The snooker circuit is becoming well acquainted with China as more and more tournaments are developed in the world’s largest country.
The latest, the Jiangsu Classic, begins on Wednesday. It features eight members of the world’s top 12 plus four local wildcards.
The trailblazer for snooker in China was Barry Hearn, the Matchroom supremo, who took his stable of players out there in the 1980s.
After a few forays to Hong Kong, they first played in the People’s Republic in 1986, where Steve Davis defeated Terry Griffiths in the final of the China Masters.
Also part of the field was the then WPBSA chairman Rex Williams, who turned up for a promotional tour of the Great Wall of China in an expensive cashmere coat. When Hearn told him that the dress code was ‘casual’ the always immaculately attired Rex replied: ‘Dear boy, this is casual.’
Several more invitation events were staged in China before Stephen Hendry won the first world ranking event on Chinese soil, the 1990 Asian Open in Guangzhou.
Hendry beat Dennis Taylor 9-3 in the final, although Taylor had been exhausted after finishing his semi-final at close to midnight only for the final to start shortly after 9am.
Nine years passed before China hosted another ranking event, the 1999 China International.
This was notable for having all four semi-finalists coming from Scotland. Billy Snaddon beat Stephen Hendry but came up short against John Higgins, who defeated Alan McManus in their semi.
The boom hadn’t quite started at this point but I recall going through passport control with Higgins where an austere official asked him to stop and wait at the desk.
I worried there may have been something wrong with John’s passport and was envisaging the diplomatic repercussions only for the guard to return with a piece of paper for the champion to sign.
He’d watched the snooker on the TV the previous night and wanted Higgins’s autograph.
Shanghai also hosted the China Open at the end of 1999, won by Ronnie O’Sullivan, before this event switched to the magnificent Mission Hills golf resort in Shenzhen a year later.
I remember the interest was such that Hendry had to be locked in the pressroom – not necessarily his preferred place of refuge – for his own safety as a sea of fans tried to get his autograph.
O’Sullivan spent the whole week mired in depression but still beat Mark Williams to win the title.
We went back to Shanghai in 2002 where a 14 year-old Ding Junhui was a wildcard.
It was here that Mark Selby, in full snooker dress, attempted to hire a taxi at one in the morning because he was playing at two (in the afternoon).
Selby was so jetlagged he had not realised it was night, even though it was pitch black outside.
Nevertheless, he still beat Stephen Hendry the next day and also knocked O’Sullivan out on his way to the semi-finals.
Graeme Dott, it would be fair to say, did not enjoy the trip. His flight from Glasgow to London was delayed, which then held up his flight from London to Bangkok and on to Shanghai.
It took him 38 wretched hours to reach China and, understandably exhausted, he went to bed where he slept through his alarm.
Realising he was late, he threw on his snooker gear – although famously not any underwear – and hailed a taxi to the venue.
Unfortunately, the taxi driver went the wrong way and Graeme got out and ran the last half a mile.
He arrived 15 minutes late for his match with Darren Morgan, was docked two frames and lost 5-3.
Asked how he felt afterwards, he simply replied: ‘Suicidal.’
Anthony Hamilton wasn’t too happy either after throwing away a golden chance to win his first ranking title when he lost 9-8 to Williams from 8-5 up.
Because the game had gone into financial disarray, the China Open disappeared from the calendar for three years but returned in 2005 at the Haidian Stadium, Beijing.
Ding was taken out of the qualifiers and put into the main draw as a wildcard. This was the week of his 18th birthday but played with great maturity to land a succession a good scalps – Peter Ebdon, Marco Fu and Ken Doherty – to reach the final.
A couple of things stand out from that week. One was Davis banging his head on a thick steel door and becoming so dizzy as a result that he had to withdraw from his match with Ricky Walden.
I had every sympathy with Steve because I managed to bang my head on the same door and it was not an enjoyable experience to say the least.
The other was Paul Hunter who, unbeknown to all but his closest friends, had just been diagnosed with cancer but still flew the 8,000 miles to play.
After one match, it was noted that Paul had not come in for his press conference. Some 20 minutes went by before we went to look for him.
He was still in the arena signing autographs, which he did for around 300 people.
Ding beat Hendry 9-5 in the final. He received no money or ranking points as a wildcard but, for the sport as a whole, his victory was an extraordinary stroke of luck.
Everything that has happened in China since is down to this one match. It helped ignite a snooker boom that is continuing to this day.
Williams won the 2006 China Open and Dott took the crown in 2007. This year’s final, in which Stephen Maguire beat Shaun Murphy 10-9, was, for me, the best match of the season.
Last August, a second Chinese ranking tournament was added to the schedule, the Shanghai Masters, won by Dominic Dale.
A third could well be on the cards and the Jiangsu Classic, which will be played in two cities, Nanjing and Wuxi City, serves as evidence of the huge interest that remains in China.
This is reflected by the number of Chinese journalists now following the circuit and the emergence of players to challenge Ding’s prominence as top dog in his home country.
Liu Song was a quarter-finalist in last season’s Grand Prix, Liu Chuang qualified for the Crucible at 17 while Liang Wenbo made many friends as he reached the World Championship quarter-finals.
Fast forward ten, certainly 20 years, and it seems likely that the World Championship will be staged in China.
Whether this actually happens or not, China is one snooker success story worth noting.