Tommy Zhao is a battery. Everyday he wakes up fully-charged and everyday he depletes himself by whatever means necessary. He’ll do whatever it takes, whether it be riding his bike to work; skating Binjiang, climbing rocks in Zhejiang, and traveling to remote parts of China to film, produce, and edit one of the best (if not the best) 30-minute Shanghai skate videos. He convinced his homies to move to a different country, even convinced Bill and Dave to run with him at Binjiang, all while managing a team of people at Vans, and still finding the time to meet up for an interview on rainy Friday night and buying the beers. How does one manage to have so much energy? Probably by enjoying the process of exerting that energy. Supposedly that’s how you get good at things, and Tommy’s a testament to that.
Read on for a Q&A with the man himself.
Part 1: Coming to China
What year did you come to Shanghai? What brought you here?
I moved here in October 2008. I think I just crossed the 13 year mark. The one word answer as to what brought me here would be skateboarding. I always had an attraction to Shanghai because, when I was younger, my parents moved all of us from Pennsylvania to Suzhou. I think it was ‘97 or ‘98, and we moved there for about 2 years. I was 10 or 11. I moved here at the end of 6th grade, and did 7th grade here. They didn’t have 7th grade in Suzhou, so I had to go to school at SAS in Shanghai (Shanghai American School). It’s crazy but Jiba Dan (Dan Leung) also went there.
Coming to Suzhou at that time, I hadn’t really skated yet. There was another kid in our international community in Suzhou who had a skateboard maybe, but I got into BMX first. When we moved back to the states, I think it was in 2000, we moved back to Delaware, and I was in 8th grade, then I got into skateboarding.
Later in high school, I came to Shanghai with a friend. I think we were in 11th grade, so probably 15-16 years old. We were travelling for a month, mostly in Shanghai, but also to Beijing, and my parents’ hometown in Anhui province. We were on our own, probably about 15 years old, so much freedom. Just imagine taking the train; it was so much fun. We brought our boards and skated. I think I board-slided a crazy rail in Anhui. I think that’s where the fascination with the place really took hold.
I did college in the states, but the whole time I was captivated by Shanghai, and kept thinking “I gotta get back out here.” There must be crazy skate spots. When I graduated in 2008, I looked for jobs on Craigslist (in Shanghai), and anything I could find to come out. The first thing I found was IconX. They told me “if you can get a flight, we can get you a visa”. At that time flights were around 800 bucks. I came over, [and] they got me a visa. I worked there for about three weeks, and decided it wasn’t for me. But right after I landed, I met all the skaters at LP, and you could say the rest is history.
After you quit IconX, what was the plan?
I didn’t really have a plan; just wanted to skate every day. I brought a Canon GL1 or 2 with me, maybe with a Mark 2 fisheye. At the time, Nike SB and Fly (a local skate shop) were making their first video, which was later known as “It’s A Wrap”. They were looking for a filmer, so I reached out to them, and let them know I film, edit, make videos. It turns out I was in the right place at the right time, and I started filming everyone, and it was kind of the first real skate video to come out of China. Now we’re at about 2008-09ish, and Vans had also just entered the market. They reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to film for them, so of course I said yes! How could you pass up something like that?
At the time, how were you getting paid? Did you even get paid?
I didn’t think about the future at that point. I would have done it regardless. Jeff at Fly was hooking it up with 1000-1500 RMB a month, just barely enough to scrape by each month. My rent at the time was maybe 1200 RMB, at Changle & Fumin Rd. I don’t know how I made it work but I did.
The First Video: Something Sinister
Did you start filming for Something Sinister while you were working for Vans, or when did this happen in relation to you coming to Shanghai?
I think Something Sinister came out in 2014. So I had been in Shanghai for 5 years by then. I had finished “It’s A Wrap”, and I had done a lot of freelance stuff for brands coming into the scene, [like the ones] coming to Shenzhen. I was doing stuff more freelance for Vans, so not that stable – project to project. It was more like when I came out here, I realized how much potential skateboarding had here, I just wanted my friends to experience it with me.
