Off the coast of the South China Sea, on the island of Hainan, stands a 1,600-square-foot “surf facility” in an area the Chinese Government hopes will soon become a major surfing destination. The island, complete with its tropical climate, swooping beaches, and surprisingly hospitable lineups, has plenty of potential for fulfilling the government’s grandiose dreams of creating a “Chinese Waikiki.” There’s only one problem: currently there is no real surf scene in China. There are more than 1.3 billion people living in the country and only a few dozen of them call themselves surfers. But if the hopes of the Chinese government and a few major players in the surf industry come to fruition, all of that could potentially change.
In October of 2011, under the banner of the Swatch Girls Pro in Hainan, the ASP took a historical step for professional surfing when it sanctioned its first event in China. The announcement from the ASP was initially met with varying degrees of speculation that included some surfers taking issue with China’s checkered history with human rights violations, but come the conclusion of the contest, the widely accepted view was that professional surfing’s first venture into China had been a success. The figurative path had been cleared and in the coming months, the ASP would continue their venture into China yet again, holding the ISA China Cup and the 4-star Hainan Cup in January of this year.
“It’s probably fair to say that the factors contributing to this trend are both the desire to promote the growth of surfing in this region, as well as the region’s current economic strength,” says the ASP’s International Media Director, Dave Prodan. “This region, and particularly sponsors in this region, currently have the financing and interest to support these events and that’s what’s needed to get events off the ground.”
Despite a few successful contests marked by surprisingly good surf, the Chinese people are a long way from daily surf checks and building Fantasy Surfer squads. According to Brendan Sheridan, an American expat who’s been teaching surfing in the Middle Kingdom through his surf school, Surfing Hainan, since the mid-2000s, the current number of active surfers remains dismal. “When I got to Hainan in 2006, there were only one or two Chinese surfers. Now there are a good 25,” he says.
The lack of surfers, however, hasn’t deterred Sheridan and he remains confident that the sport still has the potential to take root in the nation. “I definitely foresee a thriving surf culture in Hainan and the rest of China,” he says. “Modern China loves cool Western imports, and you can’t get much cooler than surfing.” According to Sheridan, a number of cultural obstacles are currently standing in surfing’s way. “The Chinese people, especially the women, don’t want to get tan; a tan denotes that one works outside, which means they are a peasant. Many Chinese forgo outdoor activities in order to avoid making their skin darker. The other large cultural barrier is that China is not a very swim-savvy place. Even people who grow up on the coast rarely know how to swim well. People here are very apprehensive about getting into the ocean.”
The small community of surfers that do exist in Hainan doesn’t necessarily fit the mold of the typical locals. For Moyu Huang, one of Hainan’s most established surfers, the benefits of seeing the sport grow in his country are worth the potential of creating crowded lineups in the future. “I think the sport will grow just like skateboarding has,” he says. “I think that surfing advocates a simple lifestyle and it may help Chinese people abandon their materialistic approach and start to focus on enjoying life. It may also help Chinese people to realize how important it is to protect the environment—so many beaches are damaged by pollution in mainland China.”