Depending on what estimate you go by, the emerging "middle class" in China is somewhere between 100 to 250 million people deep. As the ski and snowboard markets have saturated and started to flatten out in the West, a lot of companies have started looking to this new potential group of consumers to boost sales. But of the many action sports brands that have tried to crack the Chinese market over the last decade, not a lot have succeeded.
I've always been curious as to why. So last year I went to the very first Oakley and Shaun White present Air & Style Beijing -- not because I was interested in the contest so much as I was to see what something so big in our culture would look like when bomb dropped into a country that doesn't seem to care much about snowboarding, or the superstars who do it the best.
This interview, with Chinese pro snowboarder Andrew Wang and the man widely acknowledged to be the kingpin of the Chinese snowboard scene, Steve Zdarsky (who is responsible for the video "Chuan'r" above) was done last year, but by the end of the contest people were tired of hearing about it, so it never got posted. But it gives a good look into the snowboard scene in China. So here, on the eve of the second annual Air & Style Beijing -- which webcasts on Freecaster at 3:30 a.m. PST tonight/tomorrow morning, depending on how you look at it -- it seemed appropriate to run it.
We'll be back in the morning with full coverage from the actual event. In the meantime, enjoy.
I was doing a tour of the local Beijing blogs and didn't see any mention of this contest, or of snowboarding at all really. So I was wondering how many people actually snowboard here.
Andrew Wang: If you search English blogs, you only see what foreigners are writing. What China's doing is creating a parallel Internet that's Chinese. We can't get on Facebook or Twitter from China, but there are Chinese versions, and we can get on those, so that's where all the information is. So you'd have to be able to type and read in Chinese, and get on the Chinese Internet to see what's really going on here.
Kids who are six years old go to school for 50 hours a week. They have no spare time. So we have no young snowboarders at all.” -- Steve Zdarsky
So if a company wants to get in here, then they have to use the Chinese Internet to spread their message?
Wang: Well if a company wants to get in, to be honest, the person you have to find is Steve. If you want to skip the learning curve and years of mistakes that it takes to figure out how things work in China, because it doesn't work the same here that it does everywhere else, then you have to get Steve's help. He's been here for over ten years. He's one of the people who's been pushing the whole snowboarding scene since the beginning.
What does it look like from the inside, with all these foreign outside companies coming in trying to crack the snowboard market?
Wang:The problem is that the business side of things is coming in really fast and really strong, but snowboarding in China has only been around really for about ten years. Your average rider here has only been riding for a couple of those years. A lot of people who are learning to ride here are in their twenties. The culture here is just a lot different. Everyone who snowboards, they know who the good riders are. It's still a tight community. So that's the thing -- there's a lot of money being put into a really small community.
Why was it that there was no snowboarding in China until recently?
Steve Zdarsky: Fifteen years ago Chinese had nothing, no money, no cars. Now every day you see something new. So in the last 15 years people got richer, they got more spare time, they wanted to do something in winter, so there's skiing. [Eleven] years ago the first ski resort in Beijing opened, and now there are 16 resorts. Fifteen years ago there were no ski resorts and now there's over 300.
What are the resorts like?
Zdarsky: There are a couple big resorts, but it's mostly man made snow. Most of the resorts are really small. The slopes are like 500 meters long, so most people just go for an hour before or after work, or on the weekends.
Is it expensive?
Zdarsky: Yes. In China there is always a way to get things for cheaper, but gear is more expensive than in Europe or the States. Most of the stuff is made in China then sent back to the States, then sent back here again and import taxed. It's actually cheaper to order gear from the States. It's expensive to get a set up.
But Beijing has 16 million registered inhabitants. Half of them are middle class who could actually go snowboarding. There are almost more people in this city than there are in the country of Austria who could afford to go snowboarding.
Is there a parallel Chinese snowboard culture developing here, just like the parallel Chinese Internet?
Zdarsky: You have a core snowboard scene -- they live and breathe snowboarding. They live the lifestyle, they only hang out with snowboarders, they spend the time to download all the movies and learn all the tricks. That core scene is like ... 100 people. And then there are snowboarding clubs. They promote snowboarding to the masses over the Chinese Twitter and things like this. So most of the snowboarders are weekend warriors who do it because it's fashionable and fun. It's different than the West where kids grow up with snowboarding.
The biggest thing is that most of the people who started snowboarding here are older. They already graduated from university -- because before that you have no time. Kids here go to school from 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening, Monday through Saturday. Because there are so many people, and the education system is small, you have to be better than everybody else. You have to fight to get the spots at university. So kids who are six years old go to school for 50 hours a week. They have no spare time. So we have no young snowboarders at all.
So do you think it's ever going to change? Will there ever be a youth surge in Chinese snowboarding?
Zdarsky: No. All the pros in the West are kids who went to normal school and in their spare time they went snowboarding. But here is the Chinese National team where they take the kids and make them snowboarders. And then there are the kids who go to school school school, and after school they start snowboarding, but they're 24. And when you're 24 you can't become pro.
So marketing it as a rebellious youth culture is never going to work here.
Zdarsky: No. Here it's a fashion thing. 100 percent. The first day of the season, when the ski resort outside of Beijing opens there will be 500 people on the one open slope -- it's crappy, but everyone goes there. It's a fashion show. What are you wearing this year? What kind of board do you have? Then as the season goes on more core snowboarders come out. But you have to have the fashion because it supports the industry.
If everything is made here anyway, what's the incentive to buy foreign brands? Why not just start a Chinese brand?
Zdarsky: Chinese have their own brands, but all the people who have enough money to afford snowboarding, they don't want Chinese brands. It has to be a foreign brand. It's a status symbol.
Is Shaun White big in China?
Wang:Well snowboarding's not really big in China, so then ... he's not really big, if that makes sense? But he'll be a massive help getting people to look at snowboarding because people know the Olympics, and the Olympics are big.