Skateboarding first appeared in China back in the mid-1990's when the initial flood of American pop-culture poured into a bright eyed and curious China. From then the sport has grown from an unknown entity into a sport which resonates with high-school and university students who are drawn to its freedom of expression and brotherhood. More and more skate parks are popping up in first and second tier cities which has led to more and more kids grabbing boards and taking to the streets.
On an international level, China is also fast becoming recognized as one of the best places to skate. In recent years its rarely a high production video goes by without having at least one segment showing the skate crew ripping it up in a Chinese square.
With the rise of the Chinese skate scenes has come the inevitable rise of skate fashion. With low barriers to entry; low production costs; easy access to clothing manufacturers; low regulation; and free access to the world's largest online marketplace in (Taobao) have seen a rise of Chinese skate brands creating their own line of products with a 'for skaters, by skaters' mentality.
Talking of one such brand, we caught up with the founder of Skalute Skate Company, Li Xiaomeng (李晓萌). Based out of Nanjing, Skalute was established in 2009 with and was a way for Li Xiaomeng to give back to the skate scene he has been a part of for over 10 years. We caught up with Li at Hangzhou's Jinshahu skate park to talk about his brand, the rise of skateboarding in China, and the differences between the east and west skate scenes.
Skalute Beijing Tour 2016 Promo - Youtube (得翻墙哦)
The original Chinese interview is at the bottom of this article. 采访的中文版在文章下
Founder of Skalute, Li Xiaomeng
Under the Wall: For starters, tell us a bit about what Skalute is and how it came about.
Li Xiaomeng: The literal meaning of Skalute is just a combination of the words, Skate and Salute. Saluting and paying respects to skating. I’ve been skating for well over 10 years now, and I love this culture. I work in the fashion and clothing industry and I just wanted to combine what I know from my day job with my passion. When I just started out it was just for fun and to pay my respects to the skate culture.
Under the Wall: The Skalute Logo is pretty special. Can you explain us the story behind it?
Li Xiaomeng: One day I was driving down the highway with my friend, I suddenly thought ‘what’s the logo gonna be? How to choose it? I thought for ages about Skalute’s logo. I also wanted to choose a logo that had Chinese characteristics. In the end I came up with this (clenches fist and rests it on the palm of his left hand). This you’ll see a lot in Chinese Kung Fu films. It’s the hand gesture that swordsmen used to give to each other when they met while walking along the rivers and lakeside back in ancient times. This gesture is super interesting and its full of Chinese character.
Also, when you think about skating and it’s street culture. Everyone who is on the street skating are like the swordsmen back in ancient times. When swordsmen met they would gesture like this (gives a Skalute salute). Similar to how it is with skaters at a park skating, they will go like this (slaps my hand and bumps fists).
If people started doing this (the Skalute) salute aswell, that would be awesome!
Li Xiaomeng: Vision is too big a thing to talk about right now. To me what is most important is to create something that I am interested in. If the business can do well, then there would be nothing better than that. That’s not to say that this business needs to make money or be famous. That’s not it at all.
"Chinese education is very strict, the pressure on these kids is huge. They have to study, do homework, attend after-classes, there is no time to go out and skate."
Under the Wall: Recently there has been a quite a lot of Chinese skate brands coming through as well as a ton of established international brands coming into China. What does Skalute offer that is different?
Li Xiaomeng: I think the most special thing about Skalute is the logo. It’s super eye catching. At least that’s what I think. As for other people, some may think the logo is fucking awesome, others may think nothing of it, just so so.
Then there’s the colors (of the brand). I hope we can get to the point where when people see the color pink, or pink and white together, or pink and black together that they will think of Skalute. White and black are typical colors that pretty much all brands use. But pink is the trademark color of Skalute.
From the beginning I didn’t create this brand to fight (with other brands). To compete with the likes of Nike and DC, its not possible. There’s not even any point wasting time thinking about that. When I first started I was purely doing it for the fun of it. It was, and still is, my hobby.
