Explorer, sinologist, surf coach, Nik Zanella has spent the last decade working in China, mapping the untapped coastline as well as at several levels of the national surf development projet. Nik's recent book Children of the Tide tells the ancient form of wave riding in the country, dating back to the 9th Century. So when it came to talking about some truths and falsities about surfing in China, we knew Nik was the man for the job.
Words by Nik Zanella.
Let’s put this down straight. The surf world is dubious, sometimes even scared of China entering the stage. The general perception is that of a monolithic culture, producing most of surf related products and menacing to invade the planet’s best breaks with millions of kooks and metric tons of plastic waste.
I got all sorts of impulsive comments on social media. “What if they all start to surf?” “They will never catch up with the technical level of the West”, “Will I grow a third eye by surfing China’s polluted waters?” Now after spending 10-years living in the country, surfing its waves, researching its wave-riding past and working at its surf development project, let me try to cast some light on these stereotypes.
When to go: China.
True, China is polluted and most coastlines are littered with plastic and plagued with run-off from fisheries. Environmental consciousness is young and not yet widespread, a little bit like in postwar Italy, where people threw everything on the sand dunes after picnics.
But Chinese surfers are at the forefront of the environmental battle. Darci Liu and Monica Guo, the first women to represent China in WSL events, for example, are leading the charge with their initiatives. They teach about a clean ocean at surf camps, they organise huge cleanups, spreading awareness through social media, influencing countless souls involved in outdoor activities.
Most of the regional surf teams (there are about a dozen right now) are also being educated on the inherent value of a clean environment
Most of the regional surf teams (there are about a dozen right now) are also being educated on the inherent value of a clean environment. The garbage they are picking up from their beloved bays is not all branded ‘Made in China’.
For years China helped the entire planet get rid of plastic. Nearly 70 per cent of it was sent to China, roughly 7 million tons of plastic a year, for recycling. Most of it was properly treated but some of it, too much of it, ended up in landfills, in rivers and, finally, in the ocean.
I’m using the past tense here because this came to a halt in 2018, when China realised how dangerous this business was for its environment and banned almost all imports, cutting them down to 1 per cent. Foreign nations are now stuck with more plastic than they can recycle.
No one likes a dirty beach, not even China, and things are improving both in terms of air/water pollution and plastic waste. China moves fast and can solve problems, including the environmental ones, at a speed unseen in the West. There is hope in this field.
Spot guide: China.
Chinese surfers will never make it on the international stage
False. China believes in surfing’s Olympic project, handling it the same way she treats any other Olympic sport; with a long term plan aiming way beyond Tokyo 2020.
The Water Sports Bureau has selected hundred of kids from other sports and initiated them to wave-riding. The best are now followed by a team of professional coaches and trainers, spending winter in Hainan and summer abroad, mostly in Indonesia, Australia or the US.
An articulated national championship is in place, with events in Hainan, Guangdong, Shandong and in Henan’s new wave pool. Athletes have free access to man-made waves of several kinds, from slow beginners conditions to overhead barreling conditions.
Athletes have free access to man-made waves of several kinds, from slow beginners conditions to overhead barreling conditons
This is more than any foreign sponsor can afford to pay for its grommets team. How long will it take? Hard to tell. An example comes from halfpipe snowboarding, where Li Jiayu (nicknamed Birdie, for her impeccable control of airs) placed respectively 4th, 9th and 2nd at the last three Winter Olympics.
Like many of the kids involved in the surf project she started late (in 2003 at age 11) and comes from a background of martial arts. It took only seven years for her to get to the podium. It may take longer to fine tune a surf team, but they are getting there.
The China team has ranked 27th at the last ISA Surfing Games in Japan out of 54 nations enrolled. Top athlete Qiu Zhuo (Aka Alex) is now ranked 64th on ISA overall rankings. And this was only three years into the project. Just give these kids, and their coaches, some time.
China only has small, inconsistent, sloppy surf
False. This is the silliest stereotype I’ve read so far on surf media. Im not saying China will be the next surf Mecca. What I can say, though, is that the northeast monsoon is the most reliable source of waves on the planet.
It blows from November to April, non stop. Winter swell in Hainan, Guangdong and Fujian ranges from 1 to 3m with a period of 8 to 14 sec. In summer waves do get smaller. Swell direction turns south with average wave high of 50 to 100cm and lower in period.
This is unless a typhoon comes by. The Pacific typhoon season starts in April and peaks between August and November. In 2018 the Western Pacific saw a total of 29 storms, 13 typhoons, and seven super typhoons. At least half of these produced surf along the Chinese shores activating a number of high quality waves.
Size can jack up and period raises to 15-19 sec. China is also home to the biggest tidal bores on the planet. The Silver Dragon is considered the Mount Everest of river waves. It breaks in Hangzhou, not far from Shanghai, over 120 days/year with size ranging from 1 to 5m.
This was also the site of the fabled Children of the Tide, a wave-riding community active from the 9th to the 13th century that left traces in art, poetry and dynastic chronicles. This wave is accessible only during the yearly Battle at the Silver Dragon, arranged by Wabsono and Peter Townend.
Add to this a solid project of several wave pools being built around the country and you have quite a variety of conditions to play with. I may be opinionated but I wouldn’t trade China with Florida, or parts of Europe surf-wise.
Chinese surfers are going to invade the planet
False. Surfing, as a pastime, is growing very slowly. The image of tanned unemployed bums hanging around the beaches with a board underarm is not appealing to the Middle Country.
Chinese affluent urban youth is simply too busy to live a surf life. Most people work six days a week and only get a few weeks off a year, which they spend visiting family in their home town or village, or travelling abroad with organised tours, not charging Pipe or Kirra.
Someone may get a surf lesson in the beach resorts of Sanya or Shenzhen, but their surf career most often ends with a snapshot of themselves standing on a soft top, posted on wechat’s ‘moments’, the Chinese equivalent of FB.
Surf breaks are mostly empty
True and false. If you are thinking to go to Hainan and surf Riyue Bay, Golf Course and Crab Rock alone, you are a few years late.
There’s a dozen regional teams plus the Olympic team training on the island during prime season. There is no localism, but numbers are raising and having 30-50 people out in the main spots is the norm lately.
Things change drastically further north, along the coastlines of the continent. This is where I have spent my last two summers, shooting most of the images you find in this article. The new surf frontier is in Northern Guangdong province, in Fujian and further north in Zhejiang and Shandong.
This if you know where spots are and know how to deal with local transportation (no boards allowed on trains, no car rentals without local license) and mandarin-only communication.
China will be the next big surf market
False. Even if most surf gear is produced here, brands are having a hard time growing. Chinese masses want the latest Prada and Armani outfits, not surfy cheap-looking stuff.
Some surf brands in China makes most surf goods available on Taobao, the local version of Amazon, for a fraction of the retail price. So by dislocating the production to China, they pretty much precluded themselves from conquering the world’s largest market.
To sum up, let me reassure you on one thing. If you survived surfing river-mouth waves in France, the US or Italy after torrential autumn rains, you will not grow a ‘third eye’ by surfing here.
Unless for ‘third eye’ you mean a broader, deeper understanding of a different, fascinating and sometimes problematic civilisation, with its own surf lingo, etiquette and wave-riding history.