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The Shredder's Liberation Army

5/27/2010

For full coverage from X Games Asia, the largest action sports competition in China, click here.

BEIJING -- In a chaotic four-story marketplace here that's sort of a shrunken version of the famous Silk Market, you can buy sought-after brands for bargain prices. And in the basement, among the luggage and designer handbags, sit stalls stacked with skate shoes -- Nike, Adidas, Vans, Fallen and Converse.

"In a lot of cases, brands and products are being knocked off, going out the back door," Glenn Brumage, vice president of the International Association of Skateboard Companies, said about the questionable provenance of such products. A California native, Brumage works as director of business development for a Chinese conglomerate, assisting western brands with licensing, manufacturing and distribution.

But counterfeit shoes aren't the only things those working in action sports in China have to worry about. With the government engaged in a grand experiment that blends bikes, board sports, business and socialism, a bigger concern has become ensuring the authenticity of action sports culture.
Several estimates put the total number of action sports practitioners in China at approximately 20,000 -- fewer than in most Orange County, Calif., municipalities. Lack of leisure time and disposable income, and a culture that places a premium on scholastics, has left China's youth lagging behind their western counterparts when it comes to shredding. But spurred by concerns about physical and social welfare -- and visions of Olympic glory -- government agencies in China have sponsored a sort of great leap forward.

Earlier this month the United States-based Woodward Camps opened an action sports training facility in Beijing, featuring two acres of state-of-the-art indoor and outdoor terrain. Burton and Nike 6.0, two brands with a prominent presence in China, have sponsored an indoor snowboard park that opened last year in Beijing. Quiksilver sponsors a park at Nanshan Ski Village north of the city center. In 2005, governments in China spent a reported $12 million of the $26 million cost to build a three-acre concrete skate park -- the world's largest -- in Shanghai. And on Thursday the Asian X Games begin in Shanghai for the fourth consecutive year.

The nation's sprawling urban centers offer miles of untouched skateable terrain, too. "As far as going to a place just to skate, it's definitely my favorite," Chris Cole, Thrasher Magazine's Skater of the Year, said about China. Cole has skated in Shenzhen, Macao, and Hong Kong while filming for Fallen footwear. And visiting pros regularly shoot parts at the sprawling skate park in Shanghai.

"You can find stair sets everywhere," Cole said about Shenzhen's street scene. "You go to spots nobody has ever skated and there's only been so many tricks done. There's so many things you can do. It's a blank palette."

Tommy Chau moved to Shanghai from Delaware two years ago. He works freelance film jobs and skates with local pros. "The whole China scene I could compare to the Philly scene," he said. "It's like that because you just kind of know everybody. When you go to other cities you just crash on each other's couches."

In China, where local brands such as Society, Safari and Gift predominate, only a handful of skaters and snowboarders can be characterized as legitimate pros. The best are sponsored by western brands; Burton sponsors China's national snowboard team. Among skaters, Wang HuiFeng, whom everyone calls Cyres, is sponsored by Vans; and Che Lin is sponsored by Nike.

"It's our job to basically keep skating and get more kids on skateboards," said Che, 29, through a intrepreter.

When asked what China needs to grow skateboarding, he said: "Time. Back in the west, skateboarding has been developing for 20, 30, 40 years. In China, how long has it been going on? Ten years. So we need time."

Western brands have shown a willingness to wait, because as Brumage noted, "There are 1.3 billion people there -- if they start surfing, if they start skating, the market is going to be massive."

Speeding up the process somewhat, the government in China spent $21 million to build Woodward Beijing, according to The China Daily newspaper. A key parcel in a development plan in Daxing, a rural district an hour south of the city center that's renowned for watermelons, Woodward Beijing -- officially called Beijing Fashion Skate Park for reasons lost in translation -- resulted from a conversation four years ago in New York between a Chinese business delegation and executives at NBC Sports preparing to broadcast the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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As far as going to a place just to skate, it's definitely my favorite. You go to spots nobody has ever skated and there's only been so many tricks done. There's so many things you can do. It's a blank palette.

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--Chris Cole

Kevin Monaghan, senior vice president for business development at NBC Sports, screened a video of the Dew Action Sports Tour, recalled Zhou Qiang, who has headed the Woodward Beijing project on behalf of a Chinese state-owned corporation. Later Monaghan introduced Zhou to Gary Ream, managing owner and president of Camp Woodward. Two months later Zhou visited Camp Woodward, in a rural region of Central Pennsylvania: "I saw all these boys and girls in a mountain setting. It was really dynamic."

Officials in China decided to build their own version in collaboration with a four-star government resort on 410 acres in Beijing. Run by Woodward staff under a licensing agreement, the camp will offer programs in skateboarding, BMX freestyle, inline skating, graphic design, video and photo labs, music recording, dry-land skiing and snowboarding and language lessons.

With a one-child-per-family government policy and a heavy study load, China has created a generation of isolated kids, Zhou said. Action sports suggest an antidote, encouraging kids to interact.

"Woodward Beijing will promote a healthy youth-oriented sports and a learning experience," Zhou said. "Healthy is a key word. A lot of parents are worried that their kid is spending too much time online."

But others in China see potential in Woodward Beijing for churning out Olympic champions.

Wei Xing is secretary general of the Chinese Extreme Sports Association, a national governing body for action sports created in 2004, and an advocate for introducing skateboarding to the Olympics. Although the Extreme Sports Association was not involved in building Woodward Beijing, Wei and other officers were on hand for the grand-opening ceremonies.