I wanted to create something for my friends to wear and share. I think that’s the best thing about it. From that point on Skalute slowly continued to develop. If in the end its possible to make money from Skalute, then that’s even better. If it’s possible to develop this brand into something more awesome and to increase it’s popularity, then that’s even better yet. If there comes a day when this company turns into a famous brand like some of the others already out there, then that’s the end dream right there.
I’m pretty sure that any skateboarder out there would dream of owning a world famous skate brand.
Under the Wall: Skalute started with just t-shirts. Now, in the space of a few months, Skalute has lines of belts, sweaters, and decks. What’s next for Skalute in terms of new products?
Li Xiaomeng: We aim to expand the product lines, improve them a bit. For example, we’ve got a lot of people coming up to us and saying, ‘when are you going to make tracksuit tops, when are you gonna make beanies and pants?’. We’ve also got a lot of people asking us to make accessories like phone sleeves, key chains etc. The possibility of all these quite high, but we’ll take it slow. The key question you need to ask is who is going to buy all this stuff? Most people wouldn’t buy a phone jacket from a brand they have no idea about.
Under the Wall: Recently Skalute’s popularity has been rising after having sponsored a lot of skate competitions, and sponsoring skaters. Talk a little about your experiences with both of these.
Li Xiaomeng: For sponsoring skate comps, I started off with my personal network. I know Nanjing and Shaoxing more than any other place, got a lot of friends in those 2 cities. So I started (sponsoring competitions) there. At first, promoters got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to sponsor it and throw in a couple of free tees and skate decks as prizes.
Its been not bad. To be honest its not about it being an effective way to promote or advertise, its about giving back to the scene. If you’ve got the chance to give back to the community then you should. Give the people more motivation to keep supporting the scene.
"In the 90’s if you went out on the streets to skate, its possible that many people wouldn’t know what it was. At least now people who know what skateboarding is. That’s progress."
Under the Wall: Talking of China’s skate scene, how do you see it developing in China?
Li Xiaomeng: The skate scene has been in China since around the 90’s. At that time, most people (skaters) got their interest in the sport from a few American movies. From then more and more people (became interested in the sport). The first (Chinese) people who got interested in the sport we born in the early 80’s, then it spread to those born in the late 80’s, early 90’s late 90’s and so on. Now there is a ton of kids born after 00 that are really talented.
One generation after the other, the skate scene has been expanding. Also people’s knowledge of what skateboarding is is also changing. In the 90’s if you went out on the streets to skate, its possible that many people wouldn’t know what it was. At least now people who know what skateboarding is. That’s progress.
Under the Wall: So tell us a little more about what the Skate Scene is like in China, how is it different from the West or other countries?
Li Xiaomeng: Talking about differences, I think that it mostly comes down to East Vs West cultural and societal differences. I’ll give you an example, Skating is a form of street culture. The birth of street culture came from New York City. There a lot of the kids grew up spending time out on the streets playing, making friends, finding ways to make money, even fighting.
But in China its different. Kids aren’t allowed to stay out and play. They have to go home, do their homework, attend after-classes. Staying out on the streets to play is out of the question. Most of the time, Chinese homes are in big apartment complexes. Kids in each complex stay in the complex and play together and there is no concept of roaming the streets to play. Chinese education is very strict, the pressure on these kids is huge. They have to study, do homework, attend after-classes, there is no time to go out and skate. This is the different in the makeup of society (between China and the west).
After the cultural revolution, China had no urban culture, because there was nothing was being created out on the streets. Most of it (culture) came from online videos, or Hollywood movies. From those we started to learn about street culture and urban culture,
The main driving force of the (Chinese) skate scene is university students. Although now more and more middle and high school kids are being introduced to skateboarding and are taking to the streets to skate. But because of the university entrance exam （*Gao Kao高考）they have no other choice (but to study), and can only casually skate on the side. If you ask if skating (in school) is a culture? No it’s not.
Kids can only really start towards the end of university. In their senior years kids have their own time and own money to spend. This is huge because if you haven’t got money where’s your equipment going to come from? The only other choice is to ask your family for it.
Under the Wall: As you previously mentioned, China as had somewhat of a skate scene for over 20 years, but mostly starting at university level. How have you seen that change over the years? (has there been more of a street culture coming through in China?
