the point.
“The question of who is more Chinese, is always a difficult one” in China, says China expert Orville Schell. “But one thing that has been clear is that there has long been a bias, especially in the PRC, against any ‘Chinese’ who seem to have ‘run under the skirts of foreigners.’ That may explain Chiu’s curious erasure.”
To be sure, Chiu was no model for socialist athletics. He came from a wealthy, reform-minded family on Gulangyu Island, a tiny rock-packed with mansions, just off Amoy, now the city of Xiamen in Fujian Province. The port was a center of tea trade, and a front line in the venture of east meets west. (The British East India tea thrown in Boston Harbor in 1773 supposedly came from Amoy.)
Chiu came from a family of “firsts.” Senior Chiu ministered the first all-Chinese Christian congregation, founded the first all-girls school in Fujian, and was president of the YMCA. He was acquainted with Sun Yat-sen, modern China’s founding father, and Chiang Kai-shek, later the Nationalist leader. For a time, Chiu was married to General Chiang’s niece – something doubtless noticed.
It was a time when Protestant missionaries abroad emphasized the gospel of sport nearly as much as the Gospels themselves. Christianity in China is a complicated story. But many Olympic sports first came to the Middle Kingdom via missionaries. Chiu learned hoops at the YMCA in Amoy, and played from age 7, according to Poznanski.
The YMCA global network, in fact, greatly helped Chiu. At Harvard at age 17, he rebelled against studying archeology, moved to the Boston YMCA, played basketball, and studied painting at the Museum School. He then went to Paris to paint, something his father disapproved of, so he moved to London’s Central YMCA.
The move was fateful: The YMCA had a serious basketball team. Chiu scored 22 of the team’s 48 points in the British Olympic finals, according to Centymca, the YMCA bulletin at the time.
Indeed, Central was a crossroads of missionary activity, according to John Keddie, a Scottish sports historian and biographer of Mr. Liddell. Mr. Keddie says there is a “strong likelihood” Liddell would have met Chiu there; Britain’s premier sprinter left England in 1925 to teach at the Anglo-Chinese college in Tienjin where Chiu attended high school.
The 1924 Paris Games are called the first modern Olympics. The axis powers of World War I were not invited to the 1920 Antwerp games.
Chiu would go on to paint landscapes in Scotland, Morocco, Indonesia, and Beijing. His family fled to Hong Kong. Chiu settled in New York and found a friend in American artist Georgia O’Keefe. But the war took a toll. He was badly beaten in New Hampshire during the Korean War by local goons who thought he was Korean. He died in 1972, forgotten. In 1991, Poznanski discovered his work and reconstructed the story of his life.
In China, Chiu was unknown even in elite art circles; only in 2005 did his work get official notice.
Oxford Asian art historian Michael Sullivan calls Chiu “important” as “he was a very good painter … his landscapes, whether of England or Morocco, Vermont or New Mexico are marked by a confident directness, a strong feeling for form and color.
In a sense, Chiu was an ambassador for a China that never emerged in his lifetime. He was progressive, an early “globalist” who saw past borders of all kinds. In 1928, called “the most promising painter” at the Royal Academy, he told the London bureau of this newspaper that artists must help mankind find “the same truth and righteousness, by learning to appreciate the same beauty.… As I go forward I realize in art there is neither East nor West, and that someday there must be the Art of the New World Civilization.”
He also had a good jump shot.