"The opening of Woodward training camp [Beijing Sports Park] has offered a world standard training site for the youth of China," Wei wrote in an e-mail afterward. "We at the Chinese Extreme Sports Association are eager to see that skateboarding, which is popular among the youth, will become an Olympic event. Chinese Extreme Sports Association will work together with Woodward to make the Woodward training camp [Beijing Sports Park] a training center for the national team of China and a center for exchanges between Chinese youth with the athletes of extreme sports all over the world."

Such sentiments conjure visions of China's approach to snowboarding: Its state-run sports system selected athletes from sports schools based on physical traits and athletic ability and began training them to shred. One of those athletes was Liu Jiayu, a 12-year-old with a background in martial arts who had never been on a snowboard seven years ago. Practicing year-round, under the instruction of foreign coaches, she progressed quickly, winning the 2008-09 World Cup halfpipe title, then finishing fourth at the Vancouver Olympics in February.

Many wonder whether other action sports will receive the same treatment. "The government has put their whole stamp of approval on action sports," Brumage said. "From a central standpoint, it's, 'How soon can we put a surf team together and kick everyone's a--?'"

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In China, they take competition really seriously. It kind of takes the fun out of it. I'm sure a lot of us wouldn't ride BMX if we had coaches.

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--Anthony Napolitan

At Woodward Beijing's grand opening, government officials rolled up, one by one, in dark sedans. Gathered on a dais above the skate plaza, they gazed down onto cheerleading squads performing peppy routines to pulsing pop music. The soundtrack switched to the Misfits for the skaters and BMXers before veering into surreal sounds for a parkour demonstration on a scaffolding setup.

A contingent of 120 skaters, BMX freestyle riders, action sports industry figures and media made the trip to Beijing for the grand opening gala. For many of them, the cheerleading-parkour combination was as mystifying as the menu at the hotel restaurant, featuring dishes translated as "The thick juice digs the skirt hem" and "Explodes the element meatball."

World dirt champion Anthony Napolitan proclaimed the parks "really BMX friendly." About the scene, he summed up the sentiments of several athletes on hand: "In China, they take competition really seriously. It kind of takes the fun out of it. I'm sure a lot of us wouldn't ride BMX if we had coaches."

Ream, for one, will wait to see how things turn out. "It's very important to us that we adapt this Woodward experience to the Chinese culture and we need to accept that," he said. "But if it steps outside the boundaries of what we're comfortable with, there are clauses to change it."

With their own Woodward now, officials from the Extreme Sports Association want to know how soon Chinese athletes can qualify to compete at the X Games, Ream said. "We had a deep discussion that the importance of it is not all about competing at the X Games," Ream explained. "It's also about embracing the culture, and providing the youth opportunities to be creative in ways that are relatively inexpensive."

Andrew Guan, who runs kickerclub.com, a China skateboarding blog, described a government strategy of supporting skateboarding with projects that make a big splash. He assisted Quiksilver, the main sponsor when China gave its blessing for Danny Way to launch over the Great Wall in 2005 using a MegaRamp. And he noted that the Shanghai skate park, while impressive, sits virtually empty most days due to its remoteness, admission fee and intimidating size for all but the most accomplished skaters.

"I think the government only cares about doing something big to prove we are better -- we are strong now," Guan said.
The Shanghai skate park compares to the South China Mall, near Guangzhou. It is the world's largest at 9.6 million square feet, more than twice the size of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. Yet it's bereft of people and merchants.

With such a development record, many openly wonder how Woodward Beijing, which is an hour's drive from the central part of the city, and will charge an admission fee, can possibly succeed?

"To start, Woodward will invite [Chinese pro] team skaters out for a week to improve their skills," Eli Kislevitz, an American who has lived in China since 1998 and works as a consultant for the camp, said about the evolving business model. "Because right now parents will not pay to send their kids for a week to a facility an hour from their home in Beijing."

Perhaps their renegade nature would seem the biggest impediment to action sports flourishing in China -- a nation seen as suppressing individualism. For instance, following dinner (and some drinks) downtown with a group from Woodward Beijing, Jimmy Carlin, who skates for Mystery, performed a Michael Phelps imitation and plunged into a restaurant fountain shirtless, leaving a flood on the floor and the staff in stunned silence.

"One of my biggest fears is that the wrong message is going to get out there," Brumage said, "and the government is going to say, 'No, you're not going to do that.' If skateboarding does something negative, then they will shut it down so fast it will be illegal."

Yet maybe there's room in 21st Century China for western-style skater antics, after all.

Li Zhi Xing, an impish skater known as Little Star from northern China, near Mongolia, competed at the Dew Tour's amateur Free Flow Tour stop in Salt Lake City last September, where he created a flap with sponsors when he refused to wear their shirt.

"He's this little kind of punk," Monaghan said of NBC. "He's got this mischievous smile on his face. You could put him in the middle of Orange County or down on the Lower East Side, and he would fit right in."

When a bus bound for the airport carrying Ream, his family, a Fuel TV crew and BMX freestyle rider Trey Jones eased away from Woodward Beijing a week ago, Little Star stood with Zhou, waving from the hotel. Zhou looked uncomfortable, perhaps by the realization that he would now be responsible for filling the facility. But Little Star had a sort of serene look on his face, like he knew that he was about to have Woodward Beijing more or less to himself for the foreseeable future. And it connected with something Andrew Guan had said days earlier about those in China who have discovered action sports.
"Most of the Chinese young people don't have dreams," he said. "I ask, 'What's your dream?' They say, 'Buy an apartment.' Buying an apartment is everyone's dream in China.

"Skaters, action sports kids, they are different," Guan said. "They're catching their dream."

And that's something that simply can't be faked.