Surfing without the ocean: China’s landlocked cities catch onto flowboarding

Jul 16, 2019

When you think of surfing, China is hardly the first destination that comes to mind. Most cities are landlocked and have no access to the ocean.

But there’s a growing number of indoor surf shops popping up across the country, inspired by the surfing centers of Los Angeles.

At the Wavorhouse Urban Surf Club in Beijing, young people can be seen riding a 10-foot-high wave on a surf simulator in between drinking beer and chatting.

A customer rides on surf simulator at the Wavorhouse Urban Surf Club in Beijing.
A customer rides on surf simulator at the Wavorhouse Urban Surf Club in Beijing. / Photo: Tom Wang/SCMP

Indoor stand-up surfing, or flowboarding, is quickly becoming popular in China’s landlocked capital city, where riding simulated waves to the sound of pop hits has become a trendy way to beat the summer heat.

The owner of Wavorhouse, Guo Yunchuan, got the idea to open an indoor surfing club while living in Los Angeles between 2011and 2015.

During a trip to nearby San Diego, he visited an indoor surfing center and saw their surf simulators.

“I was very impressed,” he recalls. That’s when he decided to introduce flowboarding to China.

(Read more: The women who are bringing longboarding to China)

But when Guo came back, he found that most machines in China were imported and very expensive. Buying one alone would have set him back $1 million, and that didn’t include installation and maintenance costs.

So Guo decided to build his own machine. In 2016, he set up the Beijing Flywave Surf Simulator Development Company and managed to produce a simulator with $145,000.

“We use pumps made in China.”

Guo Yunchuan

“Foreign models use European-made pumps, which are the main component of the machines,” he says, explaining how he was able to reduce costs. “We use pumps made in China.”

Since then, the company has sold about 20 of them, more than half in China, where they are being used at water parks and hotels.

Surfing—without the risks

For many people, flowboarding is a good introduction to surfing.

“Conditions on the ocean are complicated,” Guo says. “You have to know how to swim, how to read and catch the waves. Flowboarding is a lot safer.”

Beginners start off by leaning on their stomach on a wide bodyboard. Once they’ve mastered the art of riding prone, they can try balancing on their knees, and then one knee, before graduating to a flowboard and standing upright.

Beginners start by balancing on a wide bodyboard.
Beginners start by balancing on a wide bodyboard. / Photo: Tom Wang/SCMP

While surf simulators cannot replace the big waves of the sea, Guo says many members of his club use flowboarding as practice before they go surfing in places like Thailand and Bali.

Riding the wave

With surfing set to be inaugurated as an official competition sport in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Guo sees potential in flowboarding as a way to get novices hooked on the sport.

(Read more: China’s underdog skateboarding team aims for Olympic gold)

He plans to open flowboarding centers across China, especially in landlocked regions such as Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, to bring the sea closer to those places.

Guo has also been promoting flowboarding as a sport in its own right. In 2017, he started the first China Flowboarding Open Championship.

Guo Yunchuan started the China Flowboarding Open Championship in 2017 to promote the sport.
Guo Yunchuan started the China Flowboarding Open Championship in 2017 to promote the sport. / Photo: Tom Wang/SCMP

Close to 50 contestants from around the world participated, and the live broadcast of the competition attracted 1.2 million viewers, which Guo found “very surprising for a niche competition without any promotion.”

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

City lifeSportsBeijing


Producer: Joel Roche and Clarissa Wei

Videographer: Tom Wang

Editor and Mastering: Joel Roche