CARRY A SURFBOARD on the MTR and people stare incredulously. Surfing only took hold in Hong Kong a little more than 20 years ago and swaying popular opinion takes time. Germinated here by expatriates, wave-riding now has more than 500, mostly Chinese, participants, despite surf that is relatively inconsistent and lacks shape. Today, more than 50 surfers have paid to paddle out in Big Wave Bay as contestants in the Rip Curl-sponsored Hong Kong Surfing Cup 2000, the fourth annual - and only - surfing competition in China. It is probable that the first surfers here were American GIs on leave during the Vietnam War but the first documented evidence of surfing is of the Hong Kong Surfing Club, a group of 15 expats who surfed Fung Bay in Sai Kung Country Park in the late 1970s. In 1979, almost 70 years after the sport hit California and Australia, 'hanging 10' hit Hong Kong Island, rather inauspiciously. (Hanging 10 refers to hanging your toes off the nose of the board while surfing). 'I was the first guy thrown off Big Wave Bay,' says Australian Rod Payne, who paddled out with four other expats that summer. 'The cops shut us down.' Payne, 43, says he caught a wave on the single fin shortboard of the day and headed towards a swimmer who panicked and swam under his board. The man exited the water and phoned the police, who dusted off and enforced a 1960 statute of the Urban Council (now called the Leisure and Cultural Services Department) that designated the bay for 'swimmers only'. A year later, another Australian heard Big Blue's siren song. Grant Robinson, a newcomer of six months, arrived at Big Wave Bay and discovered 'it was pumping'. He had no board at the time but body-surfed the swell anyway. 'The lifeguards flipped out,' says the long-haired 48-year-old. 'It was big.' Robinson, who has been surfing since he was 13, had a board sent out from his home in Perth shortly after. 'The lifeguards just didn't want us in the water,' he recalls, to the point where one swam out to him at Shek O and told him to come in. 'I just paddled away. They always flipped out. I ignored them.' At least one group appreciated Robinson: he became a favoured subject of photography classes. 'Every October and November they came in busloads to Big Wave Bay and set up their tripods on the lifeguard towers and took pictures - if there were girls in bathing suits they'd shoot them too of course,' says Robinson, who now runs his own business selling mass-produced paintings. Someone else was watching Robinson too, a 25-year-old who would become Hong Kong's first Chinese surfer. Yuen Wing-keung spent much of his time in Big Wave Bay after marrying a local woman and used to study Robinson from the beach thinking: 'Wow, that's so cool. I want to learn.' Consumed, Yuen in 1983 tried in vain to find a board in Hong Kong. 'So I thought I'll make one myself,' he says. So he mixed fibreglass and poured it on to some foam he had bought. 'The fibreglass melted the foam,' he says. ' 'Epoxy!', friends later said, so I tried it again.' He never got the mix quite right, so no matter how long he left the finished product in the sun it never fully dried out. More disastrous, he had no means of sanding the board so fibreglass shards pierced his body every time he paddled out. 'It hurt.' 'I remember him coming out with the ugliest boards I'd ever seen,' recalls Payne. Months later, Yuen had a windsurfing store in North Point order him a board and he started his surfing life. 'He was an inspiration for a lot of younger guys,' Payne says. Come the winter of 1984, cold currents coursed and Yuen jealously looked on as Robinson and Payne zipped into wetsuits. 'When I came out of the water I'd light a cigarette and my teeth were chattering so bad they'd cut the filter in two,' he says. So Yuen wore a wool sweater his wife had knitted for him and jumped in the water. 'It filled with water and expanded three times its size,' says Yuen, now 42 and working for a telecommunications firm. 'I almost drowned.' His wife was also less than thrilled to see her hand-woven jumper ruined. Recalls Payne: 'He was always coming out in different sweaters.' By now the Urban Council tolerated the watermen, who had, in effect, become de facto lifeguards. 'The lifeguards weren't very proficient back then and there were strong rips [currents],' says Robinson, who estimates he's come to the aid of more than 30 people at various beaches. Yuen says he rescued 10 people in one day at Big Wave Bay who were sucked out to sea by strong currents during a typhoon swell. However, relationships again soured when in the spring of 1997 a swimmer at Big Wave Bay was hurt by an out-of-control surfboard. The Urban Council once again pointed to the old bylaw and threatened to arrest surfers and fine them $2,000. The wave-riders and their supporters banded together in protest and formed the Hong Kong Surfing Association (HKSA), which quickly swelled to 500 members. Even a managing director of global surfing company Quiksilver penned a letter of complaint to the South China Morning Post. 'It wasn't right,' says 35-year-old HKSA vice-chairman Raymond Chan, who was coached by Yuen. 'Surfing's not a crime. 'The Government needs to give people space to do their own sport.' The HKSA met Urban Council officials, armed with details of daily swell conditions that Robinson kept. Robinson's data revealed that the actual number of days surfers and swimmers would clash were minimal. The biggest waves coincided with water temperatures too cold to swim. The Government compromised and set up a rope at Big Wave Bay that demarcated surfing and swimming areas. 'Governments like statistics,' says Robinson of his reports. 'That probably made a difference.' These days, it's environmental, not bureaucratic, factors keeping surfers out of the water. In the early 1990s while sitting on his board, Payne watched a dead rat, a pig's head and condom float by - in a single day. 'The water was dramatically cleaner in the early 1980s,' says Payne, who now owns the watch division of Rip Curl, an Australian surfing company. 'You could see your feet on the bottom. Then it hit critical mass in a short period.' Nowadays, every local wave-rider has a story to tell: Giardiasis contracted as a result of entering the water with open wounds; Hepatitis B caught from accidently swallowing the water; eye, ear and sinus infections and skin rashes. But what may be detrimental to one's health is outweighed by the gaining of substance for the soul. As Payne, who now only 'surfs out of a suitcase' when travelling the globe, puts it: 'If you're into it, you still have to go.' The Fourth Annual Rip Curl Hong Kong Surfing Cup 2000 takes place at Big Wave Bay today and tomorrow from 10am until dark. Registration begins at 9am and the entry fee is $180. For more information contact Island Wake in Causeway Bay at 2623-6123.