Skaters Gonna Skate

China is probably the biggest and best skate park in the world... You might occasionally get kicked out of a spot, but there are millions of other places to take your board. It’s incredible.

ON A GLOOMY SATURDAY AFTERNOON, in the suburban district of Daxing, a 7-year-old is learning how to ‘drop in’ – a skateboarding move for novices in which skaters prop their boards up on the edge of a ramp and plunge down the incline.

Sporting a helmet, knee-pads and holding a board almost half her size, she calls outto her dad – a 30-something man in skinny jeans and a flat cap standing a few meters away – to make sure he’s watching, before flying down the ramp.

Easy to come by in first- and second-tier cities, bootleg VHS tapes offered a way for kids across the country to learn about Western pop culture – and the lifestyles and sports that came with it.

Not far away, a couple of teenagers are getting ready to skate down a slide, whileLi Chenggao, a 31-year-old computer programmer, is mastering a casper flip – where the board is flipped, caught with the foot mid-air then spun 180 degrees on its vertical axis. Li has been practicing the same move repeatedly for weeks.

I am at Woodward Beijing, the largest indoor skate park in China and among the best equipped in Asia. Opened in 2010 by the Chinese Government and Camp Woodward– a US venture known worldwide as a promoter of action sports and skateboarding camps – it boasts a 40,000-square-foot indoor facility featuring two different street courses with rails, banks and pyramids; a multi-level mini ramp; a wooden bowl with a spine; and a giant vertical ramp with a foam pit attached.

There are similar spots elsewhere in China, like the Shanghai Multimedia Park (SMP), formerly the country’s largest skate park, and the epic Guangzhou University City Skate Park (GZ Uni Mega Park) which, at almost 17,000 sqm, is currently the largest in the world. All were built with government backing.

Skateboarding – a quintessentially American sport –grew from a movementof bored Californian surfers looking for something else to ride when the waves were flat. It first appeared in China nearly 30 years ago, as a predominately underground activity: an embodiment of the spirit of American cool.

Legend has it that skating arrived in China via American students, who came to Beijing to study Mandarin in the early reform period. But a more likely scenario is that Chinese teens, hungry for American cultural imports, picked up bootleg copies of classic skateboarding films like Thrashin’ or The Search for Animal Chin.

Easy to come by in first- and second-tier cities, bootleg VHS tapes offered a way for kids across the country to learn about Western pop culture – and the lifestyles and sports that came with it.

Shanghai-based Jeff Han, one of the first Chinese skaters to become a professional – an O.G. ‘original gangster,’ as I am to learn – got hooked through watching skateboarding on screen.

“I remember watching this film called Gleaming the Cube [featuring Christian Slater as a 16-year-old skateboarder investigating the death of his adopted Vietnamese brother] and thinking how cool skateboardingwas. I decided I wanted to do it too, and found some plastic boards at a local street stall. They were only RMB70-80, and felt incredibly slow... I kept wondering how the skater in the film could go so fast. Then, one day, I stumbled upon a real skateboard in a sports shop. It cost RMB360 – a fortune at the time. I saved up and bought it. My life changed from there.”

That was 1992. Han, like many others, taught himself how to do a few basic tricks and thought he was the only one in Shanghai on a board – until one day, when a friend told him he had seen someone else skating on the street. “It was almost a shock, to hear I wasn’t alone. I got in touch with the guy and we started competing around town.”

At Woodward Beijing, Li tells me a remarkably similar story: “When I was about 19, I found this documentary called Dogtown and Z-Boys,” he says. “I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I bought a skateboard the minute I got to Beijing for university. I went to the park and got on it. There were people staring at me, but I didn’t see them. For that first wonderful moment, in my head, I was in California.”

Back in the 1990s, the skating scene picked up when American brand Powell Peralta entered the country with a selection of products that, albeit incredibly expensive, drew the attention of a number of aspirant skaters from Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. In 1994, the company launched its first Powell Cup competitionin China – which ran for five years –inviting international pro-skaters like Steve Caballero, Danny Wainwright and Mike Vallely to the PRC.

It put China on the map, expanded the market for boards and gear (lowering prices in the process), and showed Chinese skateboarders the potential of the sport.

“When I started training there were probably 30 skaters altogether in Shanghai. We were all inexperienced,” recalls Han. “But having all these pros coming here was an eye-opener. It helped me and a few others see skateboarding as a legitimate life goal to pursue.”

