Planting The Seed
Wingnut and the growth of longboarding on Hainan Island
Planting The Seed
Surf photos by: Jade Liu, Aq Li, Martin Lin, Xiao Shu, Shangdian, Song Song
Surf history is filled with anecdotes, and waveriding in China is no different. While river bore riding has an ancient story here, modern surfing has only started recently. And Hainan island, off the southern coast of mainland China, has grown to become the epicentre of surfing in China.
Australian Gold Coast prodigy Peter Drouyn – a pioneer of shortboard surfing - was possibly the first to splice a surfboard’s belly with the emerald waves of Hainan island. Drouyn was a visionary. He imagined that he could plant the seeds of surfing in China with a view to developing a future Olympic team. It was 1985 and he had been invited by local authorities to train a small group of local kids. He spent two weeks on the coast of the area of Wanning, suffered culture shock, and retired to Australia, never to return.
One year later, Surfer Magazine sent photographer Warren Bolster and journalist Matt George on the first media trip here. “Exotic, remote, empty,” were some of the adjectives used to describe Hainan. In some ways, echoing the longstanding exoticising of the East by the West as a cultural stereotype. The subsequent images showed surfboards on the Great Wall (on the mainland north of the capital Beijing), a few shots of locals back in Hainan clumsily standing on a board, and the travelling pros - including Hawaiian legend Rell Sunn - riding Chinese waves with consummate ease. Both these trips raised curiosity abroad but bred no interest among the local community.
Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s there were a handful of isolated adventures involving non-local surfers exploring Hainan, but none were too impactful on the local scene until Robert 'Wingnut' Weaver came along. Wingnut wasn't the first international surfer to visit Hainan, but unlike others before him he seemed to care - planting seeds, returning to nurture them, and assisting wholeheartedly in the growth of the local crew for two decades.
Recently Wingnut returned to Hainan. His visit was a long awaited homecoming. I am a long-time friend of Wingnut and have been based in Hainan working in the surf community for many years. Italian by birth, I studied mandarin and Chinese culture and have adopted this island as my home. Wingnut was testing the waters for a tailored programme for some of his private clients he regularly takes on customised surf adventures who are interested in pristine beaches, world-class golf courses, and hotels with uncrowded surf out front. Despite the last decade of rapid tourism development, Hainan still has plenty of these features. From the capital Haikou in the north, where our trip started, to the surf hub of Wanning, where we set our base, surfing with just a few friends is still the norm in this sub-tropical island.
I picked up Wingnut at Meilan airport on August the 6th, exactly fifteen years after his first visit here in 2008. Our first stop was at a famous shrine in Qilou Street, the historic district of Haikou. The temple is devoted to Matsu, the Queen of the Southern Sea. This Taoist deity is the overlord of waves, venerated by fishermen and boat crews. We desperately needed her blessing considering the week-long flat spell the island was going through (and the fact this wasn’t prime northeast monsoon swell season, usually between October and March).
Call it serendipity, blessing from above, or just mere luck, but the ocean immediately steered up a small southerly swell, which can occasionally be a fun source of waves at this time of year in sizzling hot water. Our programme was simple but intense: surf with the locals at every dawn and sunset, work during the onshore wind hours, then spend time with friends at night.
Not surprisingly, Wingnut was the first laowai - mandarin for ‘foreigner’ - to ask me a very simple yet deep question: “How do Chinese surfers see themselves?”
I have lived and surfed on this island for over a decade, witnessing the growth of the local crew, and know all of them personally, but I had no easy answer. So we decided to dig deeper together.
Hainan is no longer a novelty surf destination. The ASP (now WSL) has played a key role in putting this tea-leaf shaped island on the world’s surf map. Under the enlightened guidance of former ASP CEO Brodie Carr, five consecutive World Longboard Championships were held on the left point of Riyue Bay starting in 2011 - beginning with the women’s, then men’s and women’s. This triggered the birth of a genuine surf scene, mainly devoted to longboarding, and certainly empowering local female surfers.
Wingnut had already been attending the grassroots contests on the island since 2008, and then in 2010 he and I were both invited to the inaugural International Surf Festival, organised by the Hainan ministry of tourism to boost outdoor sports. Our friendship solidified through five consecutive events, where we shared great waves, and the broadcast commentary booth with Sam Bleakley and Darsea Liu. It must have been my endless thirst for empty surf, my Mandarin skills, or the chemistry between snake (Wingnut’s astrological sign in the Chinese horoscope) and monkey (my sign), but somehow I became the link between Wingnut and Hainan. I was often his language interpreter, and his eyes and ears on the longboard surfing seeds that he had planted and continued to nourish.
At his welcome dinner in Wanning, we spoke about those early days with the first generation of Chinese longboarders: “The longboard tour made the difference for us. We were little more than beginners,” said Darsea Liu, the first Chinese surfer to enter the competition, now a successful event organiser, surfer, environmental activist, and model. “Being exposed to personalities like Kassia Meador, Kelia Moniz, Wingnut, and Sam has literally shaped who we are, and how we see ourselves.”
“We also had international shortboard competitions, but you guys were different,” added Monica Guo, the most successful longboarder to come out of China. “The difference was you mixed with us, came to our homes, taught us what style is, gave us boards. Year after year you returned, and you became family.”
And there’s visible traces of them in Monica and Darsea, the way they keep their hands low as they dance on waves, their Meador-esque small steps to the nose. They both abandoned the 2+1 setup years ago, influencing the second generation of women longboarders. Girls like Karlie Huang, committed to international competitions, and hundreds of ladies, who now constitute about 50% of the local surf population.
