Let it rip: surf's up in Shenzhen
The little-known beaches of Shenzhen's Dapeng peninsula are nurturing a fledgling culture of surf, sand and sun devotees, writes Thomas Bird
Reaching deep into the South China Sea, Dapeng marks Shenzhen's eastern periphery. The peninsula is named after a mythological bird first mentioned in the classic collection of Taoist fables Zhuangzi: "When the Peng journeys to the southern darkness, the waters are roiled for three thousand li." These evocative words suggest that it is Dapeng's location, in the typhoon-lashed south, that has earned it its name, but it is important to remember that the Peng is also a thing of great beauty - with "wings like clouds" - that is able to transform into a giant fish.
The many facets of the Peng myth are embodied in the geography and economy of this largely undeveloped headland. Bulging into cobalt waters, typhoon-lashed Dapeng is still dominated by subtropical forests resounding with birdsong. Many of the local Hakka make their living from the spoils of the sea, and the town of Nanao is a major regional seafood market, replete with dried-fish stalls and seafood restaurants.
Anyone who ventured to this remote corner of Shenzhen a mere five years ago - perhaps to visit the Dapeng Fortress, one of the young city's few ancient landmarks - would probably have found little to interest them beyond a history-imbued stroll through the walled village. Today, the fortress is heaving with gift shops, cafes and galleries. And it's not the only part of Dapeng that has opened its doors to embrace visitors.
Nearby Jinshuiwan was, until recently, lined with grotty fishing tenements, its sands laced with litter. Today it is home to more than 100 colourfully painted guesthouses, bars and eateries, and its beach is covered with canoes and surfboards. The town's Peng-like transformation can largely be credited to one entrepreneurial woman.
"I was in middle school when my mum took me to live in Togo," says Sonia Ding, over coffee on the terrace of her Aloha Beach Club. "When I returned to China, I remember looking at people's faces on the metro. There was no emotion, it was totally different from Africa. I wanted to recreate that feeling [of Togo] here.
"Jinshuiwan is an ideal place to learn windsurfing," she says. "The wind blows on-shore, so you won't get swept out to sea, and the bay is relatively shallow, if you don't go too far out."
Ding established Aloha, one of Shenzhen's first private water sports clubs, in 2008. At first, she enjoyed a lot of leisure time.
"Life was so relaxed, all I did was windsurf," she says.
But as news spread of a club offering accommodation, Western food and windsurfing facilities, business began to pick up.
As is often the case in China, copycat hotels sprang up throughout the village. To stay ahead of her competitors, Ding now offers paddle boarding, kitesurfing, boat trips and kayak hire, as well as windsurf instruction. She has also expanded and renovated Aloha, which is now a mid-range establishment, able to accommodate families and working professionals as well as beach bums.
A similar story is unfolding in Xichong, a beach on the southern tip of the peninsula that boasts some of the best waves in southern China. The journey from Dapeng town follows a winding mountain road through thick forest to this isolated, breathtaking spot. Sipping imported craft beer in the beachfront Secret Spot Café, I meet sun-bronzed American Nate Howland and his Chinese wife, Eva Liu. The couple met through their love of surfing.
"When we were dating we used to come here and camp," Howland says. "One day, I suggested we rent an apartment and got Eva to ask how much it would be."
Liu returned astonished by how low the rent was, and asked, "How about a whole building?"
The couple established the first water sports-oriented hotel in the village.
"When we began painting the building, locals laughed at us," recalls Howland. "They didn't know why we were bothering. But after they saw how good our business was, they all followed suit, even asking Eva how it was done."
Xichong village is now an eclectic assembly of newly converted guesthouses, with Secret Spot Hotel the focal point. The hotel offers clean en-suite rooms, a self-service kitchen, barbecue facilities and a home theatre. As Howland notes, the facilities are "as Western as they can be out here". The couple also run Secret Spot Cafe, a surf shack that looks out across the mountain-crested bay.
"It's a world-class beach," Howland says. "That's why I came up with the name Secret Spot. It's so pleasant you don't want to tell anyone about it, yet you kind of have to."
"We work from the heart," adds Liu. "We want to bring surf culture to China, so it doesn't feel like too much of a job."
As if the couple's enthusiasm were in any doubt, indications that waves are picking up cuts our conversation short, but not before Howland notes, "We can't take all the credit, the guys at Blue Surf Club are the real surf pioneers in Shenzhen."
Also blessed by regular waves, Dongchong is the smaller sister of the two south-facing beaches. There are older buildings here, too, some dating back 100 years or more, a reminder that Dapeng was settled long before the surf drew the crowds.
Blue Surf turns out to be a popular haunt with twenty-somethings, with dorm beds available for just 50 yuan (HK$63) a night. As I arrive early, most party-weary residents are still sleeping, but Heroic Xu, a surfer from Hunan province, is on hand to give me a tour.
"I learnt to skate in Yueyang 10 years ago," he explains, before dropping into the concrete skate park beside the river. "It wasn't until I came to Shenzhen that I could learn to surf."
He takes me to the front of the club, where surfboards are available for hire. "We can give surf lessons if people need them," he adds.
In many ways, Xu - dressed in Hawaiian shirt, shades, tattoo and tan - represents a new and, for the time being, rare breed of mainland Chinese.
In time, Dapeng will doubtlessly earn a nod in the annals of surf mythology, as the place where China first found its waves, and its wings.
Getting there: regular bus services run from Kowloon Tong MTR station to Nanao, from where you can take a local bus or taxi to your desired beach. Bus H92 runs from Futian bus station in Shenzhen to Dapeng town.