Photo: Matjaž Tančič

High Tide in Hainan | The Island Behind China’s Bid to be a Surfing Superpower

Surfing used to be a dirty pastime in the People's Republic, until Olympic dreams changed everything

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Jan 4 2019, 10:00am

Photo: Matjaž Tančič

Most visitors to Riyue Bay, on the east coast of China’s southern subtropical island province Hainan, simply head there for a lovely day out – ideally documented with a million new photos.

Large rocks near the beach’s southern edge provide perfect platforms for young monks, their wine-red robes flapping in the breeze as they pose with arms aloft. Nearby, middle-aged ladies in bucket hats pay to sit on ponies, the weary nags plopping out dotted dung lines as cameras click.

"Hainan police regularly stopped cars with surfboards strapped to them, telling owners they were forbidden to surf near swimmers"

The bay is shared by domestic tourists and members of China’s first generation of Hainan surfers, with the sport having first gained traction on the island around ten years ago. Members of this generation, such as pro longboarder Monica Guo and pro surfer-turned-environmentalist Darci Liu, have not always had a laid back time of it. Unfamiliar with a lifestyle seemingly based around floating and showing off ripped torsos, much of mainstream Chinese society has viewed surfers as work-shy drifters.

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Monks wading their feet through the sand. Photo: Matjaž Tančič

This view has often been reflected in the law enforcement style on China’s coasts. Hainan police regularly stopped cars with surfboards strapped to them, telling owners they were forbidden to surf near swimmers. In Shenzhen, in China’s southern Guangdong province, security guards sawed chunks out of surfboards. But in August 2016, something changed.

That month, it was announced that surfing would be included in the Summer Olympics for the first time, debuting at Tokyo 2020, and since then, the water has got a lot busier in Riyue Bay. Rickety surf shops were bulldozed to make way for a gleaming new surf centre overlooking the shore. Around 100 Chinese surf trainees between the ages of ten and 30, recruited on a new government scheme, have moved to the bay, performing exercise routines in the shadow of the new centre, and crowding the sea with their surf lessons.

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China's young surfers looking out onto the coast. Photo: Matjaž Tančič

“To make an omelette you have to break some eggs, you know?” says Florida-born surf coach Michael Weaver, 45, speaking above the gentle reggae soundtrack of Riyue Bay’s Jalenboo Surf Club. The club was forcibly relocated to make way for the government surf centre, which resembles a luxury hotel. Rustic restaurants seen as vital to the local surf scene were also bulldozed, replaced by pristine grass lawns.

As well as paying for the centre, the government covers living and training costs for the trainees, including surfing trips for them to the US, Europe, and Australia. Foreign coaches such as Weaver and Peter Townsend, the Australian former world surfing champion, were recruited to train this new generation, with authorities expecting successful showings in surf competitions for their investment.

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The luxury new surf complex built in Hainan by the Chinese Government. Photo: Matjaž Tančič

Weaver has lived on Hainan for 11 years, and is friendly with the chilled inaugural Chinese surfer generation that congregates at places such as Jalenboo. Still, he has no qualms about working with the government-funded, Olympics-orientated surfers, despite some of the younger athletes having never picked up a board before being recruited for the scheme.

“You have two worlds of surfing,” he says. “The ‘free surf spiritual’ thing, and the competitive side. We’re here to train the kids to compete – I don’t feel it’s a bad thing. You either train to compete or you kick rocks, right? You go to the other side of the street and be a soul surfer.” In a swimming pool next to the surf club, four young female surf trainees diligently practise board control skills, gliding around the pool with deft precision.

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Hainan's surf culture still persists in the face of sanitation. Photo: Matjaž Tančič

Weaver’s friend Li Jing joins us, wearing a tie dye outfit and sucking a straw protruding from a coconut. Li, 31, is very much on the ‘soul surfer’ side of the division line recently drawn in the sand here. She works at the surf club, saying that “everyone was very angry” it was relocated further back from the beach to make space for the newly-arrived, hyper-competitive surf kids. She’s still generally chilled out – that’s a given if you’re a ‘soul surfer’. But before the influx, she says with a sigh, “There might have been five of us in the sea here each day”.

On the positive side, the cops are less of a problem for her and her friends now that surfing is officially approved by the Communist Party of China. Before authorities were blinded by the gleam of Olympic medals, she says, things were “kind of tough” for Chinese surfers. “If we carried boards on our cars police would stop us, saying it’s dangerous,” she says. “But now police are like, ‘Oh, they’re surfers!’. And on beaches, if surfers go, we’re welcomed… they now know we’re not just ‘homeless’ people who don’t work.”

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A more experienced Chinese surfer demonstrating the joys of the Hainanese waves. Photo: Matjaž Tančič

Li and Weaver seem to agree that despite all the government investment, there is little chance that China will win surfing medals at Tokyo 2020, or that the country’s surf team will even qualify for the event. Li laughs uncontrollably at the suggestion of medals, while Weaver smiles and says, “No comment”. They suggest that when you’re up against countries such as the US and Australia, which have rich histories of surfing spanning generations, hastily-assembled boot camps won’t immediately plug the gap, however efficient they are.

However, both Li and Weaver are hoping for a cultural victory instead. The mentality gap between competition-hungry, government-recruited surf trainees in Hainan, and the island’s original surf dudes and dudettes, is big, but this is not a simple battle between rad and good. Li says that the two factions living so close to each other inevitably results in crossover, and that she is already friends with many trainees. It’s human nature to merge, not repel, especially when your government-paid apartment overlooks a top beach party spot.

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Young Chinese surf students heading from the compound towards the coast. Photo: Matjaž Tančič

“We let these kids know that surfing is not just training – it’s not just skills in water,” Li says. “We can let them know what their culture lacks. They have time – this magic can happen. Give them ten years and I’m pretty sure they’ll know [about surfing lifestyles]. It won’t just be like army training.”

Later on the Riyue Bay sand, gangly trainees obediently absorb instructions from their coaches, zipping in and out of the water as their heads fill with manoeuvre advice. I wonder if, ten years from now, these guys will be in the government surf centre polishing medals, or reaching from a hammock to restart Bob Marley’s Legend for the fifth time in a row.

Jamie Fullerton is a roving travel journalist. Keep up with him on his website, and on Twitter.