HONG KONG -- Echoes of Hua Mulan, the legendary female warrior who fought in male disguise as a general in her father's place in China 2,000 years ago, can be seen in the rise of Chan Yuen-ting, the 28-year-old Hong Konger who guided the all-male Eastern Sports Club to the local Premier League championship in 2016.
The triumph marked the first coached by a female to win a top-flight men's tournament and has also been recognized by the Guinness World Records.
"She has created a historic moment in football and we hope her success will encourage many more women to participate at all levels," said Rowan Simons, president of Guinness World Records Greater China.
That historic moment came on April 22, when Eastern, also known as Eastern Football Team, beat the celebrated South China Athletic Association Football Team by two goals to one, regaining the club's first title in more than two decades under Chan's supervision after she took the helm last December.
Chan's promotion to take over from former head coach Yeung Ching-kwong came about partly because she was the only member among Eastern's training cohort who possessed the coveted Asian Football Confederation's A-grade coaching certificate -- mandatory for any Hong Kong Premier League head coach.
"Diligent and passionate, Chan is destined to a fine future," Peter Wong Hing-kwei, Eastern's technical director and a veteran soccer commentator, told local media outlet Apple Daily.
Under Chan, Eastern lost only one out of 15 games during the 2015-16 season. It also succeeded in defending its crown in the Hong Kong Senior Challenge Shield, Asia's oldest inter-club knockout competition, in January.
The team's stunning success under Chan struck a stark contrast to the previous fortunes of the club, which had stayed largely out of the local first division over two decades until 2013, when Hong Kong tycoon Lam Kin-ming increased his sponsorship of the club, and the team's performance began to improve.
"I was dumbstruck," said Chan, reflecting on the moment of ineffable joy when she learned that Eastern had won the tournament. "I felt like [I was] in a dream. I couldn't believe it came true."
Chan started out as a data analyst at Pegasus FC, a young professional soccer club in Hong Kong, after graduating from the Chinese University of Hong Kong with a degree in geography and resource management. "I want to do something I enjoyed, while still young," said Chan in a televised interview with Radio Television Hong Kong. "That's why I looked for something related to football."
Chan said she fell in love with soccer because of her teenage crush on the British player David Beckham. Following her dream, she became a soccer player herself at the age of 15 and began taking coaching courses at 18. The lack of opportunities in professional women's soccer in Hong Kong prompted her foray into coaching. Later she furthered her studies and earned a Master's degree in sports science and physical education.
Nicknamed "Beef Balls," a chewy Cantonese street food that barely changes shape under boiling heat, Chan has shown tremendous grit and determination in making her presence felt in the largely male-dominated sphere.
Chan is a one-off in a male-dominated world. A Portuguese woman coach, Helena Costa, was appointed to manage French second division men's professional club Clermont Foot 63 in 2014. But she quit the French club after less than two months because she felt that she was not given real authority and had only been hired to attract publicity.
"It's not easy to convince a group of big burly men to trust a trainer who is younger, and a 'she'," Chan said. But she managed to earn the players' respect, and one Eastern team member told media that Chan had been doing a great job of "gelling" the team.
Chan noted that it is not uncommon for soccer clubs to be disbanded in Hong Kong. "It happens almost every season. Sometimes more than one team," she said. The instability of the industry has made her question whether she should persist. "Am I supposed to seek a new place to work every year or two years?" asked Chan, now in her sixth year in the industry.
Chan's unconventional path in life was initially met with staunch opposition from her parents. "Chinese culture is: Girls or women, you shouldn't play football. You go to dance, or you go to draw[ing]," Chan said. But the rebellious Chan faked her mother's signature when she was a teenager to join a soccer taster class during the summer when she was transitioning to her fourth year of high school.
Almost 13 years later, after her team's Hong Kong Premier League win in 2016, the trailblazing Chan was awarded Women's Coach of the Year by the AFC, Coach of the Year by the Hong Kong Football Association, and the Bronze Bauhinia Star, a laurel for "outstanding services," by the Hong Kong government.
"This glory belongs to my fellow football players and football club," Chan said in an interview at the HKFA after receiving her Coach of the Year accolade. "Every single bit of kudos for me originates from the exertion of the whole team. This [prize] of mine is a credit to them," said Chan.
Just after the team's big win, Chan turned down an offer in June to coach Futbol Club Jumilla, a third division Spanish club, and chose to stay with Eastern for the coming season. Chan's loyalty was not shaken even when Lai Tung-kwong, one of Eastern's owners, withdrew his funding for the club. "If Eastern needs me, I will surely stay," said Chan.
Looking to the future, Chan says she hopes to broaden her horizons overseas and bring back what she learns to her hometown of Hong Kong. "In the future, I also want to contribute to women's football because I came from women's football," Chan told the AFC.
While she sees little cultural impediment to the success of women's careers in Hong Kong, Chan still wishes that she could bring more "positive energy" to others of her gender. "The fact that I'm a woman doesn't necessarily make me want to prove myself harder. I don't really see it that way. Man or woman, a coach is a coach," Chan told the BBC, after the British broadcaster selected her for its "100 Women" list of the world's "inspirational and influential" women in 2016.
Responding to that accolade, Chan said: "I am very pleased to influence others with my life. I hope my story can inspire other women, especially youngsters."
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