Figure 1: Frank Soo, Stoke City and England (1944)
Frank Soo was born in Derbyshire in 1914 to an English Mother and Chinese father and brought up in Liverpool. Frank would go onto be a genuine pioneer in modern British sport by achieving a successful career in professional footballer representing England nine times during the 1940s and playing over 300 games for English clubs including top flight teams Leicester City and Stoke City where he was made club captain whilst playing alongside English international and world-renowned footballer Sir Stanley Matthews.
Frank Soo should have been the first sporting role model to other British born Chinese people but his achievements never reached that status. Despite his notable footballing achievements as England’s only player ever to have had a Chinese or Asian background Frank Soo has until very recently been virtually anonymous beyond the historical football records recording factual statistics over-layered with the archived newspaper match reports which form the clear outline of his footballing career.
I came across Frank Soo almost by accident as I cogitated ideas and concepts for assignment 5. One of my original ideas around identity had been a self-portrait where I would masquerade as a 1970s footballer in recognition of the influence that this classic stereotypical working class game and pastime had played in the development of my own cultural identity.
Instinctively I felt that this idea would just not work visually in the way that I was envisaging – I felt that I would look too Chinese and therefore I would not be able to convincingly create the stereotypical look that I had grown up with – so I found myself keying into the search engine Chinese footballers who played in England.
The search engine results yielded just one genuine contender, Frank Soo a former Stoke City and nine times England international who had played his football between the years 1933 and 1948. Frank had also served his country during the Second World War and even captained the RAF football team during this period.
As I read the Wikipedia entry that told his great story I started to re-imagine the life and achievements of this footballer Frank Soo and felt an inner elation and excitement at the thought of a British born Chinese boy who had played top-flight professional football previously in England’s history.
I then found out that Football writer Susan Gardiner had just written a book The Wanderer: The Story of Frank Soo (2016) in order to retell his extraordinary story. I gained a sense of Gardiner’s challenge to put Frank’s story forward as I came across a crowd-funding appeal to support the book’s low-budget publication. Gardiner says, “Frank Soo is in many ways the forgotten man of 20th football. In his time he was a household name, his life chronicled by national newspapers in Britain.” (Gardiner, S. 2016)
Gardiner’s account of Frank Soo’s story details club and league information, match reports and newspaper stories that combine to build a clear and tangible picture of a young man’s successful footballing career. “A Dundee newspaper, the Evening Telegraph, regarded his debut for Stoke City in 1933 as headline news:
CHINESE PLAYER TO TURN OUT IN ENGLAND
“Frank Soo, a 19-year old Chinese footballer who is to play for Stoke City against Middlesbrough on Saturday will be the first Chinese to play in English League Footballer. He is an inside-left, and when he steps on to the field at Middlesbrough will realise the ambition of his life, for since a small boy he has been a keen player.” (Gardiner, S. 2016:3)
The silencing of Frank’s story and it’s link to his ethnicity was a clear factor that made this story all the more compelling for the author, “When I began writing about Frank Soo I believed that it was important that his place in football history as a player of Chinese ethnic origin should be recognised.”
