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How surfing suddenly became cool in Hong Kong, and its ’70s expat roots

Long a marginal sport in Hong Kong, surfing has gone mainstream, with girls and young women in particular taking to the boards and bringing civility to a sometimes rowdy scene

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 May, 2016, 6:16am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2016, 4:03pm

Cathy Ho’s eyes light up as she recalls the first time she managed to stand up on a surfboard. “Yeah, it was a happy moment,” she says.

Mimicking her style that day on Big Wave Bay, Hong Kong Island, in 2004, she adds: “My moves were unorthodox. It wasn’t the right way but I stood up and that was the main thing.”

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Now the self-confessed “office girl turned surfer” lives and breathes surfing. It’s a lifestyle –

and a healthy one at that. “Eat healthy. Go to bed early. Rise early. Catch waves. Repeat,” she says of her routine.

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Ho enjoyed surfing so much she quit her office job to become a lifeguard – seasonal work that allows her to take off during the winter months of January and February to catch waves around the world.

WATCH Wilson Ma’s video of surfers in Big Wave Bay

Ho won’t say how many boards she owns but mentions that another one’s arriving “tomorrow”. She uses her smartphone more for updates on wave and wind conditions than messaging with friends or playing games.

As soon as a woman paddles out, a lot of that testosterone vaporises and everyone is reminded once again that it’s all about having fun
Sam Pleitgen

Like Ho, Rei Chan Wai started surfing at Big Wave Bay – considered the best spot in Hong Kong for beginners.

“The surf season in Hong Kong is winter so we have to go into the cold water. Or we have to wait for a typhoon swell in summer, so we can surf only for a few months – it’s sad,” says the 24-year-old.

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Ho and Chan are among a community of people in Hong Kong who have taken up surfing in a big way. And while it’s taken time, the sport has at last embedded itself in Hong Kong, with surfers now taking to waters off Lantau Island, Shek O, Big Wave Bay and Tai Long Wan in Sai Kung.

Ho and Chan are among a rising tide of woman surfers, and long-time surfers like Sam Pleitgen welcome their calming influence.

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“I’m glad more women are surfing. With crowds jostling for waves, things can get pretty heated out there, sometimes resulting in nasty altercations and, at worst, serious injuries,” Pleitgen says.

“But as soon as a woman paddles out, a lot of that testosterone vaporises and everyone is reminded once again that it’s all about having fun, enjoying each other’s company, appreciating life and sharing waves.”

Although there has long been a small underground surf scene in Hong Kong, the sport only recently made a big push into the mainstream.

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“Every second logo you see on a T-shirt or backpack is surf-related. It’s hip and marketable, and everyone wants to be in on it. I’m asked by more and more people how and where they can learn to surf,” Pleitgen says.

Anthony Hownam-Meek, a former president and founding member of the now-defunct Hong Kong Surf Club (1978-82), recalls a very different scene in the ’70s and ’80s.

“Back then the surfing scene was tiny – the club never had more than 13 members before I left in 1986,” Hownam-Meek says from Gibraltar, where he has retired. “Only two girls surfed but more came for the ambience and privacy for nude sunbathing.

“We’d skive off school to bodyboard at Big Wave Bay as teenagers. The teacher would say: ‘There’s a signal three tomorrow, so gentlemen I assume you’ll be ill as usual?’”

The teacher would say: ‘There’s a signal three tomorrow, so gentlemen I assume you’ll be ill as usual?’
Anthony Hownam-Meek

His father told them there were better waves at Fung Bay in Sai Kung, and he and his friends were converts after one visit, Hownam-Meek recalls. They even pioneered a hiking route from Wong Shek to the bay and later acquired the lease on a hut in Ham Tin that served as the clubhouse of the Hong Kong Surfing Club.

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He also became the Hong Kong correspondent for the hugely popular Surfer magazine. “I made weekly reports on wave conditions. In return I got weekly reports from everywhere else in the world,” says Hownam-Meek.

“During that time we found that Hong Kong has a world weather record; it has the largest change in seawater temperature anywhere in the world – or at least in the surfed world – from 13 degrees Celsius in February to 30 degrees Celsius in August.”

As is the case today, keen surfers would venture out when typhoons hit to take advantage of heavy swells and this sometimes led to conflicts with police, who wanted them out of the water for their own safety.

“I had a letter published in the SCMP about 1979 arguing that it was illogical to red-flag surfing at beaches when it was rough, concluding ‘do you really expect surfers to wait for a nice calm day to go surfing?’ Hownam-Meek recalls.

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During the early ’80s, their early-morning surfs sometimes brought some grim sights – corpses of illegal immigrants who had died trying to reach Hong Kong from China.

Although expatriates dominated Hong Kong’s early surfing scene, locals are increasingly coming to the fore.

