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HAINAN ISLAND, China (Reuters) - A beginner paddles his surfboard out into Hainan Island's warm waters wearing white gloves, a mask and snorkel. Another has his board back-to-front, while a woman wants to wear her leg rope like a dog collar. Surfing has a long way to go in China but there is no denying the sport has a future here.
A year after the Association of Surfing Professionals held its first event in China on the lush, palm-tree lined island, surfing's popularity has blossomed.
Surf schools have sprouted up, an enormous clubhouse sits on the beach at the main break of Riyuewan Bay and grinning Chinese children ride the waves.
"A lot has happened in those 12 months," Darci Liu, the first Chinese surfer to compete in a pro event when the world longboard title was held on Hainan in 2011, told Reuters.
"We did not know if it was real or not. Maybe no one would care. But there really is interest, even more than I expected.
"It is just so different to Chinese people," the former ballerina added.
"We grow up thinking the ocean is something to be scared of, but people are seeing it can be enjoyed."
The ASP's 2011 debut in China attracted worldwide headlines. Liu was profiled by CNN and the New York Times, perfectly scripted in her role of "dancing across the South China Sea".
Hawaii's Kelia Moniz demonstrated all the elegance and beauty of traditional malibu riding to win the 2012 Swatch Girls Pro China last week, but surfing is the big winner.
"This is just the beginning. No one surfed a couple of years ago but now I think Chinese people are starting to see they don't have to be terrified of the sea," Liu added.
"It is a place to respect and enjoy. We can play out there. People have started coming from the mainland, asking us: 'Can you show us how to surf?' I hope in my lifetime that I see a Chinese surfer as a world champion. I think I will."
A lavish opening ceremony with fireworks and dancers was attended by 10,000 people. Close to 1,000 spectators lined the sand for the first morning of competition at Riyuewan Bay - a year ago three men and a dog had looked on.
Teenagers waxed the underside of their boards instead of the top while tentative adults, raised in the belief the ocean was to be feared, felt salt water on their faces for the first time.
They caught waves on their bellies, knees, sitting down, sideways, wrong ways.
The mayor of Wanning, Wu Mingyang, watched it all with a wide grin.
"The first event was big news on Hainan Island and elsewhere in China but not many people knew about surfing," he said through a translator.
"Now they have seen it happening in Chinese waters and the fascination is here with us. With surfing still being a new sport, we have uncrowded and unspoilt coastline for miles.
"I have enjoyed watching the Hawaiians and the local Chinese wildcard, Darci. I should get some lessons from the girls, though, before I go in the water. I can use all the help with surfing I can get."
An estimated $500,000 was poured into the contest by Swatch and the local government. There was a live, worldwide Internet broadcast and the surfers were treated like royalty.
The poster girl for the event was American Kassia Meador, a photogenic 'goofy-footer' from California. The road from Sanya Phoenix Airport to Riyuewan Bay was dominated by billboards featuring Meador cross-stepping on a tidy left-handed wave.
She helped Liu with training sessions for youngsters, learned the Mandarin for 'Can you surf?' and said surfing's push into China was genuine.
"Being involved in a sport that is young to the Chinese people when to us, it has been around forever, that's blowing my mind," she said.
"When I was growing up, surfing was all about the adventure, finding new places, meeting new people, and that's what we're doing here. There's a bunch of kids surfing now and it's like watching a new seed being sprouted. It's starting to dawn on us all that it's real."
Palm trees and warm water give Hainan the look and feel of Hawaii. Riyuewan is a beginners' paradise. Unthreatening waves and an easy paddle to the lineup.
Before learning to surf, however, most Chinese need to work out how to swim. Education is key. Respect for the ocean. Keeping it clean. The simplicity of technique. Understanding the danger and the joy of waves.
The ASP's General Manager for Australasia, Dane Jordan, surfed solo when he made his reconnaissance mission to Wanning three years ago.
"This trip, I've been out there with 20 local surfers at any one time," he said. "It might sound like a small number but it's a significant rise and a step in the right direction.
"From a historical point of view, it's quite an honor for the ASP to be here. There was a great buzz last year and it opened the eyes of the surfing world to the potential of China.
"No one knew you could surf here. There's probably a billion people in China who didn't know they had great waves on their doorstep."
With huge hotels being constructed the length and breadth of the booming island to accommodate the influx of visitors, contest director, and former president of the ASP, Brodie Carr said he hoped to coastline's beauty would be preserved.
"As surfers, we live in the ocean and I hope the coastline here stays as it is. We've found more waves that no one has surfed and we know there are other places to explore.
"It is all untouched territory as far as surfing is concerned and the potential is enormous."
Carr said the competition on Hainan was just the start of surfing in China.
"If I was looking into my crystal ball at where surfing in China might be heading in 10 to 15 years, my experience through working in the Olympic movement showed that whenever China gets behind something, they do it fast and they do it great.
"In the future I would love to see China represented in long boards and short boards on the men's and women's world tours.
"If that can be achieved, it will be a truly great thing for our sport. A whole new world will be opened up."
Editing by Peter Rutherford