Article

Will China Become Surfing’s Next Frontier?

An emerging surf industry without any surfers

| posted on October 04, 2012

Despite having lineups like this in their backyard, the Chinese have yet to embrace surfing. Photo: John Callahan

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.”

Unless sentiment among the Chinese changes, there's a good chance this lineup will remain empty. Photo: Callahan

In the eyes of Fernando Aguerre, president of the ISA—the organization that’s spearheaded the recent influx of contests to promote surfing in China—the future of surfing in the country holds great promise, especially considering its developing middle class. “Yes, China does not currently have much of a beach culture,” says Aguerre, “and consequently a very small surfing scene. But it does have great waves, and after decades of working hard to make a living, just like other nations in that area of the world, many Chinese now have a disposable income to enjoy life more. I really believe that surfing will be part of that new era in China, in which its citizens also want to enjoy themselves, much like the rest of the world does. I further believe that we are witnessing the start of a vibrant beach culture.”

In lockstep with his optimistic views on the future of surfing in China, the ISA has plans of holding another ASP-sanctioned event in Hainan in 2013.

“Last year, we organized the very first ISA China Cup, back to back with a 4-star ASP event,” added Aguerre. “Besides being the very first major surfing event in China, it was also the very first time the ISA ran an ASP event as part of a surfing festival. All stakeholders were very happy with the result, including the host nation, the local media, government and sponsors, the visiting surfers, the ASP, and Quiksilver who was the presenting sponsor. We’re going to run it again in 2013.”

Despite the recent success of competitive events in China, the hurdles of turning Hainan into Huntington are many. As a means to grow their brands outside of the relatively non-existent surf market, many surf brands have begun pushing the skate side of their operations with the hopes that surfing will continue to marinate and one day take shape.

In 2008, while the American economy was plunging, China was experiencing double-digit GDP growth. Seeing an opportunity to market their lifestyle to a budding economy, Vans put down roots in China by opening 11 stores in the country. In 2011, in an attempt to take advantage of China’s expansive online presence, Vans launched an online store at China’s TMall.com, the country’s equivalent of Amazon. At the time, China had an estimated 450 million Internet users—the most in the world—and more than 190 million online shoppers. With a primary focus on skate, Vans has seen their gamble pay off and they plan on expanding their retail presence even further, all the while hoping that a surf culture emerges.

With a host of contests to be held on Hainan, it's predominantly visitors like Italy's Emiliano Cataldo that are discovering the wealth of waves in China. Photo: Callahan

“The skate market in China is growing, said Mitch Whitaker, the GM for Vans Asia. “But it’s still in a very nascent stage and will require support to continue to grow sustainably. Surf, on the other hand, is not really on the radar yet in China. It doesn’t necessarily connect culturally and for most Chinese, it’s a bit out of reach. That said, I do think the surf lifestyle has values that the Chinese aspire towards. The key will be how to make surf relevant to a population that has never been exposed to surf.”

With plans on expanding their presence into China, Billabong has followed on the same path as Vans by pushing their skate-oriented lines and brands with the hopes that surf will soon follow. “Currently, we’re seeing a growth within skate because that’s a natural fit for an urban environment, but as far as surf goes, we know that the sport isn’t quite thriving in the country yet. But we do believe that the lifestyle will catch on soon, and we’re planning for that as well,” said Ryan Teng, Billabong’s Asia Coordinator. “There are places in the Midwest where people don’t necessarily surf, but they’re into the lifestyle. As China adapts more to action sports, we expect to grow the surf brands more.”

Back on Hainan Island, the empty surf facility, which now doubles as a seafood restaurant, stands vigil over a beach void of surfers, lending to the realization that for as much potential as Hainan holds, the country is a long way from becoming a surfing nation. For now, China’s few existing surfers will continue on, hoping to share their lineups with not only surfers from around the world, but with their own countrymen. “I keep waiting for a Gladwellian tipping point,” says Hainan surf school instructor Brendan Sheridan, “but I’m just not sure when it will come. In the meantime I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing. Teaching people how to surf and organizing events to promote the sport and the lifestyle that I love.”

The Secret of Hainan from coconute on Vimeo.

  • Luke

    Yeah right, that’s just what surfing needs. More surfers in the water, and more surfers travelling to already crowded destinations like J-Bay, Bali and the Gold Coast. Another example of money trumping common sense.

