I’m sitting around a big table in a private dining room at the luxurious Le Meridien in Hainan, China, listening to the mayor tell me through a translator that he grew up swimming in the shorebreak of the beach in front of his village. He’s got that distinctive relaxed confident smile of a waterman so I believe him when he tells me he occasionally swims the 2 miles out to the coral fringed island sitting just offshore. Still, I’m a little surprised when he mentions his interest in sharks and diving, two of my recently developed passions, while insisting I down another glass of red wine. The translator, a young Chinese girl who learned English and culture in college in the UK, asks me if I’m involved in any conservation organizations. I nod and list a few, then slurp the last spoonful of what I think is a bowl of hot and sour soup. She asks me how I like it. “It’s good.” But I happen to notice she hasn’t touched hers and send the question back. “I don’t agree with it,” she says. And I look across the table at my friends in horror, realizing that we’ve all just eaten shark fin soup.
Visiting China is a mixture of the expected and unexpected. Having been bombarded by news stories of the rise of China’s economy and frantic pace of development, I expected to see the construction industry working overtime with cranes, bulldozers, and cement mixers swarming like a plague of locusts as quiet people in woven hats lay out grains to dry in the sun as they’ve been doing for generations. Rusted motorbikes with nicotine-stained handlebars narrowly avoid being bumped off the newly constructed highway by expensive logos ornamenting sparkling clean four wheeled signs of a new blinging middle class. The Le Meridien is only two years old and still a little lonely, but I’m told that four new, big brand name, five star resorts will be built alongside in the next few years to comfortably sleep the hordes of international tourists that the Wanning region’s government has hired us to help attract. They may enjoy shark fin soup, but the government is hip to surfing and the track record of surfers of igniting the spark that turns into a tourism fireball. We’ve been hired to explore for waves, get the shot, and spread the word that Hainan, the Wanning region specifically, is a surfing paradise worth visiting.
During our first few days on the island, which is referred to as “the Hawaii of China” complete with trains of tour busses belching out camera wielding couples in matching aloha pajamas who stand in line to pay $10 to get a printed photo of them sitting on a camel on the beach, I doubted the possibility of success in developing a strong market for surf tourism. The white sandy beaches, relatively clean clear water, and steamy temperatures were all there, but the surf seemed weak and inconsistent. A regular trade wind blows from the NW, bombarding the NE coast with constant wind swell. During the typhoon season, the potential for real groundswell to make the points come alive exists but is unreliable. We spent a few days surfing an onshore shore dump, coincidentally the mayor’s local spot, that was certainly entertaining but not enough to justify dragging a surfboard across the planet. We saw plenty of points and rocky ledges with potential. We searched for good coffee, learned to say beer in Chinese, and filled our bellies with shrimp, mussels, and other unidentifiable seafood. We pushed a few very excited middle aged Chinese men wearing speedos, goggles, and swim caps into their first six inch waves in front of a wall of camera-firing local journalists insisting on a surfing demonstration despite the nearly complete lack of ride-able surf.