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Hainan's Women of the Waves

Surfing gives this free-spirited pack strength to paddle against the tides of tradition.

Last updated: April 8, 2021
Women Surfers Making Waves in Hainan 

"In Good Company" is a series about teams and clubs challenging the status quo of their sport.

Darci Liu fights through white water as she struggles to make it to the outside on a stormy day that's brought a much-needed autumn swell to the island of Hainan, a tropical Eden in the South China Sea known as China's Hawaii. Trailing on her tailfins is a pack of women who, inspired by Darci, have come to the island and are passionate about making a lifestyle out of their sport. "Every girl who comes surfing with me doesn't just learn to surf", she says. "What I teach is therapeutic in a physical, psychological and spiritual way". The 34-year-old trained ballerina traded the barre for the board when she moved to the island in 2007, becoming China's first professional female surfer—and the only woman in the line-up at the time.

Women Surfers Making Waves in Hainan 

Darci Liu waits for a set.

A lot has changed since then, largely because of Darci. She's inspired a growing population of female surfers to leave their corporate jobs in China's megacities behind for a life on Hainan that's all their own. But choosing this lifestyle in the context of Chinese society doesn't come lightly. Most of Darci's constituency rejected the country's long-established social norms that prescribe a steady job, marriage and family to instead embrace entrepreneurial ambitions and a dedication to a sport they love.

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Women Surfers Making Waves in Hainan 

You You

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Women Surfers Making Waves in Hainan 

Wan Bao

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Women Surfers Making Waves in Hainan 

Xiaomi Huang

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Women Surfers Making Waves in Hainan 

Qinqin Xiao

Among these women are Xiaomi Huang, 34, who opened a surf bar on the island after a holiday in Hainan changed her outlook on life; Jingya Li, 25, who put her successful cosmetics business on hold to become a surf instructor; Wan Bao, 26, who was inspired by the beauty of surfing after seeing it from afar on social media; You You, 27, who found her calling as a surf coach after a series of odd jobs after university; and Liu Huan, 28, who found herself in Hainan after a heartbreak. Together, the members of this fun-loving, soul-searching sisterhood of surfers give one another the strength to choose this radically simple present over their past.

After the pack finishes the stormy session, we sit down with everyone at Xiaomi's surf bar in Houhai Bay to talk societal pressure, life on their own terms and Mother Ocean.

Women Surfers Making Waves in Hainan 

Darci (left) gives Jingya Li pointers on dry land.

Darci, what is your coaching style?

Darci: We talk a lot about life. I'm not just pushing them on a board. I really want to know why they're coming here, why they want to learn how to surf and what they hope to gain from it. Because who I am today has so much to do with surfing. Not just standing on the board, but who I am as a person. I learnt that through surfing, and I would like to share that with others.

Darci, what is your coaching style?

Darci: We talk a lot about life. I'm not just pushing them on a board. I really want to know why they're coming here, why they want to learn how to surf and what they hope to gain from it. Because who I am today has so much to do with surfing. Not just standing on the board, but who I am as a person. I learnt that through surfing, and I would like to share that with others.

Women Surfers Making Waves in Hainan 

Wan (left) and You have a laugh on a party wave.

What have the waves taught you?

Darci: Surfing has simplified my life in a way that I now know how to appreciate myself and others.

Xiaomi: Because surfing is different every time, you have to constantly overcome your fear. I couldn't swim before, so I felt scared in the water. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't open my eyes. Through surfing, I have become braver in life.

Jingya: Surfing makes me excited and confident. When I catch a wave, I feel like I'm the queen! It also provided an opportunity to change my life. I'm 25 and I already have a successful business, a car and a house. But when I met Darci, I started yearning for her life: confident, free-spirited and full of possibilities.

Darci: Aw, so sweet. You already have this life!

What have the waves taught you?

Darci: Surfing has simplified my life in a way that I now know how to appreciate myself and others.

Xiaomi: Because surfing is different every time, you have to constantly overcome your fear. I couldn't swim before, so I felt scared in the water. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't open my eyes. Through surfing, I have become braver in life.

Jingya: Surfing makes me excited and confident. When I catch a wave, I feel like I'm the queen! It also provided an opportunity to change my life. I'm 25 and I already have a successful business, a car and a house. But when I met Darci, I started yearning for her life: confident, free-spirited and full of possibilities.

Darci: Aw, so sweet. You already have this life!

Women Surfers Making Waves in Hainan 

From left: Jingya, Xiaomi, Darci, San Chen

How did you get so close to the other women here?

Darci: Everyone here has a very similar outlook. We were all raised by the ocean, so we're like sisters. We're all from the same mother!

Xiaomi: Absolutely! The people who choose to live here are all inspired by the same kind of life. We have abandoned the stresses of the city.

Jingya: When I first arrived, I thought I would have to learn how to surf to become part of the group.

Darci: You think too much. Even when you couldn't surf, you were still part of the group!

Wan: The village is small, so I got to know all the other girls very quickly. When we weren't surfing, we'd all sunbathe and listen to music together during the day, or barbecue and drink together in the evening. During the holidays, if we don't go home, we all get together to celebrate, so no one feels alone without their family.

