Chia Boon Leong
by Chua, Alvin
Chia Boon Leong (b. 1 January 1925, Singapore–) is a former footballer who played for Singapore in the Malaya Cup (now known as the Malaysia Cup) and other representative matches. He also represented China at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Nicknamed “Twinkletoes”, Chia was regarded as one of the most skilful football players in Malaya during the 1940s and ’50s. He was voted 19th on The Straits Times list of Singapore’s Greatest Sports Stars in 1999.1
Chia grew up in the Pasir Panjang area,2 where he was a founding member of the Pasir Panjang Rovers football team. Formed in 1938, the team also featured a number of players who became well known in the local football scene, including Ong Eng Hoe, Kally Din, Leong Foon Chew and Wong Tong Seng. During the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945, the team was coached by former Singaporean player Tan Lai Chuan, who was one of Chia’s mentors together with Chua Boon Lay, another Singaporean player and Olympian.3
Chia attended Pasir Panjang English School and then Raffles Institution.4 His football skills were outstanding as a schoolboy star, but Chia was often told that he was too small to make a good footballer because he was only 1.6 m tall.5 His mentor Chua was one of those who counselled him otherwise, and Chia became determined to prove his critics wrong.6 He and his team, Pasir Panjang Rovers, won all the major trophies offered by the Syonan Sports Association between 1943 and 1945, and Chia also took part in the Syonan team’s tours of Malaya. Throughout his career, Chia continued to play for Rovers, participating in its rise to the top of the local football scene by winning the Singapore Amateur Football Association (SAFA) League in 1948.7
Representing Singapore, Lien Hwa and China
Chia also played for the Singapore Chinese Football Association (SCFA) team, and his fine performances led to his selection for the post-war Lien Hwa (United Chinese) team. He joined Lien Hwa for its December 1947 tour of Asia. During the 42-day tour, which included games in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Chia was feted as the most outstanding player of the side. The team played 23 games, winning 16, and Chia finished as the top goal-scorer and the only player to feature in all the games. The Singapore press reported that Chia had received an offer from the Chinese team, Sing Tao, but had rejected it. Hong Kong Football Association president, A. Morse, dubbed Chia “the answer to the scientist’s definition of perpetual motion”.8
Chia’s performances made an impression on the selectors of the Chinese Olympic team, and in March 1948, Chia and goalkeeper Chu Chee Seng were the only two players from Malaya to be invited for trials for the team. Chia made it to the team and started China’s only game at the Olympics, against Turkey at Walthamstow Stadium. China lost 4-0, but Chia was said to have made his mark with his speed and methodical play. He had gone one better than Chua, who was selected for China’s Olympic team in 1936 but did not play.9
Chia continued to play for Rovers in the SAFA League and for teams like SCFA, Malayan Chinese and Sino-Malays in friendly matches.10 His first success in the Malaya Cup was in 1950 when he scored the first goal in a 2-0 win over Penang in the final.11 Further Malaya Cup successes followed as Singapore beat Perak 6-0 in 1951 and Penang 3-2 in 1952.12 Playing in the inside-left position on the field, Chia formed a lethal combination with team mates Awang Bakar, Rahim Omar and Aw Boon Seong.13
Chia’s nickname, Twinkletoes, came about in 1951 after a friendly match between Singapore and visiting Swedish team Gothenburg. Gothenburg’s coach, the former England international John Mahon, took special notice of Chia, telling his team to “watch that little fellow with the twinkling feet, he works hard, dribbles hard, and is outstanding both in attack and defence”.14
The Asian Games and a stint in England
The 1954 football season was one of mixed fortunes for Chia. He was selected to represent Singapore at the Asian Games in Manila, Philippines, but Singapore suffered an early exit after losing their first game to Pakistan. They drew their other game 1-1 against Burma. The team’s dismal showing was made worse when they lost 3-0 to Penang in the Malaya Cup final.15
However, Chia came up tops when soft drink company, Fraser and Neave, ran a competition to select Malaya’s most popular football star.16 He clinched over 1.3 million votes from fans, beating second-placed Edwin Dutton of Selangor. The reward for Chia and Dutton was a two-month training stint in England, where they attended a four-week coaching course organised by the Football Association, trained at London club Arsenal and played in friendly matches with amateur teams.17
The stint in England proved to be the high point of the later years of Chia’s career. By that stage, he had become physically and mentally burnt-out by the constant stream of SAFA League matches and numerous friendly and representative games, and asked to be excluded from Singapore’s Malaya Cup campaign in 1955, citing a loss of form and confidence. Chia played in Singapore colours again at the end of the year, but was in and out of the team over the following months, much to the disappointment of fans and journalists who still regarded him as one of the best forwards around. Chia decided to retire at the end of the 1955 season.18
In 1963, Chia worked with former Malaya Cup team mate Harith Omar as a coach for SAFA, under the director of coaches Rahim Sattar. He later worked as an accountant, and served as manager of the national football team on a part-time basis between 1977 and 1980. Chia was also the Football Association of Singapore’s assistant treasurer and served on its council during this period.19
Impressions of Chia
There were many favourable comments in the press praising Chia for his nimble footwork, agility and speed on the field.