I had a crib, so I got a bunch of dudes to come out.
How did you get those dudes out here? That’s a mission. It’s hard enough to get even 1 or 2 friends to come if we’re talking about a trip from the States.
When I left the States, that summer, Fallen’s Ride the Sky had premiered. I realized that when I went to China, I was gonna be skating those spots. I didn’t have to convince anyone; I just told them I had a crib, and they could crash. They booked their flights super quickly once they realized the kind of spots they’d get to skate.
The first dude that came out was Peacock. He came out here, we shredded, we did our thing, he went home. When he was out here, he met all the DC homies. At the time, they told him if he wanted to ride for DC, they could give him a monthly stipend and product. So that’s how Peacock came back. This was a few years later, like 2012-13. We did some DC stuff, and I had lots of friends from Delaware here; we were skating and filming every day. So it was natural for us to want to do a full length film. I could not have asked for a better situation in terms of pure freedom to skate and film. There were skate spots, there was great food, all my homies from back home were here too.
Was there a point during the filming for Something Sinister that you foresaw the impact that it would have, not only on Shanghai but also the world?
I don’t think so. It was more about showing the world what our skate scene was all about. At the time, it was just teams that would come, film, and bounce. Not so many teams would come hang, get to know the local scene. I wanted to show the world who was skating in Shanghai, and that there was a real scene here. There were really dudes skating here, dudes like Boss, Jeremy, etc. Would it lead to an influx of skate tourism? I wasn’t sure and I didn’t care. I was always hoping the video would get Peacock some recognition, and I’m happy it was a good stepping stone for him in getting to where he is now.
What influences were you drawing upon when you made that video?
Nothing from skate videos. It was hard to get skate videos back then. Youtube was starting to get popular, but I didn’t have a smartphone until years after Something Sinister. That was when DVD stores were still a big thing in Shanghai. My friend Joel has really good taste in old movies, and we watched this film called The Shadow when he was visiting, and that’s what inspired all the “sinister” laughs, and ultimately the whole mood of the film. I’d say that’s the main reference. I just loved the mood of it.
It was relatable because it showed pieces of Shanghai – overall super glamorous, yet it also has its dark corners. I recorded everyone’s attempt at a sinister laugh. I can’t really say it’s my video though, it was a collaborative effort, I couldn’t have done it without them.
When you were filming for Something Sinister, how did you balance the responsibility to film and the urge to skate yourself?
There’s not really a point where I go into “filmer mode”. I don’t film with softer wheels or anything, I’m out there with my normal board. If someone’s about to get something, the camera’s coming out. If I got a trick, someone would be down to film me. We all could film ourselves. Maybe I was the main filmer, but anyone could do it. It truly was a collaborative effort. We were all rooting for each other.
Shanghai’s New Skatepark
I want to talk about the new skatepark near Binjiang. I heard that you were involved with this project. How did that come about?
That skatepark, I don’t know who first got wind of it, and how Vans got a look at the design, but there was a conversation going with Vans and the park design company. When I finally saw it, I realized nobody would want to skate it. It looked like a street league park, totally for contests. I told them it would get way better use if we had input from local skaters and found out what they wanted to skate. I asked them to give me some time for feedback, and they needed it asap. So I put a quick group chat together and asked a bunch of locals to send me photos of stuff they’d want to skate. Peacock sent me a photo of Stoner Park in LA. I posted a photo of the slappy ledges at Hongqiao. We sent it off, and we also got California Skateparks to be the designer, instead of the original designer. They did a few rounds of design, and we got to something more fun. The design now has flow, whereas something designed for street league is more linear.
Do you know what the plan is with opening it up to the public? Is it going to be a private training facility? How is that going to work out?