  • Matthias

    Jeff,

    I am currently a junior studying Chinese and International Business. I’ve always thought that a job in the surf industry would suit me well. Is there any chance you could provide me with Brendan Sheridan’s email, so I could ask him a few questions about the potential for career paths in expanding the surf industry over there?

    Thanks,
    Matthias

  • Ryan

    Seriously, the last thing the world needs is more surfers.

  • http://www.surfinghainan.com Brendan Sheridan

    Matthias, you can reach me at brendan@surfinghainan.com.

  • Jay

    Yeah Luke, it’s good to just let the waves go unridden. Wouldn’t want to turn on the Chinese to anything cool like surfing so we all can find more common ground. There are plenty of unpopulated places to surf but offering surfing to this country would definitely put us on more on the same page.

  • http://www.shenzhenphotos.com jesse

    “There’s only one problem: currently there is no real surf scene in China.” – actually, there is a surf scene, albeit small, in Hainan, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and even Fujian. And this is not a problem, its great just how it is. Although I do support China embracing surf and enjoying waves just as we do. And I’d love to see the kids take it up, not just the adults.

  • http://www.orangeshark.co.uk Mark

    China is an interesting concept for the surfing scene, I suppose if enough sponsorship money is invested by the chinese then it could be a real success (subject to some great surf or course!!)

  • nico

    Seriously, the last thing the world needs is ONE BILLION more surfers !!!!!!!!!

  • comedy dave

    Interesting article, I think the underlying reason for targeting China is that the large surf corporations are not doing well financially. The West cannot afford the exorbitant prices these corporations charge for their clothing so they have to branch out into new markets and where better? An emerging middle class with a high percentage of disposal income means the potential to market surfing as it is marketed to in the West is enormous. It’s a shame that the development of a surf culture is not done organically over period of many years by travelling surfers etc… and instead is very aggressively promoted by even getting the government involved to promote it – a single party communist government that does not tolerate free speech in anyway whatsoever. I think there are better places in the world that could really do with development money and creating a sustainable infrastructure for visiting and local surfers in more isolated (poor) and wave rich countries.

  • Douglas Pearson

    Christ, isn’t it already enough that there’s pop-out surfboards being made there ruining the surfboard industry without tuning them into surfing as well!!! Greed Greed Greed. Oh look! A new indusrty to groom!! Surfing was sold out by the big surf industry players ages ago, and it’s us, the every day Joe’s who are paying the ultimate price. Surfing should have been kept a secret, protected from the masses of the un-jazzed… It’s just bullshit… One of the reason’s why I don’t support the bastards any more…

  • Tom

    There are 1.5 billion Chinese people. Do. Not. Fucking. Tell. Them. About. Surfing. Are you out of your minds?

  • Matthias

    It’s actually a good thing if there are more Chinese surfers. Think about it.. chances are, they’re not going to be coming over and taking your waves at Ocean Beach. They’re simply gonna start caring more about the ocean and hopefully put pressure on the government in say, Hainan, to impose stricter regulations on dumping chemicals into the water.

  • Mike

    I live in Taiwan where surfing has become more popular over the last ten years or so. However, most Taiwanese/Chinese have a deep rooted fear of the ocean and regard surfing as a bit ‘mental’. I’m sure attitudes will slowly change, but I don’t suddenly see the sport exploding in popularity in China.

  • http://www.chinasurfreport.com Francesco

    Surf scene is growing fastly and we are working hard to make it grow faster and faster! The shores of China are witnessing the explosion of a new clean and natural lifestyle. Ecology, Ocean, Love for nature and waves! It will be a great success…soon!

  • http://none Nick

    What made surf take off in the U.S.? A movie shot at Malibu. All ya gotta do is get some cool guys, hot chicks, a couple of hot-rods and some bad-ass bikes. Throw in a blond surfer dude from the U.S. (who steals the chick of the local bad-boy), some lame cops who want to kick the surfers off the beach where they live in harmony with nature because some fat cat wants to build a marina there — the surfers end up turning on the fat cat”s son to surfing, he takes their side and convinces his dad not to build the marina, and there’s a simple plot that will appeal to young people, the target market.

    Pitch the idea to one of those tycoons over there, bring a production crew from the U.S., then laugh all the way to the bank!

  • Jo

    Can you just imagine a nation like China coming to the world’s waves by the millions.

  • Jo

    “There are 1.5 billion Chinese people. Do. Not. Fucking. Tell. Them. About. Surfing. Are you out of your minds?”

    this.

