To reach Hainan Island, China's nascent surf capital, you invariably need to change planes in Guangzhou, one of the most polluted cities in the world.
Former pro surfer Jarrad Howse, visiting Hainan last year as a representative of his sponsor O’Neill, was not accustomed to such non-idyllic detours. “Guangzhou is the most horrible place I’ve ever landed in,” he says. “I couldn’t believe I was on my way to a festival about surfing.”
After seven hours of wheezing Guangzhou’s toxic air, Howse jumped on another plane and flew on to Hainan, landing at night. The view from his room at the new beachside Sheraton the next morning revealed something far more familiar – white sand, blue water, clean air, palm trees and the crucial ingredient: waves.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “It was a little bit of paradise. It was like I’d been transported to a Hawaiian island.
I had no idea China had those sorts of places. I always thought the water would be too polluted to surf in.” Guangzhou hasn’t been the only barrier to surfers developing an interest in China. The cultural divide has been just as insurmountable. Surfers have known there are waves in Hainan ever since pioneering Queensland professional Peter Drouyn returned from a Chinese government-sponsored tour of the island in 1986 and told Tracks magazine: “There’s waves in China, all right. Good waves, too. Of the four provinces I went to, there were definite waves in at least three of them.”
But surfers, being the vain doyens of pop counterculture, prefer to visit places where their status as global fashionable outcasts has at least a little street cred, and that was never going to happen in communist, conformist China. Until now, that is.
Former pro surfer Holly Beck owns a business conducting surf tours to Hainan and was invited by the government to advise them on ways to encourage tourism to the region. She says she and her boyfriend are constantly asked to pose for photos with college-age kids wherever they go in China, even on the mainland. “They like our blond hair, I think,” she says. “That sort of excitement and curiosity for Western culture opens the door for interest in surfing culture as well.”
The government, through its hilariously titled Minister for Extreme Sports, is working hard to encourage tourism to its established surf coast, Hainan (there is also surf in Taiwan and some off the nearby mainland coastline but so far these areas have been largely ignored). It held a festival of surfing last year, which was attended by hundreds of officials as well as people from across the surf industry who were invited to meet and greet.
Howse says the event differed from the typical surf-industry get-together. “We went to dinner every night and would be placed next to the highest officials,” he says. “Every person at the table would come up to us and tell us, through interpreters, that they were honoured to have us there and that they hoped we would come back soon.” But beneath the formalities were competing agendas. “It was really political. Everyone had their own motives. It’s one of those places where money talks and the rest walks.”
Steve Robertson of Surfing Australia, which helps administer the world surfing tour in Australia and South-East Asia, attended the event and sealed a deal to run China’s first professional surfing event, a women’s longboarding contest that will be held in October this year. It will be the final event of the season for that category, so the world champion will be crowned in Hainan. As a return gesture, a delegation of Chinese officials was invited to attend the Quiksilver Pro and annual pro tour banquet on the Gold Coast in February.
Robertson says the Chinese government has another, more challenging long-term objective, apart from developing a surf tourism industry: to encourage young Chinese kids to take up the sport. “We are in discussion with them about how to set up surf education in their schools,” Robertson says. “[The officials] were sending a message to us that young Chinese are going to have more leisure time in the future and will have opportunities to take on a lifestyle sport. The government has a goal to embrace the sport. They spoke of how other sports in China, like yachting, had also been embraced in the past decade.”
It’s not every day that surfing, a nebulous pursuit that is variously described as a creative sport and a drop-out lifestyle, is compared to yachting, in which rich men race expensive boats towards a finishing line. But Greg Healy, CEO of Quiksilver Australia, sees the connection. Like their rich elders, Chinese teenagers also have aspirations, but in their case it is to be as cool as their counterparts in, say, southern California. “One of the things that
this job exposes you to is that young people are the same all over the world,” he says. “The Chinese get it [youth culture], for sure. They love their fashion, they love their music and they love being able to express themselves in their individual characters.”
Healy is not deluded that it will happen overnight, though. Quiksilver, which has about 50 stores throughout China, is in it for the long haul. “It’s a market that every brand in the world is trying to get. We’re no different but it’s a long and steady journey.” The company is doing it with as little compromise as possible, modifying its range by 10–15 per cent to appeal to the locals, Healy says. “It might have a different colour but we would like to think it’s as cool,” Healy says.
China’s conversion to surf culture might be inevitable but nobody is saying how soon that might happen. “There don’t seem to be any local surfers,” Robertson says. “I didn’t actually see any Chinese surfing. A lot of people were encouraged to come and watch the surfing demonstration but you’ve got to have the sport entrenched in the culture before the industry can thrive on it.”
Howse says the Chinese still have a bit to learn. “They cheered when someone did a chop-hop [a simple manoeuvre],” he says. “To them the most difficult manoeuvres looked the most boring. And they swim in their clothes – they wear jeans and shoes into the water. Surfing is a completely foreign sport to them.”
Beck agrees: “While surfing in Hainan I met a very small population of local surfers – four to six guys – who did seem to understand the sport. The rest of the Chinese seemed to have no clue as to what surfing is all about. Like other Asians, the Chinese associate being muscular and tanned with manual labour, so a majority of middle-class Chinese with the financial means and time to want to learn to surf first have to overcome their negative associations with the type of body and skin colour that the sport will give them.”