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Skating the People's Square

SHANGHAI: As the town booms, ex-pat and Chinese skaters find a respite from the commercial blizzard in a small corner of the Communist parade ground

Shanghai is the fast-beating heart of China’s aggressively consumerist cultural body—the ultimate commercial city of the contemporary world—dotted with unlicensed Apple stores and awash with ubiquitous fake LV bags. Supersized, fluorescent advertising billboards mounted on boats cruise down the Bund after dark, championing specific brands of soft drinks or heartburn medicine while painting the river neon bright. In modern-day Shanghai, authenticity is a rare commodity, found only in the city’s hidden pockets. One such pocket is a lively corner of People’s Square, colloquially named Love Park, the unofficial hub of Shanghai’s diverse skate scene. 

In December 2010, China-based filmmaker Charles Lanceplaine first brought global audiences to Love Park with his striking documentary Shanghai 5, depicting the uncharted territory of a city’s emergent skateboarding landscape as seen through the eyes of a ragtag crew of local skaters. One of those skaters was Johnny Martinez, graphic designer and photographer, who reassures us that a vibrant skate scene is still alive and kicking in the Chinese metropolis two years on, not just as a lifestyle, but a vehicle of diversity. “Skateboarding in Shanghai brings together a mix of nationalities and backgrounds,” he says. “In my crew, we’re all pretty different from each other. The local homies and the expats both add a little bit of their own style to the scene.”

Love Park, is a varied terrain. Framed by the waxy marble walls on the fringes of the Shanghai Concert Hall, an assortment of ledges and steps wind all around the park, inviting kick-flips and grinds. And just as varied is the crowd it draws. For a Shanghai skater, whether you’re a sponsored pro or just a kid with a board getting into it, LP is the place to link up. While the city is full of contrasting elements—old traditions and new cultures, expat communities and local scenes—they don’t always fit together comfortable and organically, but Love Park has a way of meshing things together. People come here to skate, film, hang out and take it easy—work on some new tricks and crack open a beer with mates. Passer-bys snap photos on their mobile phones. A bunch of teenagers hang around watching a guy in a shirt and tie doing ollies up a metre-high flight of stairs on what appears to be his lunch break. “In China, it seems most people have an open-minded perception of skateboarding,” explains Johnny. “This makes for rather interesting sessions. Mostly, you don't get kicked out of spots. People are actually quite curious and stop to watch, sometimes creating pretty big crowds.” 

Shanghai resident since 2008, Johnny (known on the web as J Mart) has been documenting the tricks and antics of Shanghai skateboarders with his trusty iPhone or Canon 550D and generating plenty of hype on Weibo—China’s alternative to Twitter—along the way. For skateboarding updates around the country, he also recommends At the moment, he’s working on a series of small clips called ‘DailyDozens’: 1 skater, 1 day, 1 location, 12 tricks. Each one is filmed at a different local hotspot, showcasing the unique environments of the city as well as the diverse talent (which includes local greats such as Jay MeadorBoss Xie and Chu Wei). It’s clear to see that in a very raw and grassroots social media kind of way, the skateboarding community here is transcending barriers and proving non-commercial, non-conformist sub-cultures can emerge and thrive in the heart of modern-day Shanghai. And Love Park isn’t the only spot that’s attracting skaters these days. Before he signs off, JMart gives me a full run-down of the city’s best sites for skating—a mix of old haunts and new developments that are sure to keep Shanghai’s distinctive skateboarding scene busy for a long time to come.