Li Xiaomeng: There's been changes. More and more people are starting to learn about skating and casually experience the sport. What I mean by casually experience skateboarding are those people who may buy a long board, go out and skate the streets, including those who use it just to pose. But those who really stick with it and learn the tricks and who continue with skating after they finish college is still only very little.
Why? Speaking honestly, because to learn how to skate is hard as hell. Even though we skate for fun, but if you ask any proper skater if it's hard or not. They'll say it's hard. But more and more Chinese youth, especially the 90's generation, can't hack difficult things. They prefer easier things (hobbies) like computer games or going to sing karaoke, easy. They have no desire to do difficult hobbies. This is the difference between Chinese and American youth.
"China has the world's best skate spots. The best. Not one of the best, but the best skate spots."
Under the Wall: Just curious, you just mentioned some of the differences between China and west skate culture. Seeing as China is so big, is there any difference between the north, south, east, west skate cultures in China?
Li Xiaomeng: Yeah, there's a difference.
First thing first, the weather in the south is better. All four seasons you can go out and skate. Skate 12 months a year. That's why many skaters leave the north for the south to places like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The north is too cold to skate. At this time (October) it's already too cold. My Beijing friends are already saying it's a struggle to go out and skate right now. If you go further north of Beijing, then it gets even worse.
From a style point of view, the northern style is more hale and hearty, where the south is more technical.
Under the Wall: From sponsoring a lot of events, I’m sure you’ve had your eyes on a few up and coming skaters coming through. Are there a lot of young skaters coming up through the ranks?
Li Xiaomeng: Yeah. Right. Is there are a ton of kids who started skating from when they were really young. Right now there's a few millennial out there who are winning national skate competitions. How old is that? Teenagers man.
Under the Wall: So for skaters reading this, what one thing would you say that the China skate scene has that the rest of the world doesn’t?
Li Xiaomeng: China has the world's best skate spots. The best. Not one of the best, but the best skate spots. Why? Because China has more and more squares which all have 3 sets, 4, sets, 5 sets, 7 sets, as well as countless rails and stone platforms. The most important thing is China's security personnel. Even though they will tell you to move, but they are nowhere near as strict as the states.
It all depends on their mood. Some don't ask you to move, others do. Security don't really want to ask you to move but if they don't and their manager notices then their out of luck.
So you see that's one of the reasons why a lot of skate crews choose to come to China. Also more and more American skate companies videos have a scene shot in China.
Under the Wall: What ways do you sell Skalute?
Li Xiaomeng: Our biggest channel is our online Taobao store. We also have a small stall in Shaoxing where we sell our stuff as well as other brands shoes, decks and clothing amongst other things.
The most important thing isn't sales rather than brand awareness. As long as we've got our brand on Taobao we have a channel to promote (our brand). Everyone in China knows Taobao, it's the biggest brand in China.
The key issue is how to promote our brand. We started from nothing and we're not famous. If we were Eddie Chen, then we that would be easy. Just simply print anything on and it would sell, right? Or if we were a famous skater promotion would be easy because everyone in the scene would know us. That (promotion) is difficult for us. We'll take our time.
Under the Wall: If foreign skaters want to know more about the Chinese skate scene, where should they go to get some good info or get a glimpse into the Chinese skate scene?
Li Xiaomeng: On the net you can check out the websites www. Skate here , kicker club or herskate. But the best way is to to jump on a place and come to China. China was countless amazing spots to skate waiting for you. First heck out Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. I'm sure once your there you can easily web search for nearby skate spots or local skaters. All you need to find is a local skate crew and i'm sure they would be more than happy to take you to different skate spots.
Under the Wall: Who is your favorite Chinese skater?
Li Xiaomeng: Che Lin. A skater from Zhengzhou, Henan. He's seen as the number one skater in China. He won China's first ever gold medal in an international skating completion by winning the (ASK). He's already over 30 years old but still trains intensely everyday. That's why he's killer. Been skating for over 20 years and his technique hasn't faded a bit. He's still game for trying big spots. I have big respect for him.
Under the Wall: Ok, last question. Who is your favorite skater of all time?
Li Xiaomeng: Ryan Shekler. I've like him since I was much younger.