  • damo

    might have to start making waves if million more surfers started started surfing which china would easily do.

    if 30 million chinese people started surfing more chinese would have an awareness of having to protect the ocean…

    i see it as a positive thing.

  • Kyle

    What a terrible idea. And Surfing is not at all cool. Think about it, a bunch of dudes blowing off responsibility to get angry, wear silly rubber suits and piss themselves.

  • Joe

    I’m all for the spread of stoke, but the rationale behind thus is not to spread stoke. It simply about collecting more dollars. I don’t think our already incredibly kooked out crowded breaks need millions of wannabe “cool surfers” just so the industry can make some bucks. Lame idea.

  • http://www.techniquegraphics.com KEWE

    Any entrepreneurs wanna be the first to open up a Chinese Surf School?

    You can start by teaching those 2,000 drummers from the Olympic Opening Ceremony. Who wouldn’t wanna paddle out and share a few peaks with those boyz?

  • Gene

    Look at Mexico. Most of the people that surf there are tourists or expats.

  • Keep it real

    The future of surf sales is not going to be China any time soon.

    Having a few contests on Hainan does not = breaking into the Chinese market and all those potential consumers. It’s hardly making a dent on the island of Hainan. Have numbers of surfers and sales exploded there? Well, no.

    Yes, there are a few surfers on Hainan and in other places like Fujian, Hong Kong etc. (very small numbers and in very confined areas).

    If there is market growth there will be a domestic brand that copies and then over-runs the foreigners (see the Li Ning sport brand for a case study).

    People in China tend to prefer domestic brands unless they are super high end blue chip brands (see Gucci et al – but these appeal across a wider segment of the population and for different reasons – the surf brands have no ties to prestige here and status, at all. And purchasing status is crucial here. It’s no good buying a brand if nobody even knows it. It must already be known).

    Further, the cultural context of China (responsibilities of single children due to the one child policy) will stifle middle-class young people having the lesiure time to pursue surfing and the culture for some time yet. There just isn’t the leisure time for vast swarths of the population.

    Further still, the coastal culture and environment here has been broken down to the point of being completely wrecked in most places, except in some very small areas. Even Hainan has been hammered in this regard. Most everyday people in coastal areas are poor and are struggling to even survive.

    Further even still, interpretation of leisure and sport and participation in them is very different. Work and education take priority above all else due to the responsibilities to family etc mentioned earlier.

    In other words, China is not simply the next frontier for surfing sitting there like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow like some people suppose and that surfing magazines like to keep telling us.

    Really, what does the author of this article know. I guess they’ve visited Hainan and extrapolate from that what the rest of China is like. That make it patently clear the author desn’t know what he is talking about.

    Yes, surfing will grow here (albeit slowly).

    However, I wish people would stop making claims about it when they don’t understand the context at all except that some journo who hasn’t spent any time here or marketing consultant has told them there are 1.2 billion consumers here. Anyway, consumption patterns here are very different (cheap is good – Shanzai [imitation/copying]celebrated. They took my FCS cover and copied it exactly and put their own label on it wihtout even blinking, all within two weeks. Good luck to the brands wanting to crack the market with coping with that).

    Be wary, the reason why the 1.2 billion consumers line is trotted out is that middle-men want to suck money out of the companies wanting to get into this market and local officials can scam money out of government troughs.

    There is a small core and dedicated crew (like Brendan Sheridan et al) who have carved out smalle niches. But on a grand scale? I wouldn’tbe putting all my eggs in that basket.

  • david plumb

    I want to bring readers attention to the top photo.
    I went to this break in 2005 and it was pumping. Double overhead. 2 guys out – old Hong Kong veterans.
    Anyway just in case anyone is looking for a new big wave spot, the island you can see on the left has a huge right hander breaking around it’s northern tip.
    There is a north easterly monsoon that blows down the Chinese coast from October till ,usually, Jan/ Feb and it generates some sizeable swells.
    Just in the event you do get there and are looking for a challenge! There may be someway to hire a boat or Hainan Surfing may have a jet ski to hire?

  • Steve

    There are still human rights abuses going on in this Country as we speak if ISA stood for anything. they would not have anything to do with the chinese government

  • http://vimeo.com/60432936 Mathis

    Hi,

    So much noise about surfing in China but do you know who discovered those waves and when? The answer in this short movie:

    http://vimeo.com/60432936