Uemura's turnaround from drugs a classic story
By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer
|China Uemura will host his 20th annual Longboard Surfing Classic this weekend at Kuhio Beach in Waikiki.
Andrew Shimabuku The Honolulu Advertiser
It's kind of like imagining Hawai'i without waves.
But that's where Uemura's life was headed around 25 years ago when he got involved in what he describes as "an insane world" of drugs.
"A lot of people don't know that part about me because it's in the past," said Uemura, 49. "But I was a bad dude. I was doing drugs, I was selling drugs, I was strong-arming guys for money. Basically, I lost my friends and my family because of that."
It's hard to imagine because Uemura is now one of the most beloved figures in the longboard surfing world. Ask almost any longboard surfer in Hawai'i about "Uncle China," and chances are they'll at least have heard of him.
This weekend, he will host China Uemura's 20th annual Longboard Surfing Classic at Kuhio Beach, Waikiki. It is a milestone he said he never thought he could reach.
"People who knew me when I was young cannot believe I'm still doing this," he said. "Sometimes, I cannot believe I'm still doing this."
Through it all, Uemura was a talented longboard surfer. During the 1970s, he was one of Hawai'i's best. He competed on the world tour and won several national titles.
But even that, he said, was somewhat of a facade.
"I would actually drink a case of beer before I went out to surf my heat," he said. "I don't know how I was winning."
His salvation came shortly after his two children were born. Daughter Kanoelani is now 24; son Kekoa is 21.
"I thought about my lifestyle back then, and I knew it happened for a reason," he said. "After my kids were born, I knew I had to turn it around."
So he turned to the sport he knew best longboard surfing. In 1985, when Kanoelani was 4 and Kekoa was 1, Uemura called on his connections in the surf industry to help him run a contest.
But first, Uemura caught a wave out of the drug world. Then slowly but surely, his friends came back.
The contest is now one of Hawai'i's most popular surfing events, annually drawing more than 300 entries.
He likes to say that it is his way of giving back to the surfing community that supported him during his heyday. But it also served as a way for him to fend off personal demons.
"I've been doing this for 20 years now, and the best feeling I get is seeing all the kids grow and become something," Uemura said. "I went down some wrong paths when I was young, so I want to try and do my part to keep these kids straight."
Some of those former "kids" are now Hawai'i's best professional longboard surfers, including his son Kekoa, who placed second this past weekend in the Nokia International Longboard Bear Championships in France.
"It goes by so fast," Kekoa said. "I remember being a little kid and surfing all day at the contest. Now, I do what I can to help my dad run it and I'm watching all the little kids surf all day."
Former world champion Bonga Perkins entered the first China Uemura contest in 1985.
"China opened doors for so many of us," said Perkins, 31. "When I was a kid, there weren't that many big events for longboarding, so we all looked forward to his one."
Uemura now says: "This contest will go on forever. As long as I'm alive, my wife is alive, my kids are alive, we'll find a way to keep it going."
And it's not just because of the kids, or his own family, or the close-knit community of longboard surfers.
Through the 20 years of the contest, Uemura has never made a single cent. Every year, he donates the proceeds to a charity. This year, the recipient will be the American Diabetes Association.
"I'm not rich, but I have money," Uemura said. "These organizations need the money more than me and my family."
Over the previous 19 years, the contest has raised more than $100,000 for the charities.
In 1997, Uemura created China Uemura's Wahine Surfing Classic a separate event just for female surfers. That contest also donates to charity, whether there are proceeds or not.
"The first two years, not that many girls came out," Uemura said. "So me and my wife gave $1,000 out of our own pocket those first two years. I would have been too shame to tell them I couldn't give them anything."
Last month, China Uemura's eighth annual Wahine Surfing Classic drew more than 250 entries, making it the largest all-female surfing event in the nation.
Uemura said he expects to present a check of more than $9,000 to the Sex Abuse Treatment Center of the Kapi'olani Medical Center.
"There's no such thing as enough when you're talking about a good cause," he said.
Uemura is quick to say that the contests are not run by his family alone. Every year, more than 20 companies provide financial support to keep the events going.
Alan Hoshino, owner of AKH Constructioning, has been sponsoring Uemura's contests for more than 15 years.
"It's a worthy cause," Hoshino said. "When you give him the money, you know he'll do something good with it."
Because of all his contributions to the longboard surfing world, Uemura is often referred to in the media as a "legend." It is a title he is not comfortable with yet.
"It's an honor," he said. "But I don't feel like I'm a legend. I'm not doing this to be called a legend. But I do want people to remember this contest."
Twenty-five years after living a life with no friends, Uemura now has so many friends that he can't keep up with the names and faces.
"Every year, I put aside 500 (contest) T-shirts just for my family and friends, and that's not enough," he said. "I just have so many people to thank for getting me this far."
China Uemura's real first name is Roy. He was nicknamed China in elementary school because he said he had a "rice bowl haircut."
Both of China Uemura's contests are held during the summer at Kuhio Beach, Waikiki, because that's where he learned to surf.
China Uemura's wife, Fran, does all the paperwork for the events. His children are from a previous marriage.
All competitors in this weekend's contest must ride a surfboard at least 9 feet long.
Reach Dayton Morinaga at email@example.com or 535-8101.