“I met Darsea in Houhai in 2018 at one of her beach workshops”, Monica recalls. “I had never seen surfing before and was enchanted by her style. Soon after I left for France, where I took my MA in foreign languages. At every chance I’d take a train to Biarritz and started surfing there. France was good but I couldn’t feel that sense of community that I had witnessed in China. Surfing here is different, it makes me feel special, we are making history just by being…surfers”.
In 2017, the annual world longboard event moved to Taiwan, then COVID froze China for three years. But Wingnut couldn’t stop dreaming of Hainan, its empty pointbreaks and endless summer of tropical weather. He kept recommending it to travelling friends, talking about the island in interviews, remaining in touch with the community anyway he could.
For this trip I had recruited a small group of local surf photographers to follow us at every session. They are the first generation of surf photographers born and bred on Chinese waves. Having a stylist like Wingnut surf their home turf was the perfect chance for their art to flourish.
To understand their view of surfing we must recognise their backgrounds. The modern surf movement here is merely a decade old. It has skipped both the printed magazine and the website era. They have grown up on social media alone, where images are produced and consumed in the span of minutes, even seconds, and selfies constitute over 80% of all posted content. The traditional concepts of composition, framing, and lineup shots are alien to them. In so many of their images the land is almost hidden, the framing not considered, as they are not trying to win space in print or online.
Wingnut’s analysis of their work is enlightening: “Most developing surf nations have self-esteem problems when it comes to their home spots,” he said. “They don’t see the beauty.” This was his feedback while checking the first shots, mostly close-ups from our session at the Lighthouse on the Shenzhou Peninsula. “For them, waves are always bigger, hollower, and better abroad. I’ve seen this happening in Japan, Taiwan, and Costa Rica too. It takes a few years of travelling, and at least one generation, before locals start to appreciate and portrait home, its peculiarities and traits.”
“All that our usual surf photography clients want to see is a close up of a surfer, possibly themselves, doing a manoeuvre on a wave,” said Jade Liu, an in-house photographer at Classic Malibu, one of the leading surf clubs in the area. ‘Self’ is styled from such representations. This was also shared by the other emerging surf photographers Aq Li, Martin Lin, Xiao Shu, and Shangdian. Exploring their work I see their subjects are ether surfing friends or wealthy tourists hitting Hainan on national holidays, eager to bring a few professional images home for their TikTok and trending social media platforms. They mainly use 500mm lenses, set up their tripod on the beach, and fire the shutter every time their client stands up. They are here for the waves, not for the often stunning backdrop.
Xiao Shu, a drone photographer, added his point of view on this matter: “When I take pictures, I focus on waves because that is the most important part of my life. Waves constitute my escape, they determine my free days.” Xiao Shu is from Danzhou, a landlocked town in northwest Hainan. Both he and his partner have graduated from Finance University in Shandong province. “Life on the mainland was not healthy. We saved some money then relocated to the Shenzhou Peninsula. We opened Splash, a small surf shop to be close to what we love most.”
The first challenge was to divert their attention from the subject to the context. Wingnut made it clear: “There are three things that make up good surf reportage: clean waves, surfers, and land. Tomorrow with the light from the right angle, bring a wider lens and try to put them all in the frame. I want to see the lighthouse, the rocks in the background, the random tourists holding their umbrellas under the sun. I want to see your China, not just your waves.”
These words were met with curiosity. So we started showing pictures of classic photographers: John Callahan’s shots of their same spots taken between trips in 2001 to 2010, and Art Brewer’s portraits of surfers in the 1980s. These were examples of focusing on using the backdrop and the people as an integral part of the narration. Reviews went on for three more evenings with Wingnut spending hours in front of Jade’s computer selecting and commenting on images. With a typhoon spinning north of Taiwan, the swell turned from south, the usual summer direction, to southwest, activating a picturesque river mouth along the rarely surfed north coast. Very few tourists venture up here. With a bridge in the background and peach-red sand dunes this was the perfect scenario for our crew to hone their framing skills on a different spot, where the environment could speak.
A newly form sand bar amplified the fading swell and Wingnut danced with his usual minimalist approach. Arms relaxed along his body during a powerful cut-back, hands caressing the lip as it zips along. His dismounts (he never wipes out) are an art form inside an art form. He can whip the board past the crest and still elegantly fall on it. If the wave closes out during a hang ten, he performs a somersault, then bodysurfs the whitewater all the way to the sand. This was a masterful lesson in style for the locals that followed us.
The ocean went flat on the last day, leaving us time to rest and make a final photo selection. To our extreme joy, the landscape had started populating our friends’ frames: fishermen on the foreground, a newly built bridge crowned by white clouds, the colours of dawn. China, as seen from the inside, had taken the main stage. Nothing exotic, nor remote transpires from their shots, just the awareness of being special people in a special land.
// NIK ZANELLA
About Robert ‘Wingnut’ Weaver:
Charismatic longboarder based in Santa Cruz, Wingnut starred on several of Bruce Brown’s movies, most famously The Endless Summer II. His three-decade long commitment to single fin boards and deep knowledge of the sport’s history made him one of the leading figures in the revival of traditional longboarding.
About Nik Zanella:
Italian explorer, sinologist, surf coach, Nik has spent the last decade on Hainan island working at several levels of the national surf development project and mapping China’s untapped coastline. In his recent book ‘Children of the Tide - an exploration of surfing in Dynastic China’ he reconstructed Chinese wave-riding history from the 9th century to the present day.