When there’s a violent typhoon hissing and rattling in the Philippines, Keith Kajioka is a very happy man. And if that typhoon happens to take a turn north, simmer down, and linger awhile on the eastern coast of Taiwan, he’s a very busy man.
Kajioka is a 30-year veteran surfer who moved from his native Oahu to Southern Taiwan five years ago. He came for the waves. “In Hawaii, 99% of the waves are reef breaks,” he says, “but Taiwan has it all—reef breaks, river mouths, point breaks, and sand bars.” And from May to October, Kenting, located on the Hengchun Peninsula in Southern Taiwan, is the sweet spot. A good typhoon will cut off the wind, and just pump out waves for days, sometimes as long as a 10-day swell.
Unlike other Asian surf hubs—Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, the Philippines, and China’s Hainan Island—Southern Taiwan is much quieter. Despite offering top-notch waves for everyone from grommets to pros, its most popular surf beach, Jialeshui, rarely sees a board-busting crowd.
“It feels like old school Hawaii,” says Kajioka, who describes the scene as small, family-oriented, and carefree. “You can leave your windows down while you surf.”
Often referred to as “Tawaii,” Kenting lies at approximately the same latitude as Hawaii, but at Kenting surfing is only just starting to take off. “Most locals grow up being taught that the ocean is dangerous,” says Kajioka.
Attitudes are shifting, however, and a woman is leading the charge. Wenling Chou, better known as Tim Mei, is Taiwan’s top female pro surfer. Ranked 29th in the world, the 25-year-old native of Kenting has been surfing for eight years, and as the first Taiwanese female to go pro, she’s largely responsible for putting her homeland on the world surfing map. When not competing in Australia, the U.K., Thailand, Japan, or West Java, Mei knocks around Kenting in a friend’s scrappy Ninja Turtle green Volkswagen bus that looks straight out of Scooby Doo. In it lies her neon pink surfboard, which has the words “Classic Malibu” stamped on it.
“Good girls don’t get tanned,” grins Mei, speaking of paternalistic Taiwanese mores that discourage athleticism in women. “But they also don’t get to surf in Bali.” She adds: “Taiwan is still very conservative. Even bikinis are still something of a novelty. But things are changing.” And the number of surfers is growing every year. Better grab your board and head down to Kenting before everyone else does.
Keith Kajioka and Sammy Hawkins operate Fu Dog, which offers surf tours, accommodations, and private 2-hour surf lessons, including board rental. See www.fudogsurfhostel.com.