SURFING NEWEST WAVE ON CHINA’S HARBIN ISLAND

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By Tom Iggulden HAINAN ISLAND, China (Radio Australia, March 1, 2010) – Hainan Island in China's south, is known as 'China's Hawaii'.

And with its tropical beaches and throng of sun-seeker tourists, Hainan Island does bear some resemblance to its more famous rival. There is just one thing missing, Hawaii's most famous export: the unique sport of surfing.

Missing, that is, until now.

Brendan Sheridan from Hainan Surf is on the edge of surfing's newest frontier, bringing the sport to a potential 1.3 billion new Chinese wax heads.

"This is going to take off," he said. "Its inevitable there is going to be a huge surf explosion in China."

Like any frontier, there are plenty of hardships. In this case, bringing surfing's culture of individual expression to a country where conformity is king.

Brendan Sheridan says China's authoritarian, one-party state and surfing's anti-authoritarian, live-free reputation are finding a way to co-exist.

"You would think they'd be polar opposites, right?" he said. "It's tough to say that they get together so well, but it's finally coming together. I think what we have in China now is a situation where you have people, a new middle class, right? People that have some money now, and-and want to know how to spend it, how to have some fun in life."

If surfing is to become China's new religion, Sheridan's Hainan's surf school is its temple. And while many of their budding surfers may be non-Chinese tourists, their instructor, Da Hai, is. His name means big ocean, does more than just drive foreign tourist to the beach. He's China's surfing guru - probably the only devoted beach bum in the entire country.

"In the past, I always thought there was more to life," he said. "I was always searching for something new to try. Now I feel that I've found my purpose. I always joke that I'm married to the waves."

If waves are his first love, his dog Dun Dun runs a pretty close second. He's also a testament to Da Hai's skills as a surf coach. The dog's name is Chinese for two eggs, apparently a reference to his fearlessness in the surf.

And if he's China's only surfing dog, his master's journey to this idyllic lifestyle is just as unique. Da Hai's home town, Harbin, in far north China, is about as far as you can get from Hainan Island in China, figuratively and literally.

"Harbin is really cold in winter," he said. "It snows. There's ice. So as a child I skied and skated a lot. But I'm afraid of the cold so when I was older I moved further south."

Aged 15, he took a job at the industrial port of Tian Jin and got his first glimpse of the ocean near to where the Great Wall of China meets the sea.

"It was already very beautiful to me even though it was kind of yellow," he said. "It's so vast and comforting."

After another 15 years drifting south from job to job, Da Hai ended up in Hainan city of Sanya, where a chance encounter changed his life. On a trip to the beach, he saw a local Japanese expatriate surfing, was instantly transfixed and struck up a friendship.

"He gave me a surf board and said 'Okay, now go and have fun'," he said. "After he gave me the board, we surfed together and kept each other company. It was fun."

That was five years ago. Two years ago another chance encounter with Brendan Sheridan turned a fun pastime into a full time job.

"We met actually just surfing right here at the beach, you know, just a two-minute walk down the way there," Brendan Sheridan said. "We met in the water, there and we kind of started talking and realised we kind of had things we could help each other with, you know?"

Da Hai's now the key to Brendan Sheridan's plans to bring surfing to more Chinese.

"It's important having somebody like Da Hai, so for the average Chinese punter can see, like, 'Oh, this is doable'," Brendan Sheridan said. "Because, I think it takes it beyond something like 'Oh, look, a bunch of crazy foreigners are doing something crazy'."

Now it's Da Hai's turn to pass on his surfing knowledge to a new generation of surfers, and Hainan's unchallenging waves are a perfect place to start out.

But the fact is that most of the surf school's students are passing foreign tourists and not local Chinese but Sheridan says that's changing.

"We're getting more and more Chinese now, that we're up to about 25, 30 per cent now of our total customers are Chinese," he said. "That's from about 5 per cent in our first year of operations."

One is former student Harry from the Cheng Du in the middle of China, who now comes to Hainan to surf whenever he can.

"Chinese now people are different from before," he said. "Now they do sport they can enjoy. They don't just have to use it to make money. It's nice just to do something you enjoy."

That's a radical thought in a country where decades of poverty are still a recent memory, replaced by an ever-expanding consumer culture that worships the latest in luxury brands. In the question of happiness versus money, most choose the latter.

Most, but, as Da Hai proves, not all.

"This is a lifestyle, it's not related to money," he said. "You see, I don't have money now; I'm part of a brotherhood. I don't have my own room. I sleep here in the shop on the ground with Dun Dun but I am really happy.I have no problems at all. I don't need sky scrapers or much food. As long as I'm happy every day, that's enough."

Whether or not surfing ever truly takes off in China, the country's surf pioneers are due at least a measure of admiration.

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