In April 1948, The Sunday Tribune (Singapore) described Chia as “swift as a hare, with brilliant ball control and unlimited stamina as his chief assets, he is a schemer of immense value to any forward line”.20
Bob Pidgeon, writing in the January 1958 edition of The Malayan Monthly (Malaya), said that Chia was “a grand little footballer – often too quick thinking and too quixotic in his attitude to the game for those playing alongside him. But when he found a centre forward with the flashing talent of Awang Bakar, the sparks really flew. Together on their best days, they have given me more pleasure than anything else I have seen in Malayan sport....”21
Chia’s feats were also singled out for mention in the foreign press. In November 1947, the North-China Daily News (Shanghai) called Chia a “spark-plug and glutton for work”. In the following month, The Manila Times described Chia as “small but terrible” and one who “caught the attention of the football fans with his speed and brilliant dribbling”.22
1. Aplin, N. (2005). Singapore olympians: The complete who’s who, 1936–2004. Singapore: SNP Reference, p. 37. (Call no.: RSING 796.09225957 APL)
2. Aplin, N. (2005). Singapore olympians: The complete who’s who, 1936–2004. Singapore: SNP Reference, p. 37. (Call no.: RSING 796.09225957 APL)
3. Ken Jalleh. (1949, April 20). Kampong team makes good. The Singapore Free Press, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Perseverance brought reward. (1948, April 17). The Singapore Free Press, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Murali, S. (1999, October 31). Magicians: The dazzler... and Twinkle Toes. The Straits Times, p. 46. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Tan, G. H. (2008). 100 inspiring Rafflesians, 1823–2003. Singapore: World Scientific, p. 36. (Call no.: RSING 373.5957 TAN)
7. Perseverance brought reward. (1948, April 17). The Singapore Free Press, p. 7; Ken Jalleh (1949, April 20). Kampong team makes good. The Singapore Free Press, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Lien Hwa footballers return. (1947, December 13). The Straits Times, p. 12; Perseverance brought reward. (1948, April 17). The Singapore Free Press, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Tay, C. K. (2004, August 1). Not Singapore-born, so what? The Straits Times, p. 42. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Suryadinata, L. (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary (Vol. 1). Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 122. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
10. To play for B.O.D. cup XI. (1948, September 28). The Straits Times, p. 12; SCFA pick 22 players. (1949, April 12). The Singapore Free Press, p. 7; M.C.F.A. win poor game. (1951, October 22). The Singapore Free Press, p. 7; All-India tourists arrive. (1949, October 25). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Singapore triumph in cup final. (1950, August 13). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Malaya Cup men chosen. (1951, August 30). The Singapore Free Press, p. 6; Disputed goal gives Singapore Malaya Cup. (1952, October 13). The Straits Times, p. 12; For the record. (1981, June 8). The Business Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Pen pictures of the teams. (1952, October 11). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Tan, G. H. (2008). 100 inspiring Rafflesians, 1823–2003. Singapore: World Scientific, p. 35. (Call no.: RSING 373.5957 TAN)
15. Asian Games special. (1954, May 5). The Singapore Free Press, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Chia, B. L. (1954). (Photographer). Group photograph of Chia Boon Leong and Edwin Dutton taken in London [Image of Photograph], [Online]. Retrieved 2016, June 28 from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline
17. E.C. Dutton and Boon Leong for England. (1954, August 1). The Straits Times, p. 1; Boon Leong will meet The Wizard. (1954, September 29). The Singapore Free Press, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tan, G. H. (2008). 100 inspiring Rafflesians, 1823–2003. Singapore: World Scientific, p. 36. (Call no.: RSING 373.5957 TAN)
18. Suryadinata, L. (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary (Vol. 1). Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 123. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
19. Suryadinata, L. (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary (Vol. 1). Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 123. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
20. The care and precision he put into his moves showed his uncanny ball sense.... (1975, April 18). New Nation, pp. 10–11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. The care and precision he put into his moves showed his uncanny ball sense.... (1975, April 18). New Nation, pp. 10–11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. The care and precision he put into his moves showed his uncanny ball sense.... (1975, April 18). New Nation, pp. 10–11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.