Photo: Jesse Warren
Unlikely Surf Scene: Hong Kong
Lineups full of girls!
Isn’t there just something about waves in unlikely places that taps your inner-adventurist? Sure, there’s plenty of familiar surf destinations that you’ve seen on the webcast or in surf films. But it’s the less obvious locations that stir the most curiosity: Italy, Russia, India, Taiwan… Hong Kong. HK? Yeah! An engaging read was just published by the South China Morning Post about the genesis and evolution of Hong Kong’s surf scene.
Now, surfing’s nothing new there. Anthony Hownam-Meek was president of the Hong Kong Surf Club from 1978 to 1982: “Back then the surfing scene was tiny – the club never had more than 13 members,” he tells the the SCMP. “Only two girls surfed but more came for the ambience and privacy for nude sunbathing. We’d skive off school to bodyboard at Big Wave Bay as teenagers. The teacher would say: ‘There’s a signal three tomorrow, so gentlemen I assume you’ll be ill as usual?’”
It was raw back then. In the early ’80s, the corpses of illegal immigrants who’d died trying to reach Hong Kong from China would occasionally float into the lineup. Surfers would also make the most of the swell that typhoons would bring, much to the ire of local authorities. “I had a letter published in the SCMP about 1979 arguing that it was illogical to red-flag surfing at beaches when it was rough, concluding, ‘do you really expect surfers to wait for a nice calm day to go surfing?’” Anthony recalls. He also became the HK link for Surfer mag: “I made weekly reports on wave conditions. In return I got weekly reports from everywhere else in the world.”
The surf scene in HK has taken an interesting evolutionary trajectory. Kenny Howe, an American who went to Hong Kong 16 years ago, tells the SCMP: “In 1999, locals wore the China special one-piece swimsuit. No one wore bikinis, no one tanned. Now it’s all about surf fashion, bikinis, tans, tattoos, and mobs in the water trying to surf on a weekend. I’ve counted up to 80 people at once in the water.”
“Every second logo you see on a T-shirt or backpack is surf-related,” says long-time local Sam Pleitgen. “It’s hip and marketable, and everyone wants to be in on it. I’m asked by more and more people how and where they can learn to surf.”
There’s even an O’Neill store at the MTR bus stop, where you’ll board to go surf Big Wave Bay and Shek O.
So, what sucks about surfing in Hong Kong? Well, for starters, the waves are fickle and far from world-class. And aside from some anxiety over a shark sighting off Lantau this month, marine pollution and waste are a constant problem. There’s also the dangerous dynamic present in any lineup where the sport is still relatively young: “A momentary lapse of concentration once cost me 17 stitches and a shattered nose,” Sam told the SCMP. “About a month later, the surgeon who administered the stitches, himself a surfer, was taken into surgery having been partially scalped by a surfboard fin.”
But, aside from some real user-friendly waves when conditions are right (and certainly better than nothing if you happen to be stationed in HK for work), upside is, the lineup is full of girls, like locals Cathy Ho and Rei Chan Wai. “Eat healthy, go to bed early, rise early, catch waves, repeat,” says Cathy, who quit her office job to be a lifeguard and surf through summer, using winter to chase waves around the world.
Lantau Island, Shek O, Big Wave Bay and Tai Long Wan in Sai Kung are the spots you wanna aim for. If surf camps are your thing, Surf Hong Kong (ateamedventures.com) do ‘em well, as does Treasure Island Surf Camp on Pui O Beach, Lantau. “Most of my sign-ups are young girls,” says surf instructor Antony Dickson.
A culture shock on land, a lineup full of girls, and some exotic scenery? Time your trip with a summer typhoon and Hong Kong might be worth surfing for novelty factor alone.