Everybody's gone surfin', surfin' PRC! (and skateboarding, too)

Travel | by Aimee Groom
Posted: September 29th, 2010 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
Beach Boys Surfin' safari "For those not familiar with the latest craze to invade the sun-drenched Pacific coast of Southern California, here is a definition of "surfing"—a water sport in which the participant stands on a floating slab of wood, resembling an ironing board in both size and shape, and attempts to remain perpendicular while being hurtled toward the shore at a rather frightening rate of speed on the crest of a huge wave (especially recommended for teen-agers and all others without the slightest regard for either life or limb)" — Sleeve note from the Beach Boys' 1962  "Surfin' Safari" album
This sleeve note may be almost fifty-year-old news to Americans, but in China, where hardly anyone has ever seen a surfboard, it's entirely apt. And as for the surfing industry that's grown up in the wake of the sport's growth and popularity in the US, Australia and elsewhere, China looks like the perfect wave: the biggest market in the world with a newly emerging and affluent middle class of some 250 million young and hungry consumers looking for ways to let off steam and spend some of their hard-earned cash and have some fun, fun, fun. In short, everyone wants a piece of China, including the action sports industry. Add to this the fact that the 2008 Beijing Olympics were a huge boon to the sports industry in China in general, and today, alternative sports like skateboarding and surfing are looking to make inroads with Chinese youth. To learn more, last week I took a trip down to Hangzhou to check out the Surfing China Festival and Action Sports China Expo, aimed at raising awareness of surfing, skateboarding and all things generally rad in China. Jamie Sterling, qiantang tidal bore 2010 Both sports developed in the West, starting with surfing, which underwent a transformation from underground culture to national fad in 1960s Southern California. As bands like the Beach Boys and Surfaris made pop culture waves, "surf culture" with its distinctive clothing and music was firmly established. Skateboarding was born out of surfing as a way for surfers to ride the pavement when the sun had gone down or there was no surf, and snowboarding took the same concept to the snow. (See Rebekah Pothaar's Rad Star Over China: Best China Snowboarding Spots for more on the matter.) Of course, around the same time that the US was undergoing its board sports revolution, China was undergoing a revolution of a very different kind. Whereas surfing and skating started out as countercultures in the US, eventually becoming mainstream over a number of years with an industry, brands and  lifestyle that grew up around them, in contemporary China the process has been less organic. Here, the focus is on introducing the sports and accompanying lifestyle concepts  to a market that is largely unfamiliar with them, and sports equipment, shoe and clothing marketers are taking the lead. surfing china 2010 The Surfing China Festival was held in Hangzhou's impressive (but still rather empty) new CBD, and brought together a collection of international brands, local companies and government bodies, all on a mission to promote the action sports lifestyle with an eye on developing both a domestic and inbound tourist industry. Three days of music, fashion, competition and demos, the event capitalized on the ancient natural phenomenon of the Qiantang tidal bore, known locally as the Silver Dragon. Reputedly the largest of its kind in the world, people have been gathering on the banks of the Qiantang River for the past 2000 years to witness the intense surge of water that rushes past during the Mid-Autumn Festival each year. It's been known to reach up to nine meters in height and since 2008 Surfing China has been bringing in some of the world's top pro surfers to ride the wave. skaters, surfing china 2010 Several tents' worth of suppliers were set up in rows, filled with board shorts, sunglasses, skate shoes and skateboards. Plenty of enthusiastic young skaters were casually cruising and doing tricks as well as competing—the Baby Dragon Skate Comp drew participants from regional events around China and was judged by international pros shipped in to do demos and rate China's young talent. In China it seems that skateboarding has been catching on quickly, with something about its subversive spirit appealing to the Chinese youth. As Nathan Bemo from the American Ramp Company points out: "The potential for skateboarding in China is huge. The only way the industry can go is up." [pullquote]"The potential for skateboarding in China is huge. The only way the industry can go is up." - Nathan Bemo, American Ramp Company[/pullquote] Though currently living in the States, Nathan grew up in Taiwan and has a good understanding of Chinese culture. He has a theory or two about the future of skateboarding here on the mainland. "China focuses so much on academic standards that it doesn't leave much time for sports, but it's easy for a kid to grab a board and skate for 30-minutes and play on his own. By investing in skate parks we give them a place to do that and boost the market." skaters hangzhou There's another side to that theory, though: With the little time kids have free, many parents prefer to push them into team sports, where they'll presumably build social skills for the future.  