The 40-year-old decided to do just that. In 1999, he quit his job at one of Shanghai’s biggest milk companies to open the city’s first skate shop, FLY Streetwear.

“Those times weren’t easy,” says Han. “I would take a 27-hour train with no AC toGuangzhou to get shoes directly from the factory. I brought back Duffs, Axion, NSS, Airwalks, Vans and DVS, sold them super cheap, probably 280 to 300 yuan, and they sold out fast.”

Not long after, Han founded Gift Skateboards. From only supplying foreign- branded boards, Gift has gone on to become a leading domestic name. As the 2000s kicked in, Han started Skatehere.com, the country’s most popular Chinese-language skateboarding website.

There started to be growing demand to access skateboarding in all possible ways, and from different cities across the country,” he says. “But also an aspiration to create a ‘Chinese style’ of skating.”

The demand kept growing: FLY branched out to Beijing and Zhengzhou, and developed its own line of skateboard designs – from gears and tools to clothes and shoes.

Shehui Skateboarding, Beijing’s first skate shop, followed a similar path. Founded in 2001 by Raph Cooper, a USC alumni who had studied at Peking University in 2000, it focused on ‘Made in China’ boards often boasting Chinese-style graphics. Today, its products are some of the most sought-after by local skaters.

Predictably, international brands began expanding their presence in China too, broadening their recognition in the country through marketing campaigns and sponsorships of local skaters and competitions.

From Vans to Volcom, every major skate brand is now represented in China. In 2007, Nike went as far as making a limited edition Nike NB shoe, the label’s signature skate sneaker, with Han’s face on the side.

“They were called Fly Milk Blazer Premium,” says Han. “Nike made them after they came to check out FLY in Shanghai. There were 7,000 pairs worldwide and they sold out super quick. On my last trip to the States I saw a pair on sale as a collector’s piece for over RMB2,000. Totally crazy.”

In the same year that Nike launched its ‘Milk’ series, Shanghai became the first Chinese city to host X Games Asia (now called the Kia World Extreme Games), a tournament for extreme sports first started in the US by ESPN. The city has hosted ever since. Although snubbed by some skaters who merely see it as a commercial event, the Games helped changed Chinese attitudes towards extreme sports, bringing them closer to mainstream professional sports.

Spurred by the growing interest in China’s skate scene, documentary filmmakers like Patrik Wallner and foreign skaters like Dave Bachinsky, Laurence Keefe, Jimmy McDonald and Dan Zvereff also sought to explore what Chinese cities had to offer.

“Quite suddenly, China became the number one destination to shoot skating videos,” says Charles Lanceplaine, a Shanghai-based videographer and skater who has become a go-to filmmaker on the fringe of arts and sports culture in China.

“Magazines, websites, video platforms, they all began sending their crews here to film foreign skaters in action.”

“Shenzhen is, no doubt, the most popular spot for visiting pros. But many cities across the country offer great shots, from a skateboarding point of view.”

Lanceplaine himself has been charting the evolution of the sport in China since 2011.

He started with Shanghai 5, an independent production showing Shanghai’s skate culture across the sidewalks, parks and any slightly-raised bit of asphalt or concrete in the country’s urban centers. In 2012, he travelled to Ordos, Inner Mongolia, to film skateboarders – both foreign and Chinese – make a skate park from the streets of the so- called ‘Ghost City.’ (Built to accommodate a population of over a million, Ordos only has a few hundred thousand residents.)

“We are in this skateboarding Mecca,” he continues. “Few other places are this good for skating.”

Johnny Tang, former Brand Manager at Nike and also a professional skater, agrees. “China is probably the biggest and best skate park in the world,” he says. “From the sheer amount of marble and concrete you have in most cities to the fact that skating is still so new that the police don’t really care. You might occasionally get kicked out of a spot, but there are millions of other places to take your board. It’s incredible.”

The Canadian is another established figure among the country’s professionals. A former skate legend in his hometown of Toronto, he moved to China 13 years ago, finding enough sponsors to skate full-time.

He was in Guangzhou first, then Beijing and now Shanghai. The three cities, he says, have each developed their own different scene for skating – “not so much in terms of techniques, but of habits.”