Unfortunately I haven’t been a part of those discussions. I’ve heard rumours that they’re gonna charge 120 RMB (about $19 USD) per hour, but I don’t agree with that. That’s not how you uplift a skate scene. It should be either free, or maybe 5-10 bucks for a session. Who can pay $20 USD to skate a park for an hour? That’s nuts to think you’re making a park to make a profit. You should make a park like you’re making a basketball court, or soccer field – to build a community.
From what I hear, the park is owned by the Huangpu district government. They hired a management company, which has goals to make money on it, but the management has been working with skate companies like TurnPro, who have talked with us and tried to reach a solution.
What’s the story behind Postcard?
We’re a creative media production house. We do everything from photography, documentaries, to commercials and small events, but not that many commercials. Essentially, it’s a passion project between Patrik Walner and myself. Patrik and I have been travelling all over the world for skateboarding for almost 12 years now. We’ve done trips to Kazakhstan, Cuba, all over the place. It was a natural thing for us to want to take our skills, and this thing that we love, and continue to do it. Maybe sometimes we’ll make some money from a commercial, then use it towards another passion project. It was about creating the kind of stories we want to share with the world. That’s how the name “Postcard” came about. We’re travelling and we want to send postcards to our friends, people we love. It was a really natural thing.
The world isn’t ideal sometimes, and there’s lots of discrimination, but for most people, if we could get together and share a coffee, a beer, we’ll find we’re a lot more similar than we are different. If we could share more of that and make people appreciate our similarities instead of debating our differences, then it would be much more fun.
You get that excitement from going places that are different. Why would you want to go somewhere that’s the same, to meet people who are the same as where you live now? Don’t you want to experience and learn something new when you travel?
Yeah, you have this mission, and you want to notice the differences. But as skateboarders, you’re not tuning into the big differences…
Thoughts on Life in China
You’ve lived in China for quite a long time, how do you feel about the tradeoff you make when you’re here between rights that you may have had in the country you came from, and the convenience you experience here? How do you feel about this? Do you even think about it much?
I think the best way for me to answer this is that there’s a lot of advantages and disadvantages to wherever you live, it doesn’t matter where. It’s the same if you live in the States, Europe, Asia, etc. When the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, I’ll bounce. But I know what I’m signing up for when I go somewhere, for me that’s what I accept. For me, this is still the most exciting city in the world, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.
Everyone has different priorities, but I’ve been to many places in the world, and I still haven’t felt like I’d rather live there than Shanghai. You know what I mean? Maybe when my priorities change, but for now, I’m still excited to be here, in Shanghai, in China.
I saw you posted some photos of Tibet in the summer. How was that?
It wasn’t Tibet. It was Yubeng, [which is ] in Yunnan province. I went there with Ryan and J-Mart. We flew to Shangri-La, and it’s about a 4 day hike. It’s one of the most beautiful hikes you can take if you’re into nature. I think there’s a minority group out there too. You feel like you’re in Switzerland. It’s beautiful.
So it’s the possibility of going to places like these that keep it exciting here too, would you say?
I would not have gone there if it wasn’t for Covid. We’re fortunate that China is such a massive country. We have the deserts of the Northwest, you have the diversity of Yunnan in the south, crazy cities, and the island of Hainan too. It’s strange. I would not have gone to some of these places if I wasn’t forced to only travel domestically. But it has everything that you really want to do in the past 2 years. I wanted to climb a mountain, so last October holiday I climbed Haba mountain in Yunnan. That was 5400 meters. I’m not a mountaineer, don’t know what I’m doing, but there’s enough here that keeps me challenged, even outside of skateboarding.
This brings me to another topic, diversifying outside skateboarding. You recently got into rock climbing, right? How long have you been doing it and what got you into it?
My friend in Delaware got me into it when we were in college, we had a big gym at the university. But I didn’t really get into it for real until last year, when my friend Kyoko started bringing me to gyms in Shanghai. She was climbing with Erik, so I started going on trips with them, and that kinda sparked it up, and I was going through a weird transition, thinking: “oh what do I do, I’m stuck in this country, should I get a full time job, should I try something new?” Maybe skating wasn’t as enjoyable anymore, so having something else to do, like climbing, was perfect for that.
