August 1, 2023
SINGAPORE – Villages in Rongjiang, in China’s south-western Guizhou province, are usually known for their watermelons.
But over the past two months, it is their football league that captured the country’s attention – and brought an unprecedented flood of local tourists into the quiet county.
In May, Rongjiang recorded one million visits from across the country as Chinese tourists flocked there to watch cunchao, short for Village Super League in Chinese, after videos of its matches and performances went viral on social media.
Its tourism bureau said the tournament has drawn more than 20 billion views online since the matches started on May 12 – akin to each person in China watching the games about 20 times.
The explosion of tourists has been a boon for Rongjiang’s economy, as visitors spill into the county’s rural areas, buying local delicacies, taking up paid accommodation in villagers’ homes, and learning about the local culture as they interact with the county’s ethnic minority groups.
Rongjiang – one of China’s last counties to lift itself out of poverty under President Xi Jinping’s poverty alleviation drive – is home to 15 ethnic minority groups that account for about 85 per cent of its population.
Sports stars both in China and overseas, including retired British professional footballer Michael Owen, have congratulated cunchao on its success on social media.
Football fever hit a high in Rongjiang – which has a population of 385,000 – this weekend, with the finals played on Saturday.
The top three teams went home with a cow, a pig and a lamb respectively as their prize.
Announcers said at the semi-finals on Friday that an estimated 60,000 tourists are in Rongjiang over the weekend to catch the last few matches.
Enthusiasts have praised the village league for its inclusivity and diversity of players, whose day jobs include interior design, construction work and teaching, as well as its efforts to stay true to the spirit of the sport.
Football is said to be a favourite sport of President Xi.
Fans have compared cunchao with China’s professional football scene, which has been hit in recent years by match-fixing scandals, the overreach of bureaucrats and funding shortfalls among clubs.
During the cunchao matches, cheers and groans of disappointment burst from the stands whenever a team scores or misses a goal. Suspense builds up whenever players dribble the ball towards the goalkeepers, with collective gasps heard from the crowds.
Rongjiang’s ethnic minorities perform and offer spectators free food before the matches begin and during half-time to loud applause from the spectators.
Ms Hong Jingmei, 29, who travelled with her boyfriend to Rongjiang from the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang, said she knew little about football before she learnt about cunchao.
“I actually know nothing about football, but I get excited every time there’s a chance of a goal or when someone tries to intercept the ball,” Ms Hong said.
“I don’t really care who wins or loses. I’m here for the atmosphere, and I cheer whenever someone scores a goal.”
Mr Yang Yajiang, 49, one of cunchao’s organisers and a primary school principal, said: “The players’ skills are not bad, considering that many are in their 30s and hold full-time jobs.
“Rongjiang’s residents have always been passionate about football, and we have been organising the village leagues on and off since the 1990s. The surge in popularity this time is really due to social media, after celebrities started featuring us on their accounts.”
Former Asian Footballer of the Year Fan Zhiyi had led a team against the local team in June, with the match ending in a 2-2 draw.
High school student Li Minhang, 19, who plays midfield for Yue Village, the champions in the county’s previous tournament, said his team have started receiving invitations for friendly matches from teams in other provinces.
“It is the first time that I will be playing with people outside of Rongjiang,” he said. “The other teams said our cunchao spirit has reignited their passion for the sport.”
“Everyone can come train and play as long as they want to,” added Mr Li, who helps his team train younger players, who start as early as when they are five.
“We have never rejected anyone because football is a way to teach sportsmanship, sharing and teamwork, which are values we hold dear.”
Retiree Liang Aizhen, the Yue Village team’s head cheerleader, said the football spirit is alive in her village, with boys playing football in “every corner and every alley”.
The 46-year-old said the village had “really come together” to support the players, coming up with performances and preparing her Dong minority group’s delicacies for spectators to sample.
At a previous match, Madam Liang and her cheerleading squad put on a 32-step plaza dance, or guangchangwu, during half-time, wearing their traditional garb with tomato necklaces and skirts made of leafy vegetables.
“We work from Thursdays to Sundays to make sure we have enough food (for spectators) and to practise our performances,” she said.
To help the locals benefit from the tourism boom, the Rongjiang government has set up 2,000 free makeshift stalls around the stadium for residents to sell local specialities such as fish in sour broth (suantangyu) and steamboat made from the remains of a cow’s stomach (niubie).
A resident, who only gave her name as Ms An, said she has been selling two pieces of pork chop for 15 yuan (S$2.80) since late May, when cunchao started gaining popularity.
“I kept my prices low so as to keep to the chunpu (pure and simple) spirit of cunchao,” she said.
The tourism boom in Rongjiang’s city has also spilled into its rural areas, with visitors shopping for local specialities and renting rooms in villages.
Tourism revenue in May hit 1.24 billion yuan (S$232 million), a 52 per cent increase from the same month in 2022.
Madam Yang Chenglan, 36, who runs a traditional fabric dye shop in a village about a 20-minute drive from Rongjiang’s city, said business has increased 25 per cent in the past two months compared with the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.
“I also have more opportunities to share our Dong culture with visitors,” Madam Yang, who is the village’s first university graduate, said.
A story she likes to tell visitors is how the Dong tribe, of which she is a member, would play instruments and sing songs to rehabilitate people who have committed wrongdoings, instead of punishing them.
Madam Liang said that villagers sometimes invite tourists who cannot find lodging to stay in their homes for free.
“We open our homes to them. We want to show how hospitable we are. We want them to have a good time here. This way, we can keep to the inclusive spirit of cunchao.”