Surf’s up at Riyue Bay. Or at least it was a few days ago, when the beach, just an hour’s drive east of Sanya on the island of Hainan, hosted the third annual Surfing Hainan Open (SHO).
International surfers soak in the local atmosphere at the Surfing Hainan Open. . 
This year’s event was the biggest yet, with the local Wanning government supporting the wider Hainan Surfing Festival held at Le Meridian Hotel Shimei Bay from November 6 to 8.
Yet of the 41 competitors just five were from China. Are locals neglecting China’s Hawaii?

Surfing Hainan Open grows up
The Open competition was the brainchild of Sanya resident and founder of Surfing Hainan, Brendan Sheridan, who’s spent the last four years on the Chinese resort island.

The Californian runs China’s first surf shop and school — Surfing Hainan — and is excited by the increasing profile of the event which began as “a renegade competition on the beach with no approvals from anyone” in 2008.

The Surfing Hainan Open 2010 has come a long way from its ragtag roots. This year’s event was observed by the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), the sport’s global governing body, which has expressed interest in deeper participation in future events.

Still, the scene at the surf competition remains beach-party cool, with free-flow suds from sponsor Hainan Beer and a barbecue from local expat sports bar Dolphin Grill.

There is a sense of camaraderie and shared surf culture as Pablo Huang, Xi’an native and Sanya resident exchanges shakas with Ningbo-based Los Angeleno Jon Lund, while Gourou (dogmeat), the surf competition judge Matthew Hammond’s dachshund, seeks petting.

Big names take on China’s waves
In addition to the amateur enthusiasts who represent 14 nationalities, this year’s Surfing Hainan Open drew sponsorship from O’Neill and high-profile pros such as Aussies Mark Mathews (shortboard champ) and Rob Bain (longboard champ), as well as top female surfer Holly Beck (United States) and the legendary Robert “Wingnut” Weaver (United States), star of Bruce Brown’s classic surf travel film "Endless Summer II" (1994).

Wingnut has been coming to China for the past five years, both for business ventures and catching waves, and calls the government’s opening up of surfing in China as “the biggest Christmas present in the world” for enthusiasts of the sport, praising the island’s climate, pristine accessible beaches and great wave breaks.

He compares the small surf community to that in Hawaii in the 1950s, noting that “everybody takes care of each other.” He sees further untapped surfing potential along the Chinese mainland’s long coastline.

Organic growth

But if growth in the sport is going to continue domestically, there will be obstacles. China does not have much of a beach culture. Few Chinese even know how to swim and many avoid outdoor activities that could potentially lead to a suntan.

There are currently fewer than 100 native Chinese surfers, and among the six Chinese competitors in this past weekend’s Surfing Hainan Open competition, only two were natives of Sanya.

Huang Wen, whose mother runs a popular local restaurant (called Mama’s, appropriately enough) in Riyue Bay, is the only native Hainanese in the competition.

Swede Christian Ekander is a first time visitor to Sanya. He competed in the professional event and runs Gravity Cartel Surf Shop in southern Spain.

The Hong Kong International School graduate made his first trip to Sanya to enter the competition and is eager to see what business opportunities are available back in Asia.

As he describes it, “Spain’s economy has slowed in the past couple of years, winters have been dead for my business. I see a lot of potential in this area; great surf, great people.”

The local angle

Dahai Zhang is believed to be the first Chinese surfer ever.

A native of chilly Harbin, he relocated to Sanya in 2003 to work as a lifeguard and scuba diver.

When a Japanese tourist discovered there was surf on the island, he brought along his board and taught Dahai the rudiments of the sport. A passion was born and he was awarded Best Local Surfer at this year’s event.

Formerly working in partnership with Sheridan, Dahai has recently opened a competing surf shop, China Surf Sanya, which aims to appeal more to mainland Chinese rather than expats (although of course all are welcome).

While Dahai is a pioneer among Chinese surfers, the new generation is perhaps best personified in Darci Liu, a former ballerina from Hubei who began surfing three years ago when she moved to Hainan.

She was able to stand up on a surfboard before she was able to swim, and credits the balance and coordination honed in her ballet training with allowing her to learn the sport so quickly.

Displaying characteristic determination, Liu says “I know I’m not the best surfer, but I am really excited to participate in the competition and am going to train even harder next year.”

While Darci’s performance was inspiring, she was the unfortunate recipient of the Biggest Wipeout Award.

Although she wasn’t exactly proud of her achievement, she happily says, “Expect someone else to win this distinction at the Surfing Hainan Open next year.”

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