I’ve been in China for nearly two weeks, travelling the country with Geckos Adventures, and I’ve just landed in Shanghai – alone and without the luxury of the guide whose reassuring presence I’ve become accustomed to. Shanghai is a sprawling city that is called home by 27 million people, more than currently reside in all of Australia, and it’s easy to feel lost in the dense mass of people. I’m here to meet up with the local skaters who enjoy some of the best skate terrain in the world. Every city has an iconic spot, a place where skaters can gather, chill, grab a six-pack and roll around – and that’s what I’m looking for this afternoon.
Nike SB China team member Johnny Tang – a Canadian-born skater who’s called the city home for the past 11 years has instructed me to head to LP – Shanghai’s meet-up spot of choice. After negotiating the foreign train system and making several line changes I think that I’m somewhere nearby. As I emerge from the chaotic subway near the city’s Conservatory of Music, my eyes immediately fall on row after row of premium, uncapped marble ledges – the kind that skaters have wet dreams about, and I know I’m in the right place.
“Shanghai is the fucking greatest city in the world to skate, this city is heaven,” proclaims Johnny, once I find him stooped on a set of stairs lined by yet another pair of perfect marble ledges. “If you’re a skateboarder from any country and you come to China, you don’t even know what to do. No matter how long you have, it’s never enough to skate everything,” he continues. With a wide smile, devotedly positive attitude, and more than a decade’s worth of experience in China’s skateboarding industry – Johnny is in many ways emblematic of the country’s skate scene. Unlike Europe and America, skateboarding is relatively fresh to China, where a Communist government and an authoritarian approach to public spaces didn’t condone such activities.
As Johnny explains, much of the city’s contemporary skate identity is owed to Jeff Han, who founded FLY streetwear in 1999 and began to supply the local market with skate gear that was previously near-impossible to get a hold of in China. “Jeff was the one who really helped mature the skate industry here,” recalls Johnny. He also had a hand in guiding the hand of foreign companies who realised the potential of such a huge untapped market and began to establish a presence in China in the mid-‘00s. “Jeff really helped when [brands] came in and were like ‘Hey, we want to sponsor riders but we don’t want to pay them,’” Johnny tells me, “Jeff was like, “If you really want to pick up the best skaters, you’re going to have to give them a reason to skate.’”
Johnny himself rapidly found a place on the earliest iteration of Quiksilver’s Chinese team, and has since maintained a professional career that’s seen his identity evolve into his current role at Nike, which sees him act as a skate ambassador of sorts. “There’s a lot of people in China, but not enough are taking up skateboarding,” he laments, “I guess the reason for that is that there’s no real skate industry here, there’s no influencers who have been a pro or know the process.” As one of the few individuals in that position, Johnny’s mentality is far and away from the ‘locals only’ train of thought that presides in some smaller skate scenes. “I really want to see my friends here and this skateboard community grow, and the only way it’s going to happen is if you meet new people,” he explains.
As word of Shanghai’s perfect skate environment has spread via video parts and magazine features since the mid-‘00s, a new wave of foreign skaters have begun to make pilgrimages to the city, and Johnny is prepared to welcome them with open arms. “I love to see my local friends meet all these foreigners, because they can always learn from them. Styles, the way they skate, the music they listen to – we’re all just skateboarders,” he explains. “If you’re a skater and you show up at LP, it doesn’t matter where you’re from –you’re automatically a homie.”
The growing interest in Shanghai’s homegrown skate scene means that there’s been an uptake in locally produced product and media as well, and residents like Tommy Zhao and Stephen Khou are determined to give Shanghai’s local scene an international voice. The pair are cofounders of Made In China Mag, an online-magazine that seeks to act as a platform for the city. Founded in late 2012, it’s a voice for the rapidly growing scene. “I moved here in the Autumn of 2008, I was born in Japan and I grew up in the US. I’d come to China every now and again, and then I thought ‘Oh this would be amazing for skating’ so I moved here six years ago,” Tommy tells me. “When I came here, at LP you’d have maybe 10 skaters on a good day. Now you go, and you’ve got maybe 20 – 30 skaters from all over the world and that’s just a normal day.” For Hong Kong born Stephen, Made In China Mag offers a chance to educate the wider population about the culture that he’s passionate about. As he explains, “We started a magazine for us and our friends, to show skateboarding and where it has come from. We don’t want it to be about products, it’s about skateboarding.” Both see Shanghai as an area that’s on the cusp of a skating boom, both culturally and commercially. “For us right now it’s perfect. It’s like that in China, for us it’s skateboarding but it can be any business. There’s so much opportunity here,” Stephen explains.
It’s a slightly strange scenario; Shanghai’s colonial history and reputation as the ‘Paris of the East’ combined with the Chinese Communist Party’s predisposition to Brutalist architecture that emphasises functionality over personality has inadvertently created a city that’s a virtual mecca for skaters. The relative youth of the scene also means that skateboarding doesn’t carry the antisocial stigma that marks it in other parts of the world, as Tommy Explains. “Skating definitely doesn’t have the same perception here as in the West. It’s seen as more of a game, people are like ‘Why are you playing with this toy?’” As the rest of the world begins to take more and more of an interest in China as a skate destination however, that perception is bound to change. “China already has their own Asia X Games that have been held in Shanghai for the past four years,” Tommy recalls. He continues, “China in itself, almost being the centre of the world for business means that there’s so much opportunity in the next couple of years.” As the local skate scene teeters on the brink of exploding exponentially, its participants are optimistic about the future. “Why do we skate? It’s because of friends and because of the lifestyle,” Stephen says with a smile. It’s that easygoing lifestyle that professionals like Johnny Tang are committed to promoting.
Back at LP the local crew have started to arrive and are swinging into a laidback session. The amount of skaters in the square has gone from three to a group of 20 in the half-hour that we’ve been sitting here, and I can see Johnny is itching to jump back on his board and get involved. Before he does though, he leaves me with a parting message – “When you come to this city just skate LP for a week and you’ll meet everyone you need to know. We’re more than willing to show you where the spots are, all we want to do is get a good crew together and skate.”
Travel made possible by Geckos Adventures.