China: Surf's Up
Clutching her surfboard, Guo Shujuan strolls down a beach on southern China's Hainan island and glides into waves that pound a shoreline littered with rubbish and broken bottles.
Surf's up, Chinese style.
China may have one of the world's longest coastlines, but surfing has barely made a ripple in a country where a deep tan is a badge of the peasantry, water pollution is rife and outdoor sports are still coming into their own.
But Guo, a 23-year-old tour guide from the city of Guilin, also in the south, embodies the potential of the sport in the Asian giant, with a rising generation of millions of thrill-seeking youths.
"Two years ago I had never even heard of surfing in China," the cocoa-skinned Guo, who took up the sport a year ago, said after a session in the waves.
"I thought, why surf? What is so fun about standing up on a board? But once I tried it, I thought, wow, how cool".
In the great surfers' tradition of seeking out undiscovered breaks, China may be one of the final frontiers, and its potential lies largely in Hainan, a tropical island province being massively developed for tourism.
Most of the credit for launching Hainan's fledgling surf scene goes to Brendan Sheridan, a 30-year-old American engaged in a personal -- and somewhat quixotic -- mission to bring the sport to China.
An amateur surfer from California who previously taught English in China, Sheridan most recently worked at a Philadelphia bank processing electronic payments -- "a crummy office job looking at spreadsheets all day," he said.
Intrigued by the thought of China's surf potential, he quit his US day job three years ago and came to Hainan, where he eventually started Surfing Hainan, which organises lessons and day trips to the island's breaks.
Its waves will never rival those in Hawaii or California, but Hainan was Sheridan's choice because he felt it had China's best surf, occasionally large enough to challenge even some advanced surfers.
Best of all, while famed surf breaks are usually mobbed, Hainan's waves might be among the least crowded places in China due to the sport's novelty here.
"That's what Hainan has to offer people who enjoy surfing. The crowd factor, no crowds at all," said the lean and tan Sheridan.
That could change.
Sheridan's clientele has doubled over the past year and, in a sign of the sport's progress here, the Sheridan-organised Hainan Open -- China's first and only surfing competition -- takes place this weekend for the second time.
Top surfwear designers have signed on as sponsors and the number of contestants grew to more than 40 this year from 18 last year, mostly expats living in China.
"It's definitely growing with a middle class in China that has disposable income and is learning how to have fun in life," Sheridan said.
But it hasn't quite "caught on like wildfire," he admits.
For starters, the lack of a Chinese beach sport tradition means Sheridan must first teach many of his aspiring surfers to swim.
And he sees little sign yet that Hainan locals are taking to the sport, which he views as vital to establishing a lasting surf culture.
"It's still viewed as something crazy foreigners do ... but once you get that first generation of Chinese surfers, then I think it will become more accepted," he said.
Another hurdle is the environment. China is among the world's most polluted countries and its coastlines are no exception, discouraging water sports.
But Angela Wang, a business consultant from Beijing who declared herself "addicted" after her first lesson under Sheridan, expressed hope that the environmentalism that follows surfing could be a catalyst for cleaner beaches.
"If you want to have fun with nature, you need to be friends with it," she said.
The sport must also overcome the deep cultural aversion to tanned skin -- a group of tourists from Shanghai brought to the beach by Sheridan on a recent day spent more time seeking shade than waves.
But Guo, the tour guide from Guilin, believes that will slowly change.
"Now more and more Chinese people see it as cool to be outdoors and that being dark is healthy," she said.
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Published on 11/14/09