Ken Choi is among the pioneers. A champion windsurfer (he won bronze at the 1982 Asian Games), Choi went on to set up a surf and wakeboarding shop called X Game in 1985 and has seen the scene take off in the past two years.

“Surfing now is a lifestyle sport – it looks cool but also needs a lot of skill,” says Choi.

Kenny Howe, an American who came to Hong Kong 16 years ago, agrees.

“In 1999, locals wore the China special one-piece swimsuit, no one wore bikinis, no one tanned. By 2005, the Gidget era was well upon us, “ he says, referring to the central character in a 1957 novel about the surf culture of Malibu in California.

“Now it’s all about surf fashion, bikinis, tans, tattoos, and mobs in the water trying to surf on a weekend. I’ve counted up to 80 people at once in the water with either surfboards or boogie boards,” says Howe.

Joe Chan Chung-yin is typical of the new wave of young Hongkongers whose life is shaped by surfing.

Chan took up surfing just three years ago and has become so hooked on the lifestyle, he plans to move to Margaret River in Western Australia, a popular destination for “waxheads”.

I want to work in a surf shop, to learn how to shape boards. When I have the skill I’ll move to Hawaii to raise a family by the beach
Joe Chan, 20

“I want to work in a surf shop, to learn how to shape boards. When I have the skill I’ll move to Hawaii to raise a family by the beach. I want to encourage my children to live this lifestyle,” says the 20-year-old.

Surf classes are expanding to cater to the demand. Surf Hong Kong (ateamedventures.com), which set up in 2012 in Tai Long Wan in Sai Kung, runs surfing camps as does Treasure Island Surf Camp on Pui O Beach, Lantau. “Most of my sign-ups are young girls,” says Antony Dickson, who runs surfs lessons in Big Wave Bay.

In recent years, crowded waves and unwanted “drop-ins” – when someone breaks the golden rule of surfing and drops in on another surfer’s wave – has led to an increase in surfing accidents.

“A momentary lapse of concentration once cost me 17 stitches and a shattered nose,” Pleitgen recalls. “About a month later, the surgeon who administered the stitches, himself a surfer, was taken into surgery having been partially scalped by a surfboard fin.”

Despite some anxiety over a shark sighting off Lantau this month, surfers’ biggest worries today are marine pollution and waste.

Hownam-Meek, for one, has observed a steady deterioration at his beloved Fung Bay: the flotsam has worsened and pieces of tar stick to surf shorts and surfboards.

The grease come from ships illegally discharging waste oil when they leave Hong Kong, he says. “Twenty years after being made illegal, discharging still lacks effective enforcement.”

Recalling his reports about the point breaks off Fung Bay, Hownam-Meek says, “I’m thrilled to have pioneered a minor new surf spot and put Hong Kong on Surfer magazine’s radar.”

“While not quite The Endless Summer,” he says, referring to the 1966 cult surf movie, “Fung Bay’s fickle waves and fragile beauty gave us enormous joy, as they do to this generation of Hong Kong’s surfers.”

Where Hong Kong surfers go for gear

Not much happens in Shau Kei Wan in Hong Kong Island’s northeast. But for beach lovers it’s the MTR stop to catch a bus or minibus to the popular surf and swimming beaches of Big Wave Bay and Shek O.

To cater to the city’s swelling beach crowd, surf and snow brand O’Neill, established in California in 1952, has opened an outlet close to the MTR exit and Shek O bus stop. As well as selling boardies, bikinis and flips flops, it has a small surfboard repair shop.

It’s one of a number of suppliers Hong Kong surfers need to know about:

Float Captain

Founded by Hong Kong-based trio Bryant Vallejo, Jason K and Justin Potter, Float Captain is a new brand on the surf block, born out of a weariness of the mass-market brands. “A whole bunch of small surf-lifestyle brands were popping up overseas, so we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we had our own brand?’ since no one was really doing it here.”

Float Captain has some cool Hong Kong touches, such as the screen-printed Sai Kung Shakas tee. Trunks and fins have also been added to the range. In June it will open a physical space. “It’s pretty exciting and allows us to get across our surf lifestyle environment, have a chilled place to hang out and bring in some products we want to see in Hong Kong.” Float Captain is available at Mavericks, Kapok, PMQ and AMC. floatcaptain.com

X Game

Ken Choi set up X Game in 1985 in North Point. He now has three shops, in Chai Wan, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui, selling windsurfing boards and surfboards. “Equipment now is so hi-tech, so technical, new boards are innovative so surfers love it,”says Choi. www.xgamehk.com

Swell Water Sports Workshop

Tucked away in Shau Kei Wan, this is somewhere to get a full set of surf gear. The owner, David Chan, has tremendous experience producing surf gear and is always happy to answer questions. As a bonus, he’s also a pro at surfboard repair, says surfer Rei Wai-chan. http://eastswell.com.hk/

 

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