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Another look at China

While the surf world has another look at China, China has a look at Mark Healey. AJ Nest, A-Frame

Last week, the ASP's website featured the provocative headline, "ASP Women's World Longboard Tour breaks ground with historic event in China."

The story, about a new event to be held on Hainan Island October 26-30 of this year goes on to announce, "ASP International is thrilled to bring the sport of surfing to China for the first time in history."

We'll leave the cynicism aside in a moment, but first let's acknowledge that two stops (the current number on the Women's World Longboard Tour) does not a "tour" make. Then let's acknowledge that surfing's known about China for some years, so maybe let's ease up on the whole "first time in history" thing.

Having said that, the piece brings up a fair question: just where does surfing stand in China? Danny Way jumped the Great Wall on a skateboard and Shaun White wowed them in a snowboard terrain park outside of Beijing, but surfing's presence in the world's largest emerging market has been decidedly lower profile.

Or maybe that's just as it relates to PR stunts like the ASP's up-coming event. After all, surfers would have to be blind to not know where their board shorts and flip flops come from, to say nothing of the pop-out boards in their local Costcos. Take the Peking Duck Surfboard factory in Hong Kong, for example. They claim to produce 30,000 surfboards a year.

"All boards are hand shaped using Australian blanks and finished with Australian cloth and resin," reads their website. "We make according to your shape and design and with your logo or ours."

By comparison, on average, a mid-level surfboard operation in the United States may produce 1,000 to 1,500 boards a year.

Historically speaking, surfers have had their eyes on China for at least 30 years. Peter Drouyn, one of Australia's most famous surfers in the '70s and creator of the ASP's man-on-man format, first explored the country in 1985. In 1997, the Hong Kong Surfing Association was established. Along the way, numerous other surf explorers have poked around, including Triple Crown mastermind Randy Rarick and photographer John Callahan. Good surf has been found in Taiwan and around Hainan Island -- site of the women's longboard event. In 2008, Mark Healey, Greg and Rusty Long, and Jamie Sterling first surfed a tidal bore in the Quantang River, also known as the "Silver Dragon."

In terms of quality and consistency, Hainan has its moments but leaves plenty to be desired. As for the Silver Dragon, surfing the river is actually illegal and the 2008 mission required an abundant amount of red tape being cut before it could be successfully completed.

In April of 2010 the International Surfing Association (ISA) officially recognized China as a surfing nation (to keep that announcement in perspective, they just added Russia and Slovakia last month.)

"With over 25 million surfers around the world, the ISA is interested in helping them become part of our organization, and helping them build a better surfing future in their countries. This latest addition is part of our work towards the universality of surfing," said ISA President Fernando Aguerre at the time.

Exploration and the "universality of surfing" are both good reasons for the sport to come to China, but there's also this: you can sell a lot of board shorts to a country with a population of 1,331,460,000. And even if all available evidence suggests China's 9,010 miles of coastline are generally too poorly exposed to host anything resembling world-class surf, surfing is a "lifestyle." As the Chinese economy barrels on and their middle class emerges, complete with leisure time and disposable income, it pays to make surfing popular.

"It's pretty exciting to break ground in a new country for surfing and to provide women's longboarders the opportunity to do so," says ASP Media Director Dave Prodan. "In regards to future events in the country, it's yet to be seen what will happen. As an non-profit organization, the ASP's mandate lies solely into providing the best tour possible for the surfers and the fans, and if that involves opportunities for further events in China, then we'll do so."

Fair enough; but considering how unlikely it is that the next G-Land will be discovered in China -- and how much flak the ASP has caught this year for bringing their "dream tour" to the decidedly un-dreamy surf of Rio, New York, and San Francisco, it's likely to be a long time before the top 34 of the men's tour have to worry about applying for a visa.