The new Hawaii? Surfers flock to Taiwan, an island nation that fears the sea

Typhoon swell and a host of surf spots have put a fishing village on the pro-circuit a big change for a culture whose unease with China generated an aversion to the ocean

Set against a background of lush green mountains sweeping down to a Pacific ocean swell, the village of Jinzun Harbour reminds some surfers of old-school Hawaii.

It is quite a claim to make about this quiet fishing community, and not just because it has only a nascent surfing scene. This village is in Taiwan, an island nation that for generations has had an unusual fear of the sea.

Yet last week Jinzun came alive as more than 200 surfers arrived to compete in Taiwans fifth Open of Surfing, a World Surf League qualifying series event with a $50,000 award purse.

Riding the waves under gray, stormy skies, international competitors described the surf as world-class, its optimum swells created by seasonal typhoons.

On shore, tent stallings offered mouth-watering fried fish and aboriginal millet wine beside the palm-fringed angling harbour.

As rain swept down over the mountains on the opening day, barefoot, sun-bleached Californian surfers mingled with bemused locals in raincoats.

Jinzin harbour has a mountainous backdrop that reminded some of Hawaii. Photo: WSL

Dancers in the traditional dress of the indigenous Amis tribe greeted the competitors with lively sungs and a boon ceremony. The mob of spectators was small and convivial, with local households bringing their children to enjoy the performance.

The contest concludes on Sunday and is viewed as an excellent warm-up event for the longboard championship in Hainan, China, in December.

Surfing is still new to Taiwan, an island of 23 million off the east coast of China. Fewer than 100 people make a living out of surfing.

A high rate of drowning deaths has helped create nationwide trepidation but analysts say the aversion to water has culture and political roots going back to the islands tempestuous relationship with China.

Jonathan Spangler, from the Asia Pacific Policy Research Association in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei says: In the education system here its taught that swimming in the ocean is dangerous, dont go swimming.

Dr Francis Hu, head of political science at Tunghai university, Taichung, explains that for decades, post-second world war Taiwan had also restricted access to the coastline for security reasons.

Although it has its own government, Taiwan is viewed by China as a renegade province that will eventually reunite with the mainland, a status that has created flashpoints in recent history.

Kosie Sawamura vies in Taiwans Open of Surfing. Photo: WSL

Taiwans previous Kuomintang government dreaded intrusion by the mainland communist regime and also invoked martial law on the island until 1987, during which the coastline was a high-security zone.

Maritime activity was restricted to the main harbours. We didnt allow people to have private ships, says Hu. For a long time … we didnt allow ordinary people to pursue their maritime activities on most of the coastline.

As a result, there is a generational gap in knowledge about the sea. About half of my students cant swim, he said.

This deep-rooted fear is starting to change thanks to people like Baybay Niu, one of Taiwans best-known female surfers. Niu, 41, be used to help pioneer the athletic, a accomplishment which is doubly unusual for a woman in a conservative Asian society that cherishes pale , not beach-bronzed, skin.

Niu now lives in Jinzun where she has set up a surf school for children.

The sport was so alien when she arrived 10 years ago that she had to explain to shocked grandparents that her bikini was swimwear. They thought I wasnt wearing any clothes, she laughs.

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Niu introduced the idea of water safety to their home communities who viewed it as a danger to their children.

So many of their family had perhaps died when they went angling, so they were scared about the ocean, scared about letting their grandkids go in, she said.

Baybay Niu, one of Taiwans best-known female surfers. Photograph: Baybay Niu

As the competition kicked off on Thursday, a dozen pre-schoolers sat on the stony beach, next to the scaffolding set up for the judges. They were mesmerised and cheering as surfers from as far afield as Indonesia, Australia and the US danced across the waves.

This generation is likely to have a better understanding of water than previous ones.

International surfers see great potential in Taiwans growing surf culture. The violent cyclones that slam into the eastern seaboard every year ironically also induces the surf more marketable.

Typhoons helped make perfect waves, says Will Hayden-Smith, Australasia regional manager for the World Surf League, which operates the Championship Tour, the surfing circuit for the worlds best. Theres point transgress, river mouths which usually make good sandbars for waves, and theres reef violates.

He personally procured his favourite wave in the world 20 minutes south of Jinzun.

Flags fly near the surf tournament in Taitun County, Taiwan. Photograph: WSL

Unlike more popular surfing resorts, where theres 500 people in the surf, the hospitality from the locals and the quality of the wave build[ Taiwan] a really desirable destination, he said. The future is super-bright.

World-class challengers, such as Californian Rachael Tilly, 18, who last year became the youngest womens world longboard champion, have begun to appreciate Taiwans coast.

It was a seven-hour drive[ from Taipei] and all along the coast we assured many different surf transgress that appeared really fun. Then aiming up here it was like a nice jackpot at the end when we watched the great waves, she said.

The quality of the waves is very high and if this was in front of my house, I would be stoked, she adds. I guess once it starts to become more known for its surfing, people will be super-excited to come here.

Kathy Tang, the high-energy events director for the five-day tournament, says the presence of top-level competitors like Tilly pushes local surfers to excel.

This kind of competition is encouraging younger local surfers to reach a higher level, she says as she observes the opening hots. Its inspiring a new generation.

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Jang Yu-huao, 37, a local surfer and lifeguard who won a wildcard entry, concurs. It gives Taiwanese surfers a lot of experience, he said. Even if we lose, were still encouraged.

Jinzun is a 40 -minute drive from the nearest big township, Taitung. It offers only a few cafes and guesthouses and little in the way of entertainment.

But surfers like Holly Griffiths from Cornwall, who came to support husband Adam, the only British challenger, says[ When I said to friends] we were going to Taiwan for a surfing competition, and everyone was like: I dont understand, is there surf there? There definitely is and Ill be hollering about it when I get home.

She believes its calm vibe is appeal compared with the high-octane buzz of surfing townships such as Newquay back home. Maybe a few years down the line theyll have more shops and things but to be honest its quite nice the route it is, she said.

Baybay Niu also hopes Jinzun will retain its own distinct charm. I think that we have the potential to be good and a popular surfing island, but I think that it will be our own Taiwan-style, she said.

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