“In Guangzhou, most kids skate at night, but they do so all year round, because ofthe warm weather. Beijing is more for the hardcore ones – just a handful of really dedicated skaters brace the cold in winter. The spots in Beijing are amazing though: you have these big groups of skaters just going around doing tricks. In Shanghai, you’ve got communities – different crews. There’s an almost business-like approach to it, a sense of ‘I’m skating with this group, you’re skating with that group.’ It’s more competitive, which is what I’d like to change.”

Despite the rising cluster of skaters, however, China’s skating scene has yet to reach its full potential, says Tang. “We’re still at the very early stages,” he explains. “The sport is growing, but the question is: is it sustaining itself?”

“When I first moved here, there were a handful of really good skaters – 20 amazing professionals. And no sponsors. Ten years down the line, and I can count five. The sport has certainly become more mainstream, more accepted – people no longer get freaked out when they see you skating by – but right now it isn’t perceived to be as cool as it used to be. Young kids aren’t exposed to it enough and it’s getting less traction.”

While most Western youths are introduced to skating through YouTube videos and blogs that can’t be accessedin the Mainland, Chinese alternativeslike Youku still lag behind. That’s where platforms like Jeff Han’s Skatehere.com and Kickerclub.com come into play. Qingdao- born skater Andrew Guan founded the latter in 2001. Like Skatehere, the site offers news and an online community for those following skating culture.

The 35-year-old started the site in college to put up his and his friends’ skate photos. Since then, the platform has grown to be an indispensable bilingual resource, hosting features, comprehensive event listings, skater profiles and product reviews. Guan travels all over Asia for the site’s content – skating, filming, documenting, interviewing and following a street scene that could have become the norm in China years ago.

“Skateboarding has almost reached an impasse over the last few years,” says Guan. “ And that’s partly because big companies aren’t sponsoring new skaters. They are investing their money in the wrong places. Kids don’t know where to start.”

“Chinese parents are also to blame,” he continues. “With the one-child policy, they often tend to be over-protective. They see skateboarding as dangerous and daunting, and it’s going to take a while for things to change. So posting videos and writing about it is essential.”

Both Tang and Guan believe China’s current skating generation has a duty to spread the word to the country’s youth.

“Educate, help the scene grow and develop” says Tang, whose next project after Nike will be with Han’s Skatehere.com. “I’ll be doing tutorials, and traveling around China to different skaters’ communities. Cities like Kunming and Qingdao are getting really into the sport. They just need some guidance. Big brands don’t have a clue how to do it.  So it’ll have to be the workof dedicated individuals. We have to bring skateboarding back to where it originated: the streets.”

Has the government’s approval – symbolized by the construction of facilities like Woodward Beijing – helped push the sport forward in China?

“Not really,” says Tang. “The government has built these huge skate parks, expecting kids to go there and naturally start skateboarding, but it hasn’t provided a real ecosystem for it. What we need are skate parks in the middle of a downtown compound. Not a fancy ramp that’s impossible to get to.”

Guan couldn’t agree more. “Building gigantic skate parks in the middle of nowhere is typical China,” he says. “It’s just a way to flaunt wealth and ‘power.’ It means nothing.”

They have a point. Woodward Beijing is miles away from the city center – a two-hour subway ride plus a 30-minute taxi drive from the closest metro stop. It is, literally,in the middle of a watermelon field. SMP is equally far from downtown Shanghai. On a Sunday afternoon visit I see only six skaters in an area of the park that could easily hold four times as many.

“I come here when the weather is bad but I really want to practice,” says Li, the skater I’d met at Woodward. “But really, it’s mostly out of desperation. We’re basically in fucking Hebei, not Beijing.”

The father of the girl attempting a drop-in tells me they are here for the same reason. “It rained yesterday and she hasn’t had a chance to practice in a while. That’s why we came. But I tend to avoid it if I can. Skating belongs in the outdoors. She prefers practicing in the park.”

The young skater has managed to do the trick a couple of times, and as she rides towards her father, there’s a massive grin on her face.

She started because I am a skater too,” he says. “It’s like a family thing. She’s now getting into watching skate videos.”

“Skateboarding is a lifestyle,” says Tang. “It deserves attention as much as basketball does, not just some government, not just some government money or brand promotion. And it’s addictive. Show a kid one stair and he’ll come back and show you four stairs.”

Fist appeared in That's Beijing and That's Shanghai magazines, May 2015.