In an interview, where she promotes the book, with online organisation We Are Resonate (organisation devoted to the promotion of East Asian arts and cultural awareness), in that interview the author of The Wanderer: The Story of Frank Soo Susan Gardiner notes that,
“In 1975 Frank told a reporter that he believed that there was one reason why he had not been picked more often for England: “because of my Chinese blood.” (Gardiner, S. July 2016) However Gardiner does not include this in the book as she writes, “It does not explain his disappearance completely however and the reader must decide what the reasons for this were.” (Gardiner, S. 2016:4)
In many respects the author presents what appears to be a continual search for the reasons why Frank’s career did n’t progress further and the following passage is reflective of this approach, “The Daily Express, among others, pressed his claims, to little apparent effect: “And what price Frank Soo?” Asked the Express’ sports correspondent. “I put his name forward with great reserve because I fear there is little chance of the selectors picking him, despite the fact that he is an English-born player. I have said for three years that Soo of Stoke City is one of the finest players in the game and it would be no less that he was worth if they put him in.” (Gardiner, S. 2016:39)
Figure 2: Frank Soo, Stoke City (1933-1945)
The author states that, “it does n’t appear that Frank had very much connection – if any – with other Chinese people in the Potteries, despite the constant references to his ethnicity in the press. Frank’s life in Stoke-On-Trent seems to have been much the same as that of other young professional footballer. He trained, played football, made appearances at charity events, and found time for his other passion, golf.” Gardiner, S. 2016:24)
But we don’t actually know what Frank’s true thoughts about any of these statements might have been as there are no surviving interviews or letters that shed any real light on Frank’s personality or life away from football. We don’t know how he felt about how he was portrayed as the Chinese English footballer, we don’t know how he might have felt about his own ethnic heritage, we can only assume as Susan Gardiner does, “It is not difficult to imagine the emotions that thirty-year old Frank Soo must have felt as he stood on the Wembley turf, finally and rightly recognised as the equal of England’s brightest footballing talents, playing at the highest level, and representing his country when it was still at war. It must have been a remarkable feeling for someone who had grown up living above his parent’s laundry business in Liverpool.” (Gardiner, S. 2016:1)
The author is a football historian not a sociologist and this is first and foremost a book about a footballer. On this basis the book does n’t necessarily dig into the perceived marginalisation or silencing of the Frank Soo story by the Footballing hierarchies and structures that govern tradition and history on grounds of racial bias or prejudice however Gardiner does say, “The absence of people from Chinese or other Asian backgrounds from football is a blight on the game……and that…..It is only possible to speculate how much of a difference knowing about Frank Soo might have made to young footballers from Chinese backgrounds.” Gardiner, S. 2016:145)
This is a very important story to the British born Chinese as Gardiner has uncovered the very first English sporting role-model for this extraordinarily silent social group, “A pioneer in many ways, Frank Soo was the first person from a Chinese or Asian background to play for England and remains the only player to this day. Whatever the reasons for Frank Soo’s disappearance from the narrative of football history, this book is an attempt to rekindle interest in a significant figure who was a hugely admired and skilful footballer, a charming and charismatic man, and a role model for any aspiring young player, now as much as during his lifetime.” (Gardiner, S. 2016)
I increasingly recognise how I myself, and my 3 siblings, were brought up without any of the positive influences of British Chinese role models, without any contact or relationships with other Chinese people or communities whatsoever and we received precious little knowledge of our Chinese ethnic heritage.
We only ever really saw ourselves as English although we periodically would have to explain that my mums from Hong Kong as we were brought up completely on my father’s terms in 1970s Burnley and the only culture that we knew was the English working class patriarchy and an upbringing that was built on the religion that was Burnley Football Club. I grew up thinking that Football matches on Boxing Day were as much a part of Christmas as presents and the Christmas tree itself.
But stories like this one start to fill the gap whilst being part of a foundation for a different, wider and a more balanced interpretation of my own history.
Frank Soo’s footballing career certainly never received the level of recognition that might have been expected for such pioneering achievements but it’s an important story to myself and it has been an inspiration just to be able to pass it onto my son who, coincidently, is just at the start of his career in professional football.
It’s also great for the British born and the Chinese community in general which is in great need of notable role models that can help bring this silent community out from the shadows as has happened with the black community.
Gardiner, S (2016) The Wanderer: The Story of Frank Soo. Stowmarket, Suffolk: Electric Blue Publishing.
Frank Soo: The unknown Chinese footballer who represented England Feature by Susan Gardiner for http://www.Weareresonate.com (12/7/16) online AT:
Wikipedia: Frank Soo can be accessed AT:
Figure 1 Frank Soo image accessed online AT:
http://www.weareresonate.com/2016/07/london-community-challenge-cup-sponsoring-frank-soo-project/ (accessed 16/1/17)
Figure 2 Frank Soo image accessed online AT:http://www.thedaisycutter.co.uk/2013/02/on-this-weekend-in-football-frank-soo-plays-for-england/