A lot of people talk about China being one of the next big potential scenes for skateboarding, but after visiting several cities, I think we’ve got a ways to go. It’s got the spots and architecture, no doubt, but culturally, skating is still such a fringe activity, and skateboards still aren’t widely available. China is modernizing and changing, but with the internet being censored and services like Instagram and Facebook being blocked, I wondered how someone would find out and get excited about skateboarding? What attracts someone to skateboarding in a Communist country? And will China ever try to engineer a Nyjah Huston of their own?
To answer some of my questions, we hit up Curt Shi, a self-described “evangelist of entrepreneurship and skateboarding.” Curt claims he was one of the earliest adopters of skateboarding in China who has managed to parlay his interest in the activity into the expanding Asian marketplace. He currently runs a venture capital firm that invests broadly in “action sports brands,” and he has some interesting insights on the future of skateboarding in China, which he was happy to share with our naive Western selves.
If I was a Chinese skater and I go to school with my board, am I cool or a weirdo in China?
Nowadays more like a cool kid because people are more tolerant than before. But still, you know in China, education is always the number one thing. You need to be a good student in school, a lot of scholarships to college in the US are received by students from China. It is still a subculture, but more and more, skateboarding is being seen as a cool thing.
Do you think it will grow naturally? What do you think China needs to grow skateboarding at a more rapid rate?
I think it will grow, specifically for one reason: The Olympics. China’s sport system is still very much in a Soviet Union way. In our system, if a sport or activity like skateboarding has the chance to be included in the Olympic games, it will be strongly promoted by the Chinese government. And I heard skateboarding will be in the 2020 Olympic games in Toyko, so this will definitely greatly promote the culture in China.
So China will back anything in the Olympics? If skateboarding is in there, they will promote it?
You know, it’s funny. You know pole dancing? They said it will be in the Olympic games in 2020, and so now China has a national pole dancing team. We have a national team for every sport in the Olympic games, and they practice every day for a medal.
”If a sport or activity like skateboarding has the chance to be included in the Olympic games, it will be strongly promoted by the Chinese government”
If China is influenced so heavily by the Olympics, wouldn’t they “train” skateboarders as more of a sport. Won’t the Chinese skaters become more like gymnasts?
Yes, it will probably be more like competition style skateboarding. But it could still be highly positive and get more people skating. I talked with Rob Dyrdek, and we both think this will greatly promote the culture, but it’s still very different. I know what you mean.
Is there a way to get Chinese people excited about skateboarding besides the Olympics?
If we have some big media products that will change the way we look at it, or if we have our own skateboarding hero. Like in basketball, we have Yao Ming, the most famous Chinese basketball player in the NBA. If we had a skater like that who could have a name recognized worldwide, this would greatly promote the culture.
Or if we had another big movie that features skateboarding, this kind of media will greatly help. People my age started skateboarding because of the American movie “Gleaming the Cube”, but we haven’t seen a similar movie like that yet for modern times. It’s a bit different because in the US, skateboarding originated from surfing culture. But surfing culture does not exist in China.
So you need a Chinese Tony Hawk and a good skate movie to get people stoked?
What initially attracted you to skateboarding in Gleaming The Cube? Where did you even get skateboards from back in the early 90s? There wasn’t a single skateshop in China then, correct?
Yeah, watching that movie and some other MTV stuff on China TV screens with skateboarding footages when I was a teenager always got me super hyped, and I don’t know why. I was that kind of young person of the time that only wanted to do things different and unique, and I guess that is the initial attraction for me going into skateboarding.
Powell is a great skateboarding company for many reasons, and one visionary thing they tried was starting to test the China market even as early as the late 1980s. And in 1991 they had a Chinese guy that studied overseas return to China to distribute Powell decks – and luckily enough, I somehow managed to find them. Then I was able to skate real boards with similar minded peers. At that time, Powell basically was the only company distributing skateboarding stuff in China, and with the way of mail-order and membership promotions – I would say it was really something fresh and unique, as we did not have e-commerce at all then.
Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram are blocked in China. Do you think it would help turn more people onto skating if those got unblocked?
Not really, because even though they are blocked here, people still use VPNs a lot to get around it. We still need a disruptive skate media with very strong influence similar to Gleaming the Cube. Maybe it had such an effect because at that time Chinese people were very, very hungry for everything. Not like nowadays where you have a lot of information flowing very easily through the internet. Even though all this stuff is blocked in China, you can find a copy.
Many US skate and fashion brands are extremely successful in China. From a business perspective, do you think a Chinese brand or skate related business could be successful in America?
I am not very positive with this, at least in the near future. Chinese people are good at making money and doing business, however, not that good at establishing brands and systems. Sad but true. While China is the world’s #1 manufacturer and exporter for consumer products, we do not have a lot of well known brands globally. And when we talk about skate and street fashion that is originated from the Western world, it would be difficult for a China brand to take off when we do not have an icon from China that’s well recognized internationally yet.
A good example is with basketball, we had the famous giant Yao Ming with huge NBA success, and then we have a number of basketball brands from Fujian province in China achieving certain success in the China market but these brands such as Anta, Erke and Peak are still trying to make a real presence in US and other Western markets, but it hasn’t worked so far.
What’s with these Chinese ghost cities like Ordos? Why is no one living there? Can any skater just come and stay? Why is there so much infrastructure yet no one living there?
When we say Ordos as a ghost city, it usually refers to new suburbs such as Kangbashi – those were built to cope with the fast developing economy in the city in early 2000. The city was originally famous for cashmere sweaters. But then when the China economy took off in late 1990s and early 2000s, the city’s huge coal resource capacity made it one of the richest cities in northern China. It was often compared to Dubai and Hong Kong as its GDP in 2012 reached $10 billion. So a lot of investors, workers, and simply opportunity seekers rushed into the city to build new suburbs.
But in 2012 the coal price dropped significantly when China’s economy started slowing down (and also for the reason of unsustainable mining methodology), and this is basically the reason why Ordos has been called a ghost town since then. People left. I would not say nobody is living there, as in the old towns locals are still there, but since the bubble burst a lot of expats left.
So can skaters just go and live there? My answer is yes and no. I think it would be much easier for skaters to just go skating there rather than living there because the economy in the region is basically dead. It would not be easy for people to make a living there.
How many people would you guess make a living off of skateboarding in China? How many Chinese pros would you guess are there?
I would say less than 1000 people are in the emerging skateboarding industry who can live on it as a profession, including pros and ams, people who distribute and manufacture, people in the media, and other skateboard service related sectors. For pros, I would say less than 100, though more and more young people want to become part of it now. And the new school skateboarders in China are catching up with the world. It’s not like the 1990s where a 360 flip would make you a hero.