Nathan responds that team sports require a bigger time commitment and more planning. Still, there's also the fact that sports like skateboarding are perceived as dangerous, and China's single-child policy has resulted in a generation of overprotective parents who are loathe to let their only child take part in any activity that might result in scuffed elbows, broken bones or worse. wang he, surfing china 2010 But that wasn't stopping the kids who showed up in Hangzhou.  They cruised around the open areas, olly-ing and kick-flipping at will, and later either skating the ramp or watching others with rapt attention. Kitted out in baggy jeans, big hair and skate shoes, they looked and played the part to perfection. [pullquote]"I think surfing is really cool! In China we have a lot of US movies that show the beach and surfing and it looks very attractive... like in Dear John, when the hero carries a surfboard. Lots of boys want to be like that." — Wang He, student[/pullquote]Surfing, on the other hand, is another matter. By its very nature, it's limited to the coast (except where tidal bores are concerned, but that's the exception, not the rule). True, China has approximately 18,000 km of coastline, but what it doesn't have yet is much in the way of beach culture. Enjoying the sun, sand and surf like American or Australian kids is still a relatively new idea. Most (especially women) prefer to cover up rather than get a tan (white skin is considered more attractive), a large proportion of the population doesn't know how to swim, and there's a general lack of the kind of environmental awareness that can give rise to a passion for outdoor activities . Indeed, as English major Wang He, a 21-year-old female student volunteering at the Surfing China stand, explains: "China is still quite conservative—girls are not comfortable wearing a bikini. Chinese people also don't like the hot weather, if it's too hot we prefer to stay home." If that's so, then what does she think about surfing and surfing culture and why is she working at this event? Dear John "I think surfing is really cool! In China we have a lot of US movies that show the beach and surfing and it looks very attractive... like in 'Dear John', when the hero carries a surfboard. Lots of boys want to be like that." So is surfing popular in China? "Not really. It's too expensive. You have to be rich to surf because you need to travel to the beach in Hainan. Also the weather and environment is a problem; it's not always sunny and the water here is polluted and yellow. I don't want to try it. Maybe if it it was always sunny with clean water like in California I would." Wang Hai Peng and Zhang Huang, two male student volunteers echoed both Wang He and Nathan's sentiments: "Surfing is for rich people who have enough money and enough time to travel to the places where surfing is possible." What do they think about surfing personally though? Would they like to give it a try? Does it have much potential in China? "I have no experience of surfing and anyway, we live too far from the sea so I have no real interest in trying," says Wang Hai Pang. wang hai peng and Zhang Huang As for Zhang Huang, he points out: "In China, there are lots of examinations and we are always studying. No one has time for these kind of luxury activities." So it seems that surfing as a sport has still got a long way to go before calls of "surf's up" can be heard echoing across Chinese beaches. Still, a mechanical surfboard and stand-up paddle demonstration pool were consistently surrounded by a crowd of youngsters, all keen to give this strange new sport a go, and letting world-renowned professional surfers loose on the China's most famous wave was a great move by the organizers. Although even the most enthusiastic of Chinese surfers are unlikely to have the opportunity to ever ride the Silver Dragon, seeing others do it introduces the sport and opens their eyes to the possibilities and excitement it can offer. It may not be the best in the world, but China's coastline does have surf potential (and, of course its endless pavements hold enormous skateboard potential). China's beaches get some decent swells, particularly in typhoon season, and surfing in Hainan offers some of the lowest surfer-to-wave ratios in the world. Other spots along the Fujian and Guangzhou coastline are just waiting to be discovered (and maybe cleaned up a little), but as the next generation grow up and travel becomes more accessible, Chinese surfers may well be ripping it up with them best of them.

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