The Ones: Johnny Tang
China’s unofficial skateboarding ambassador talks about building community in a foreign country and instilling passion in the next generation.
Words: Nic Dobija-Nootens
Photos: @HumphriesPhoto & @Cel.Jarvis
“The Ones” celebrates a new generation of defiant, talented individuals. This edition highlights athletes repping the new skate inspired Air Jordan I Low. Click here for more stories.
When professional skateboarders want to skate in China, they usually call Johnny Tang first. Based in Shanghai, Johnny has traveled the country and mapped out the best skate spots in almost every city. Although he only moved to China from Toronto 15 years ago, Johnny quickly became an instrumental part of the skate community there. Today, he’s seen as the country’s unofficial ambassador for skateboarding.
It all started when Johnny got to Shanghai and wanted someone to skate with. Determined not to go solo in a new city, he made it a point to wait around at would-be skate spots and introduce himself to the first skater he’d see roll up. Within a few days, he’d essentially met every other kid who had stepped foot on a board in the city. Johnny may not have known it then, but that simple act of casually linking up with fellow skaters would grow both his talents and the skate scene in China, as whole.
As the community in China grew, so did Johnny’s clout. He eventually got sponsored by Nike SB, and soon after, he started working for the company, too. It made perfect sense for Johnny to be in the mix for The Ones. Through and through, he’s the embodiment of the sport.
What do you think about Jordan Brand collaborating with Nike SB?
Air Jordan Is are my favorite shoes. I grew up skateboarding in a high-top shoe because of the added protection. Anytime I could get my hands on a pair of Air Jordans, I would skate in those. While everyone else is skating in the vulcanized shoe, you have this stylish moon-boot.
Basketball and skateboarding both come from the street. We can do it anywhere we want. It makes sense to have both worlds come together in this project.
Is it true that when you first moved to China, your mom told you to leave your skateboard behind in Toronto?
Yes. So, my skateboard is my baby — my girlfriend. I take it everywhere I go. I want people to know I’m a skateboarder. I was 17 at the time, and I hadn’t been to China since I was nine years old. My mom was like, “Don’t bring it. It’s embarrassing.” All my other family members were going to school and had good grades, and my mom was like, “I don’t want you taking your skateboard, because they’re going to think you’re a bad kid.”
We landed in Hong Kong, and I left my board there. When we got into mainland China, I was blown away, because everything looked like a plaza. There’s perfect marble and perfectly smooth ground; everything looked skateable. I was only without a skateboard for a month. I was in heaven, even though I didn’t have a cloud to stand on. Eventually, my mom called a family member, who picked up my board. Then I was a happy camper.
What does your family think of skateboarding now?
They’re supportive now. At first, my mom hated it, because it took up so much of my time. But once she started seeing that I could make a living for myself — traveling, enjoying myself, meeting so many people — she told me, “I’m so glad you’re doing what you enjoy, because I’ve worked so hard for my entire life. I have all this money saved up in the bank, but I’m not doing anything with it.” And when she said that, I was like, “You should start skating, Mom!”
“Living in China is like living in a giant skatepark that everybody wants to go to.”
Now skateboarders know you as “The Guy” to call when they want to know where to skate in China. Do you enjoy showing skaters around?
Living in China is like living in a giant skatepark that everybody wants to go to. But it’s not very easy, because of the huge language barrier. I want [international] skateboarders to come over and help influence the locals to build a global skate community in China. If these teams from all over the world are coming to Shanghai, I don’t mind taking them around, because one day, I hope to visit their hometowns and not be a loner. It’s a win-win situation.
What’s been the most challenging thing about growing skateboarding in China?
It’s hard to get anyone to start something that’s really hard to do at the very beginning. Rolling on a skateboard is not easy, and getting kids’ attention is also challenging. But part of my job in China is to get kids off their phones and give them a feeling of success every time they stand on a skateboard. If I gave you a fishing rod, and you couldn’t catch a fish on the first day, you would probably give that up. That’s way too easy to do in skateboarding. I want people to enjoy doing it. If you enjoy it, you’ll do it better.
The Air Jordan I Low “Gym Red” is available on Jordan.com and at select retailers in early May.