Brain Damaged and I are standing on the rooftop of one of about a dozen luxury malls sprinkled throughout Guangzhou, the sprawling, southern China megacity of roughly 15 million people. It’s a sunny, sweaty October afternoon, and on this particular rooftop, at Hero Skate Shop, a small handful of skateboarders teach the basics–foot positioning and balancing on the board–to a group of enthusiastic primary school kids. The students’ parents relax on wicker deck furniture and sip strawberry smoothies and iced lemon tea from the patio that overlooks the shop’s wooden and concrete pools and ramps.
“The kids are good at the skills, but a lot are missing the attitude,” says Brain Damaged, a 22-year-old Guangzhou native and also one of the park’s instructors. “I’ve had about 300 students, and five or so have the true skater spirit.”
(Due to the sensitive nature of our conversation, Brain Damaged–a nickname he chose for himself–asked that his real name not be used for fear of potential repercussions).
According to Brain Damaged, the “true skater spirit”–rebellious, creative, free, and punk–is being smothered by the Chinese government in its march to produce an army of world-class athletes with the skating chops and icy-veined temperament to dominate international competitions for years to come.
hero skate shop owner giving a lesson
“The government is basically the opposite of what skateboarding is all about,” he says. Brain Damaged was 13 or 14 years old when he first got into the worlds of rap and metal music, as well as skateboarding. He was drawn to it as an antidote to the rigid, rule-based lives forced upon Chinese schoolkids.
So when the Chinese government began promoting skateboarding to prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Games—by creating the China Skateboarding League in 2017 to increase domestic competition, funding more skateparks, opening skate “schools,” and tasking scouts to scour those tournaments and skateparks to discover future Olympic skateboarders—Brain Damaged saw it as a major intrusion on this important part of his life.
Gesturing toward the moms and dads watching their children roll slowly on their boards, he says he understands how they, as well as other members of Guangzhou’s skating community, view the government’s promotional activities as an effective way to grow skateboarding’s popularity in China. But he characterizes it as a theft.
skateboarders organized by regional camps at a 2019 contest
“Skating is about freedom and rebelling against authority. But the government doesn’t allow that. They just swat it away.”
Chinese government investment in their sporting scenes is approaching mind-boggling levels. Currently, the government plans on growing sports into a $280 billion USD industry by 2025. The majority of that investment is directed toward basketball and soccer, but a chunk of that money is flowing into the country’s ramps and halfpipes.
Long-standing members of the Chinese skate community unanimously told me China wouldn’t be a medal threat at Tokyo. Although if the Chinese government keeps training kids like the way they do now, in camps and schools where they skate up to seven hours a day, they may start to come up at future Olympic Games. And given the country’s long-standing political and cultural rivalries with both Japan and the U.S., which right now have some of the strongest Olympic skate teams, there’s added incentive for China to win.
look inside a strict, chinese skate school
Now, in most sporting communities, a rise in profile, investment, and participation would be welcome. Currently, Guangzhou contains the world’s largest skatepark (>120,000 ft²). In interviews with nearly two dozen skaters in Guangzhou, that sense of optimism and excitement is certainly present, but it exists alongside feelings of circumspection and hostility. For some skaters, the involvement of Xi Jinping’s paranoid, authoritarian government in their hard-won street culture is simply intolerable.
Liu is a 16-year-old skateboarder from Guangzhou. He wasn’t willing to give me his first name, but he shared his thoughts on the government’s foray into skating.
“The Chinese government is ignorant. They tell us what to think, and now they want to tell us how to skate, where to skate,” he said, referring to the government’s attempts to get skaters off the streets and into skateparks.
liu (left), 16 year-old skater in guangzhou
Liu said he goes to skateparks occasionally, but he much prefers being out in the streets.
“I’ve loved skateboarding since I was a little kid. The skateboard is like my best friend [and] with it I can be free. That’s important [to me] because there isn’t much freedom in China.”
A couple of Liu’s friends who were initially too shy to be interviewed began to nod along, and Liu said, “they feel the same.”
“I want to go to America,” one of them said, before hopping on his board. “LA,” he called, over his shoulder.
However, not every skater in China agrees.
At a nearby skate park, Mandy Xiao brought her child to get a run in before weekend English classes. He’s only been skating for a few weeks, but he already seems more “confident and brave,” according to mom.
“The Chinese government is ignorant. They tell us what to think, and now they want to tell us how to skate, where to skate…”
Xiao was unaware that the government was promoting skateboarding – she registered her son after one of his friends’ parents suggested it – but it certainly didn’t bother her that it was.