I find it really similar to skating, actually insanely similar. The other night I was at a gym, which is like a skatepark for me, and climbing outside is like the streets for skating. So I was at the gym, and I tried this route for over an hour, and my fingers were bleeding. It’s the same as going to a ledge and trying a kickflip backside tailslide for over an hour and not getting it. It’s the same feeling. It’s technical, and it’s mental. It’s just you against yourself.
When you try something, a route, for an hour, and you get it, is it the same as skateboarding where you feel like “I got it, I’m sitting down now, I’m chillin”?
It’s exactly the same as skateboarding. I sit down, I chill, but sometimes you wanna do it twice to make it count.
How’s the climbing scene out here?
I’m kind of a poser, I’m not that into the scene. I don’t care. I do it for myself. Sometimes with skateboarding you see a dude who rolls up to the spot, doesn’t care, just trying to get it. Now I’m that dude with rock climbing.
I’ve seen you jogging at Binjiang before – you, Bill and Dave. What else do you do to keep your body healthy?
It’s more of a mental thing. I’m not trying to get drunk every night. I’m too old for that. Every day I wake up and I’m a Duracell battery, and it’s fully charged, and I’m trying to deplete that, so I can go to sleep and have a full charge the next day. But if I don’t, and I go to sleep with half a battery, then I’m not going to go to sleep cause I’m not tired.
So every day my goal is to get tired. What’d I gotta do [to achieve that]? If I gotta go to the gym, if I gotta ride to work, if I gotta go skate, [then that’s fine]. I gotta do something. I’m not one of those dudes who can just play video games all day. I respect people who do that, but that’s just not for me. I need to burn out before I finish the day.
People have said they don’t like vacations with me. I go on vacation to do shit. I can’t sit on a beach all day. If I do that, I’m bored out of my mind. I gotta go out and earn that beer. I can’t sit there. I’d rather not go.
We need to appreciate this as young people. When we get old, we may not have as much of a battery to power us through those activities. But for now, we can use it to do fun things. Why not push it and enjoy this energy?
(Tommy goes to get more beers).
Thank you man (for the beer). I got one more for you. This is gonna go on ShanghaiSpots.com, which is about documenting Shanghai Skate Spots. What Shanghai skate spots are you hyped on?
Hongqiao plaza, straight off the bat! It’s probably the best spot, maybe in all of China right now. Not only that, but that plaza is better than any skatepark in China. How is that possible? Something they built not meant for skating ends up being better for skating than any park here. It’s nuts.
Don’t get me wrong, I love LP. I spent 10 years skating there. It was great, it was in the center of the city. It was all you needed. But is LP a better spot than Hongqiao Plaza? I don’t think so! If you had Hongqiao Plaza in downtown, that’s a wrap! I’m getting an apartment right next to it, 100%. Seriously, there is no better spot than that right now. It’s crazy how good it is.
The second part of my question is: what’s your secret spot? Where do you skate when you don’t wanna go far, or just skate by yourself?
If I’m gonna hit a spot, it’s gonna be the Binjiang ledge. I recently started a full time job, so it’s really cut down on the amount of free time I have which has made me appreciate the free time I do have. If I wanna skate, then I’m gonna go there. Usually somebody’s there, probably Andrea. Ride my bike there, skate the ledge, skate flat, ride my bike back. You got water, the boats, it’s alive. I like it.
This is definitely a spot that people meet at.
It’s the new LP. Like it or not, people not from Shanghai are gonna go there first.
“That ledge is better than anything we had in Delaware.”
Cool man, those are all the questions I had for you. Thank you man.
Follow Tommy Zhao on Instagram: @zhaopower
Photos by Patrik Wallner: @patrik_wallner
Postcard’s Official Website: https://thepostcard.co/