Darci: Yes, we are family. At Chinese New Year, everyone will bring one dish from home and we have a huge meal together.

You: We all like surfing, so we always have something to talk about. And every day when we've finished in the ocean, we come back for drinks together.

Liu: And if we drink too much, we help each other get home!

How did you get so close to the other women here?

Darci: Everyone here has a very similar outlook. We were all raised by the ocean, so we're like sisters. We're all from the same mother!

Xiaomi: Absolutely! The people who choose to live here are all inspired by the same kind of life. We have abandoned the stresses of the city.

Jingya: When I first arrived, I thought I would have to learn how to surf to become part of the group.

Darci: You think too much. Even when you couldn't surf, you were still part of the group!

Wan: The village is small, so I got to know all the other girls very quickly. When we weren't surfing, we'd all sunbathe and listen to music together during the day, or barbecue and drink together in the evening. During the holidays, if we don't go home, we all get together to celebrate, so no one feels alone without their family.

Darci: Yes, we are family. At Chinese New Year, everyone will bring one dish from home and we have a huge meal together.

You: We all like surfing, so we always have something to talk about. And every day when we've finished in the ocean, we come back for drinks together.

Liu: And if we drink too much, we help each other get home!

Women Surfers Making Waves in Hainan 

What was it like to leave the mainland behind?

Darci: Living in the big city, you are exposed to so much pressure and temptation to live the way other people want you to live. Here, we're free spirits, living the way we want to live. We dress how we want to dress; we hang out with who we want to hang out with.

Xiaomi: My family thought I would have a tough life here because it's such a small place, but eventually they came to understand that if I am happy and healthy, nothing else matters. You can make a lot of money in the city, but there's a lot of pressure. Now some of my friends are very envious and yearn for this kind of life.

Wan: My mother and I fought when I first came here. But after many years, she has accepted my life.

You: I almost died in a car crash when I was a teenager, so my parents think I'm lucky to be able to do any sport at all. As long as I am healthy, they will support me.

What was it like to leave the mainland behind?

Darci: Living in the big city, you are exposed to so much pressure and temptation to live the way other people want you to live. Here, we're free spirits, living the way we want to live. We dress how we want to dress; we hang out with who we want to hang out with.

Xiaomi: My family thought I would have a tough life here because it's such a small place, but eventually they came to understand that if I am happy and healthy, nothing else matters. You can make a lot of money in the city, but there's a lot of pressure. Now some of my friends are very envious and yearn for this kind of life.

Wan: My mother and I fought when I first came here. But after many years, she has accepted my life.

You: I almost died in a car crash when I was a teenager, so my parents think I'm lucky to be able to do any sport at all. As long as I am healthy, they will support me.

Women Surfers Making Waves in Hainan 
Women Surfers Making Waves in Hainan 

Darci (second from left) leads the women in pre-surf stretches.

What does it mean to be a female surfer in China?

Darci: To go chasing your own waves—whatever that means to you. Anything that inspires you, go and do that instead of focusing on playing the game that society built for us. There are definitely more people in China now who want to chase their own dream rather than build someone else's.

You: It makes us more confident. And having a passion makes you a better person.

Jingya: Surfer girls are free. They are more concerned with what they want for themselves, rather than external factors that don't actually matter.

After a change of clothes, the women head to their favourite seafood restaurant just across from Houhai's fishing pier to replenish the calories they burnt out at sea. Inside at their table, they easily drown out the rowdy beer-swilling men across the way. Their love for each other is evident as they laugh so hard, tears stream down their cheeks while they catch up on gossip from the past weekend. Bold, independent and unapologetic, they don't conform to the traditional Chinese ideal of femininity. But here, among like-minded women of the waves, they fit right in. Together, their conviction for their chosen life grows stronger. They welcome more Chinese women to shake off the shackles of city life, turn away from society's expectations and paddle into the storm.

Darci (second from left) leads the women in pre-surf stretches.

What does it mean to be a female surfer in China?

Darci: To go chasing your own waves—whatever that means to you. Anything that inspires you, go and do that instead of focusing on playing the game that society built for us. There are definitely more people in China now who want to chase their own dream rather than build someone else's.

You: It makes us more confident. And having a passion makes you a better person.

Jingya: Surfer girls are free. They are more concerned with what they want for themselves, rather than external factors that don't actually matter.

After a change of clothes, the women head to their favourite seafood restaurant just across from Houhai's fishing pier to replenish the calories they burnt out at sea. Inside at their table, they easily drown out the rowdy beer-swilling men across the way. Their love for each other is evident as they laugh so hard, tears stream down their cheeks while they catch up on gossip from the past weekend. Bold, independent and unapologetic, they don't conform to the traditional Chinese ideal of femininity. But here, among like-minded women of the waves, they fit right in. Together, their conviction for their chosen life grows stronger. They welcome more Chinese women to shake off the shackles of city life, turn away from society's expectations and paddle into the storm.

Women Surfers Making Waves in Hainan 

Left: Darci (left) and San. Right: You

Women Surfers Making Waves in Hainan 

Queen Bay at Houhai Village

Words: Crystal Wilde
Photography: Yuyang Liu

Reported: October 2020

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