Nathan Turnbow has heard the story of Wee Wong. To the 19-year-old skateboarder, hanging out today at the Antisocial skateboard shop on Main, Wong is a legend.
“Oh! That dude? I only know two things about him; one is that his kids skate, which is f***ing awesome, and the other one… man, he is really old-school.”
The 48-year-old Wong might be old-school, and even old, but he is revered by Turnbow and his contemporaries as one of the city’s oldest active skateboarders. He is one of the early pioneers of skateboarding culture in Vancouver and has been involved in growing the community from an underground sport to a popular family activity.
California skate history
It was in California in the 1950s when surfers discovered that the street was a place where they could emulate surfing on days when there were no waves. It only required some imagination: taking the handlebars off a scooter or attaching some wheels to a plank in the shape of a surfboard.
By the 1970s, skateboards had gone from being self-built to mass production. Wong first picked up one of the new manufactured skateboards as a child in the 70s. He had just moved to Canada from Hong Kong and he learned about the emerging California skate culture from reading underground magazines.
“When I started I got one of these plastic boards…which weren’t very big or wide and… you rolled ten feet on balance and you were happy, you know, that’s how it was back then,” said Wong, who still skateboards regularly but now earns a living running a car-repair shop.
It was the first time that urethane-wheeled skateboards were available for Vancouverites, which vastly improved safety and maneuverability compared to steel or clay wheels.
In California, skaters often rode their boards inside empty swimming pools. Vancouverites didn’t have many pools, so they had to get creative and find new places to ride. As more young people started buying the new devices, they ended up building their own ramps and indoor parks where dozens of teenagers gathered to train.
The Vancouver scene
This led to an unexpected skateboarding boom in Vancouver that reached a peak in 1978, around the time the legendary skate-photographer Jim Goodrich visited the city. He took some pictures of Wong, one of which was published on the Skateboarder, a magazine in California.
According to Wong, the ’70s wave didn’t last long, mostly due to interference from the City of Vancouver.
“There was a ramp at Thurlow and Nelson, but some kid got his leg broken and politicians said ‘Ah! Too dangerous!’ So they shot it down. The same thing happened with ‘Skatepalace’ indoor park. They said it didn’t meet fire regulations so it was closed,” he said.
The city closed many parks during the late 70s and early ’80s. It became a predictable routine, with skaters building ramps at night, and police tearing them down in the morning.
That is one of the reasons why the scene almost faded away in the ’80s. Wong stopped skating at that time, and he didn’t ride again for 20 years.
“I didn’t have anywhere to skate. I could always go to Seylynn in North Vancouver or China Creek but they were far, and I could always do freestyle skating but that wasn’t my thing. Many of us were growing-up kids, so we started doing other stuff. I got involved with cars, got a job and it just happened.”
The outlaw sport
Carlos Longo, a 47-year-old skater, remembers how the relationship with police was during those days.
“There was a time when politicians were just trying to shut down skate parks. After that, in the ’80s and ’90s, cops were giving out tickets to everyone,” he said. So skateboarders even had an informal contest to see who could get more tickets. “The whole point was, ‘Why are you chasing us?’ It’s such a waste of time when they could actually be doing police work whatever it is.”
Skateboarding has since passed from being an outlaw sport often related to drugs, graffiti, and crime to now being a socially accepted family event. According to Wong, the great irony is that the difficulty the city had in controlling skateboarders actually led to a practical solution from the city itself with the creation of skate-parks.
Today, Vancouver owns nine public skate-parks and it’s viewed as one of the most important destinations for skaters in the world. All over the city, people from different ages, genders, religions and nationalities ride skateboards through its streets.
Wong says the the new skate parks haven’t been important only for Vancouver. They’ve also changed his life, in recent years.
“One day in 2003, my oldest son was curious about skateboarding, so I took him to a park and, when I saw that deep-end bowl, I knew I had to try it again, I just felt it. I was 40 and it was one of the best decisions I have made.”
Two decades after he walked away from skateboarding, Wong has once again become a recognizable face on the Vancouver scene, this time with his son by his side.