Watching the Super Bowl in China

As we approach the Super Bowl I like to think back to my early days in China when if I wanted to watch an important football game I had to go to great lengths to do so. In those days American sports were not broadcast on regular Chinese TV and there was no cable. But there were ways to watch.

My first year in Shanghai I wanted to see the 49ers play the Redskins in the first round of the NFC playoffs. I am from the SF Bay Area and grew up a 49er fan and I was a big fan of the team in the Joe Montana/Steve Young era so this was a game I did not want to miss. I called the Sheraton in Shanghai, one of two International hotels in China at the time, and asked them if they had CBS and if I could watch the game there. They replied that it would be OK but that I would have to check in for the night. In those days one night in the Sheraton cost $ 170.00, not really something I could afford but which I agreed to do nevertheless. That the game was to be coming on at 5 am did not discourage me from putting a small cache of chips, beer and candy in my backpack and putting on my 49ers jersey when I headed over to the hotel. In those days no one cared what foreigners did in China and I was determined to watch the game just as if I were back in SF watching, even if that meant drinking Qingdao beer at 5 am. To say I was excited would be an understatement.

I got up around 4 am to see the tail end of the Buffalo-Oakland game on the only foreign channel in the hotel. So far, so good I thought to myself. At 5 am I called the front desk and asked them to switch over to CBS which they promptly did. About 20 minutes into the first quarter, as I was reclining on the bed munching some chips, the signal faded and was then lost. I quickly got on the phone to the front desk to complain. Over the course of the next three hours the staff at the Sheraton did everything they could do restore the signal. They sent a group of 3-4 technicians up to the roof of the hotel to adjust the dish in the torrential rain. I will never forget the sight of these guys coming down to my room, the rain dripping profusely off their pochos to report to me in great earnestness that they were working on it.   But in the end and despite the heroic efforts of the Sheraton staff the game never came back on. I had to wait until the next day to read in the paper that the 49ers had won. I had paid $ 170.00 to watch 20 minutes of a football game. If there was any consolation it was later when I wrote to the Sheraton and in return received a couple of complimentary nights at the hotel.

The following week when the 49ers were playing the Giants in the NFC Championship I used my connections at the University where I was teaching to watch the game in the University Communications center. This was no mean feat given the strong distrust of foreigners in those early days of Deng’s reforms. At 5 am on game day a technician from the Communications Center met me at the building where the satellite dish was located. It was a fortress and there were security guards but I had clearance and I was ushered into a room which looked like Mission Control. I got to see the game on a big screen TV, the first one I had ever seen. I had dispensed with the beer and chips but had a great time watching the game and chatting with the technicians. The Chinese love sports and I think they appreciated my fanatical loyalty, even though American football was a game they did not understand. Unfortunately the 49ers lost. But at least I had found a more economical alternative to checking into a hotel. Or so I thought. When I asked later that week about watching the Super Bowl between the Giants and the Bills the University said they could no longer permit me to watch the satellite TV. And that was that. In retrospect I was somewhat relieved that the 49ers had lost, for had Roger Craig not fumbled with two minutes to go in the game I most likely would have been back at the Sheraton the following week.

After that first experience trying to follow the 49ers while living in Communist China things got a lot easier. Expat bars opened up and among them was a Canadian managed sports bar that had a satellite dish. If I didn’t watch there I got to know people who lived in luxury foreign residences where there was a satellite dish. So on game day I could always hop in a cab and go somewhere to watch the game.By the time I left Shanghai, in 1995, the Super Bowl was broadcast live on Shanghai Cable TV. It was still odd eating guacamole at 8 am but I won’t tell you it was not fun

That last Super Bowl in 1995, when the 49ers were playing the Chargers, was on Chinese New Year. I arranged to watch at a friend’s house and I brought along some fireworks, because it was Chinese New Year and I thought it would be fun to light off fireworks after each 49er score. The 49ers racked up 55 points that day and I am sure must have cut a very strange figure to some of the octogenarians in that alley every time I ran outside in my red jersey and bandana to light off some MD-80s and Roman Candles.

Watching the Super Bowl in China these days is probably no different than watching in America. The game is on everywhere. There are replica jerseys on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai on game day. There are Super Bowl parties everywhere. But I am glad that when I lived in China East was East and West was West. We had a window onto a unique China in reform that few people were privileged to gaze through. And even mundane activities, like watching a football game, were seldom mundane.

Enjoy the game !

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