Surf’s Up in Sanya
Surfing has been riding a wave of momentum in China. Two rising stars explain why Hainan island is the sport’s new mecca.
Off the coast of Riyue Bay, a go-to surf spot on the southeastern coast of China’s tropical Hainan Island, pro surfer Xinrui Wang effortlessly pops up on her board to catch a swell.
Once she finds her footing, Wang inches ever so carefully to the front edge of the board for a momentum-building, nose-riding maneuver, steadying herself as the five-foot-tall wave crests before exiting and dropping into the water. A few moments later, she paddles out to sea to do it all over again.
“I love the waves here so much that I chose to live nearby,” says Wang, who was born in Sichuan, a landlocked province in southwestern China. “In just a five-minute walk, I can be out on the open sea.”
Wang first tried surfing in 2015 while on vacation in Sanya, a resort on the southern side of Hainan that’s luring China’s budding surf set with one- to five-meter-high waves year-round, an enviable tropical climate, long sweeps of honey-hued sand, and largely empty coves. Since surfing is still a relatively new sport in China, the island’s surf spots are rarely crowded. On some days it’s possible to have an entire bay to yourself.
“When I started surfing, it was a really exotic concept in China. It had only been around for maybe 10 or 15 years… it was definitely not a popular sport,” says Wang.
In recent years, though, surfing has been booming in China. The momentum began in 2015, when officials announced that shortboard surfing would make its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“After surfing was included in the Olympics programming, the government established the first Chinese National Surf Team,” explains Wang. “They started promoting the sport and providing more training opportunities so kids will pick up the sport.”
As the epicenter of China’s surf scene, Sanya is home to several clubs and camps for beginners. It’s also increasingly on the map of the sport’s international competition circuit, hosting the lion’s share of China’s professional tournaments, including the Surfing Hainan Open, the World Surf League Longboarding World Cup, and the 2018 ISA World Longboard Surfing Championship earlier this year.
Just a year after surfing for the first time, Wang placed third in a local tournament at Riyue Bay. Government scouts took notice and recruited her to join the regional Hainan Province team. Since going pro, the 26-year-old trains every morning from about 6am to 10am, and again in the afternoon.
Wang isn’t the only Chinese woman who has turned a passion for the sport into a career. Sanya is home to one of China’s bona fide surfing stars: Monica Guo, who has a modeling contract and nearly half a million followers on Weibo to go along with her multiple championships. Born in Yangshuo, an inland city in southern China, Guo first stepped foot on a board in Hong Kong in 2010 after watching the hit flick Blue Crush.
“I didn’t know that I was going to fall in love with surfing, but somehow I just felt like I couldn’t live without it,” says Guo, who’s now a member of the Chinese National Surfing Team and was named the Best Female Surfer of 2016 by the Chinese Extreme Sports Association. “I think that it enables you to get really close to nature and enjoy this simple form of happiness.”
To pursue her passion, Guo also relocated to Sanya, where she joined Surf Club Hainan and began practicing at every opportunity. At the time, the club was mostly composed of Australians and Americans—she was the token female surfer and one of just a handful of local members.
“It was not easy to surf back then. You had to find a surfboard, and wax was a precious commodity—you’d ask someone to bring wax back to you if they were traveling, because we couldn’t buy it in China,” says Guo.
It’s taken a long time for surfing to catch on in China—due not only to the lack of resources and professional role models, but also to long-held cultural attitudes. Guo says many women prefer not to partake in outdoor sports due to traditional beauty ideals. “In the past, if you had dark skin it meant you worked outside, maybe as a farmer, so it reflected your social status,” says Guo. “If you have light, white skin then you’d be considered rich.”
Additionally, a lot of Chinese have traditionally been skeptical of spending time on the water. “People are often terrified of the ocean because they’re not familiar with it,” explains Guo. “There’s a lot of mystery; they don’t know what’s underneath the surface. But this is changing. These days, there are more Chinese people going outdoors and they love to try new things.”
Growth is difficult to quantify, but Guo estimates that there are a few hundred local surfers in the country of 1.4 billion. Meanwhile, she expects to see at least 200 athletes traveling to Hainan Island this winter to take surfing lessons. The uptick in interest can be seen across the country, with many provinces in China now developing regional teams that are all actively recruiting young people.
WHERE TO SURF IN SANYA: PROS’ TOP PICKS
With more than 370 miles of coastline, Hainan is home to hidden coves and long sandy shores that draw beginners and serious surfers alike. Here are Wang’s and Guo’s favorites.
Hoihai For beginners, Guo recommends this bay near Rosewood Sanya at Haitang Bay, on Hainan’s eastern coast. She says the waves are gentle, calm and consistent. Her tip? Go in springtime, with its “incredible long waves, which are beautiful to surf.”
Dadonghai Another option for beginners:this south-facing harbor west of Hoihai. Her,e too, waves tend to be calmer and more manageable, according to Wang.
Riyue Bay More experienced surfers head here for its strong, challenging waves. “This is best place to surf in China,” asserts Wang. “The waves are beautiful. Being on the water, with just my board and the waves, I feel so free.”
Shimei Bay Guo’s favorite spot is up the coast from Riyue Bay—a quiet beach with a long, pristine stretch of sand, plus two types of breaks. “You can choose the beach break [on the sand] or the permanent break [on rocks]. The perm break creates more stable and powerful waves, but the beach break will be constantly changing. That way, the surfing experience is up to you.”