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As America Threw Up “No Skating” Signs, China Became a Skateboarding Paradise

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The year is 2007. Vast marble plazas populated with ledges, stair sets, and banks. Huge political posters in the background, fading into a smoggy grey sky. Against this backdrop, a sweaty, white skateboarder performs tricks before a fisheye lens.

These were some of America’s first glimpses of skateboarding in China. By 2010, Chinese skate spots had become a regular fixture in American skate videos.

Around the time that skate videos filmed in China — including the monumental, Spike Jonze-directed video, Fully Flaredreached the internet, skaters in the US were hitting up against a common problem: they were running out of places to skate. The skateboard economy, if it is to be called an economy, works like this: brands sponsor skateboarders, and the skateboarders go into the streets filming for video parts for the brand.

But as skateboarding grew in worldwide popularity, more companies needed to film more videos, and US skate spots started getting blown out.

American businesses, wary of street skateboarders damaging their property — or worse, getting hurt and suing — vigilantly guarded their locations from skateboarders. “No skateboarding” signs and skate-stoppers became commonplace in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.

Meanwhile across the Pacific, the rapid construction of China’s mega-cities was having an unexpected side effect: plazas and buildings in cities such as Shenzhen and Shanghai were becoming veritable playgrounds for skateboarders.

fully flared skateboarding skating china

And as travel between America and China increased in step with trade — which exploded when the two countries normalized trade relations in 2000 — the idea of traveling to China for skateboarding began to germinate in important heads.

“Nothing To Do Besides Skate”

For longtime Lakai team manager Sam Smyth, the promise of a country welcoming to skateboarders seemed too good to be true. When he heard from filmmaker Anthony Claravall that China was “amazing for skating,” Lakai organized a filming tour for 2006. The footage filmed in China appeared in Fully Flared, Lakai’s first full-length video, which has since become emblematic of both skating and skate videos.

The video features clips filmed at locales such as The Shenzhen Museum, which first opened in 1988. Shenzhen, whose population famously grew by over 3,400 percent between 1980 and 2016, was a microcosm for why China skate tourism became so appealing. As skateboarding website Quartersnacks put it in 2012, “everything [was] marble” and “there [was] nothing to do there besides skate.”

Moreover, skaters could actually skate the spots, unlike in America. Security guards wouldn’t write tickets or kick skaters out. According to Smyth, people then “were really shocked to see skating. They would stop what they were doing and form huge crowds, just like a demo setting. But these people had likely never seen anything like us before. Not only had they not seen skating, most probably hadn’t seen anyone that’s not Chinese. 

“We’d marvel at the huge crowds and wonder, ‘weren’t these people all on their way somewhere?’ How did they have time to stop and watch for hours?”

Something Magical

For team managers looking to organize a skate trip, China was a perfect destination, and the success of early filming trips led to a boom of skate tours across China. Skateboard magazines Thrasher and Transworld Skateboarding covered the tours, and videos such as Ride the Sky and Krux in Shanghai showcased Chinese skate spots in all their expansive marble glory. China’s skateability soon became common knowledge among even the least well-traveled of American skaters.

For skate filmmaker Tommy Zhao, this growth provided a career. Born in Japan to Chinese parents, Zhao visited China often and from a young age. But it wasn’t until a 2003 skate holiday, taken with a friend to Shanghai and Beijing, that he fully grasped the possibilities of skating there.

“We were literally seeing the country come into this economic boom […] filled with untouched skate spots and a population that still viewed skateboarding as something magical, versus the stigma of skateboarding in the US.”

They didn’t encounter any other skaters during that trip. But by 2007, when Fully Flared and other videos showed teams of pro and amateur skaters tearing up Chinese spots, Zhao knew he had to go back. He moved to Shanghai in 2008, right after graduating from the University of Delaware.

By the time Zhao arrived, there was already a healthy skate scene. Fly Skateshop, owned by Jeff Han, was the go-to hub for Shanghainese skaters. The increase in visiting skaters, combined with the ability to follow foreign skate content on the internet, created a new generation of Chinese skateboarders. And as China’s reputation as a skate paradise grew stateside, a cadre of expatriate skaters also flocked to the major cities. Zhao’s video Something Sinister, as well as his work for Vans, showcases this melting pot of cultures.

Skateboarding Takes Root

International skate tourism continued in strength — evidenced here and here — up until the Covid-19 pandemic. With skaters unable to travel for the forseeable future, the streets once again belong to the locals. The difference today is that fifteen years after Fully Flared opened up China’s skateboarding spots to a huge audience, some Chinese cities now have full-fledged skateboarding scenes to show for themselves.

Related:

WATCH: Inside Shanghai’s Skating Scene

According to Zhao, local skate scenes in China are flourishing. Companies such as Avenue and Son and Boardhead Skateboards sponsor young, Chinese talent. Although security guards have become more stringent in their enforcement of the rules, there are still plenty of perfect marble spots to skate in the mainland’s big cities.

skateboarding china skating tourism

Still from Hélas “Fellas: A Cappella Shanghai” (source: YouTube)

A way to look at the growth of skateboarding’s local popularity is through the peripherals. For example, in 2006, when Smyth and Claravall were first traveling to China, there was no Chinese skateboarding distributor. Now there are two that import hard and soft goods from major US companies. In 2008, Fly Skateshop was the only skate shop in Shanghai — now there are at least five. Major footwear brands such as Converse and Vans have their own Asia-Pacific teams, and the Vans Park Series, a global skateboarding competition, has a stop in Shanghai.

Worldwide, skateboarding has reached an unprecedented level of mainstream acceptance: it will be a sport in the postponed 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and China will be sending both a men’s and a women’s team to the games. Though it may be too early for Chinese skateboarding to garner gold at these Olympic Games, the government has been investing in skateboarding infrastructure accordingly. The Chinese Skateboarding League, founded in 2017, has led to the building of more skateparks around the country, and there are now skate schools where talented young skaters undergo training as rigorous as that of any other promising athlete.

Although treating skateboarders as athletes pushes them into parks and off the streets, some young skateboarders will undoubtedly become interested in the sport’s counterculture roots and stick to street skating.

They will have over fifteen years of footage filmed in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Beijing to inspire them.

Header image: DepositPhotos

Tate Gieselmann
Tate Gieselmann is a skateboarder, Liverpool FC fan, and writer. He studied Chinese at Boston University and Fudan University. Tate lives in Oakland, CA.