“It makes me feel good because the Olympics are important and China will have a good team.”
Tim Tian is the 43-year-old owner of Hero Skate Shop and a self-described “O.G. skater” in southern China. In the early-’90s, Tian and his friends were desperate to start skating themselves, but they couldn’t buy a skateboard anywhere in mainland China. Finally, after a year of fruitless searching, his father’s friend bought one for him in Taiwan.
“It was made in Taiwan, so it was shitty, but it was still good because it was a skateboard,” Tian said.
A short while later, a Chinese grad student started importing American boards into China, along with magazines and VHS tapes. The grad student would cut pictures from the magazines, glue them onto blank paper, and write out step-by-step explanations of the tricks in Chinese. Then he would photocopy and mail them to skaters all over China, from Beijing to Shanghai to Guangzhou.
Bringing those homemade how-to manuals to school made Tian and his friends feel cool. “Our other friends had never seen that. It was American stuff. American culture. It was like a bible.”
kids skate lesson
When he was 30, after nearly a decade of unfulfilling office work, Tian quit his job to open Guangzhou’s first genuine skate shop. Now the store has two locations and he owns the rooftop skatepark, where parents spend upwards of 8,500 yuan ($1,200 USD) for twelve children’s lessons.
Since opening Hero more than a decade ago, Tian has made it his business to promote skateboarding across southern China. For years that was difficult, with many parents only vaguely familiar with skating and others viewing it as an anti-social activity: not quite criminal, but certainly a public nuisance. When skaters like Tian put together shows outside malls or in public spaces, spectators would “just gather and take a look for a few minutes and then leave. For parents, it’s dangerous and there’s no future for their kids.”
But when the government started campaigning for skating, those attitudes quickly changed.
“It’s like in every city or town, the local government is building a skate park or hosting an official skateboard contest. Also with skate shoe brands and hardware brands building the China team [and] sponsoring local skaters, everything about skateboarding is getting the chance to develop at a very fast speed. Since 2016, the growth of skateboarding in China is like a rocket.”
indoor training facility in nanjing, china
Tian is aware of other skaters’ suspicions toward the government, and he shares some of their concerns.
“There are still punk-style hardcore skaters out there and they don’t like that government [involvement]. My friends and I talk about that always, we’re very afraid that no one can represent the real skate cultural spirit. Freedom and rebellion.”
On the other hand, there are things that only the government can do for skateboarding in China.
“We’ve been doing this for a very long time, just us, promoting skateboarding for more than 10 years. But it [was] growing very, very slowly. But with the Olympics, the government wants to build a skatepark? Boom, it’s done.”
“I’ve seen little kids being yelled at by their coach for not landing a trick in a contest.”
According to Tian, as long as a tiny percentage of the up-and-coming Chinese skateboarders reject the Olympics and competitive route, they’ll maintain an authentic skate scene.
“Maybe it’ll only be one-tenth, but these guys will continue the hardcore skateboard culture.”
Jason Guadalajara, who founded FP Insoles and Footwear and is based out of both China and LA, is not convinced this plan will work.
“I’ve seen little kids being yelled at by their coach for not landing a trick in a contest. One little girl took such a gnarly slam trying a rail she shouldn’t even have been trying at her skill level she could barely walk, but was forced to get back on the course for the next run,” he said. “That’s not what skating used to be about, but I guess it is now and it’s going to be just like gymnastics or some other sport like that pretty soon.”
“China is leading the pack as far as it being a ‘sport.’ They won’t be getting any medals probably in the next decade, but the time will come that they’ll probably be dominating.”
honestly not sure who these guys are
Out on the roof at the Hero skatepark, Brain Damaged is getting a little agitated. He’s giving the first lesson to an 18-year-old university student whose parents pushed her to take up skateboarding for exercise, and from the couch across the park, it looks like his jaw is set in frustration. While I’m watching and chuckling to myself, a 33-year-old dad approaches me and points out his eight-year-old son carving the halfpipe below us.
I ask him what his thoughts are on the government’s eagerness to catapult China to the top of the skateboarding world. He tells me that skateboarding is just a sport to the government, and it’s his job as a skater dad to separate the core skate culture from “whatever it is the government is doing.”
We watch his son for a while and he tells me it’s his job to teach his son to be wary about what the government says and promotes. He thinks the next generation will have a better understanding of being free. Hopefully that’s something skateboarding can teach them.