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TAIPEI (Reuters Life!) - As typhoons bear down on Taiwan in the second half of every year, a few lonely surfers take on the wind-whipped waves, sparking breathless commentary from local television stations.
Once considered crazy, expatriates who throw themselves into the storms, thanks in part to TV limelight, have earned a following among Taiwan people despite cultural aversions to the water and martial law-era restrictions on beach access.
"There are some heads of household who oppose getting in the water, but that's better now than in the past," said Taiwan-born surfer Sung Wen-chung, 51. "Now they see surfing on TV.
"I liked swimming when I was a child and saw foreign friends surfing," added Sung, who has ridden waves for 20 years.
Surging local interest in the sport has also spawned a million-dollar cottage industry, with clusters of board rentals, gear shops and clothiers speckling the island's north and east coasts where the waves hit hardest.
Surfing originated in Polynesia and claims around 20 million enthusiasts worldwide, according to the International World Games Association.
But under Taiwan's almost four decades of martial law, from 1949 until 1987, the military controlled much of the coastline, delaying the growth of a beach culture.
Twenty years later, only four percent of schools on the island require children learn to swim, a 2007 study found, and Taiwanese admit few ever learn the skill.
High waves and fast currents still dominate much of the coast, the government's Taiwan Sports Association warns.
Although sports officials do not promote surfing, Taiwan enthusiasts began waxing down their boards about five years ago and can be seen in crowds of up to 300 at a time.
Some are even beginning to froth angrily about the government's no-surf warnings during typhoons, which bring challenging waves to the east coast.
And they spend money. Taiwan's seven Quiksilver outlets, for example, sell millions of dollars in gear every year, company Taiwan general manager Clayton Wholley said.
"I've lived here eight years, and in that time there's been a huge shift toward surfing because it's the cool thing to do," Wholley said.
Editing by Gillian Murdoch