Show Us Your Quiver – Arne Jin An Wong
Affection, peace, compassion,mercy, teaching and sharing. That aloha spirit is the essence of Arne Jin An Wong.
However, Arne’s story is rich and remarkable, and inextricably intertwined with the history of surfing in San Francisco. It began when getting to his favorite after-school break required a hike down a rocky slope, before wastewater-pollution control plants were erected, before the advent of the Internet and cell phones, and before wetsuits and high-performance shortboards.
Arne’s parents came to San Francisco from Toisan, China, but he was born and raised in the city and began surfing San Francisco’s frigid waters in the 1960s.
When classes at the Richmond District’s Washington High School let out, a rambunctious yet innocent Arne and his friends would dash away from the bustling city and head downward, toward the raw and open Ocean Beach. They would ultimately end up at Kelly’s Cove, right below the Cliff House, and “clock in.” There, Arne would help gather wood for a bonfire, catch up with friends and prepare himself to surf wearing nothing more than shorts.
Then, unlike now, San Francisco surfing was distinctly a group effort. It required friends to gather wood, friends to bring their lumbering boards, friends to watch over the hot fire, friends to help retrieve leashless, bobbing boards in the shoals, and friends to watch out for each other. There were no wetsuits, so it was essential that there was a fire prepared to keep the surfers warm when they managed to get themselves back on shore. Everyone took a turn. After someone caught their one wave and sometimes swam back in, it was time to share the board, and hand it off to the next guy waiting his turn, around the fire.
It was this kind of ritual, this group effort, that instilled Arne with a sense of sharing and community. No single man or woman could pull off surfing in this environment, with the equipment of the day, without the serious risk of hypothermia. It was the presence and warmth that the group brought that allowed them all to persevere, have fun as kids and be part of something bigger than themselves on the San Francisco’s western edge.
Today, Arne is married, has a daughter and lives his life in this spirit of sharing and community. An active artist, he’s a teacher at The Academy of Art and Expression Art College, where he instructs students in animation.
Arne is heavily involved in the BalikBayod project, which uses the allure of surfing as an incentive for kids in the Philippines to do well in school. He donates his skills as an artist to help raise money to fix up beat-up boards here, then ship them out to the Philippines. Youths enrolled in the program are loaned boards as long as they keep up their grades.
Arne is also the main organizer of the Kelly’s Cove reunion, a gathering of old-school Kelly’s Cove surfers that has become an annual tradition every fall at Ocean Beach.
Here’s what Arne had to say about some of his favorite surfboards, in his own words:
Morey-Pope shaped by John Peck, 1965
It’s a double stringer, and look at the tail. … It’s got that old classic tail. This was in the Pedro Point contest. … This board has been handed back and forth at this beach here because it’s a local board. It ended up in someone’s garage for a long time. … The guy who owned it didn’t want it anymore, and he said, “I’ll trade you for it,” so I gave him a soft-top for it, and he let me have this!
This one really is a knee-paddler. I took it out to Bolinas and I actually knee-paddled it. I hadn’t knee-paddled a board since the ’60s and it’s like a whole [different] world. We used to always knee-paddle before the shortboard. And those days, everyone knee-paddled, and that’s how we would go out without a wetsuit. You really didn’t get wet until you wiped out. So no matter what the weather was, if you knee-paddled, you’re out of the water, and you could catch the wave knee-paddling and then ride it, but once you wiped out, that’s it, it was over. And there’s no leash. … So if you washed up on the beach, you let the next guy have it and let the next guy have a chance. … Back then everyone borrowed boards.
OBB: How many guys were surfing in San Francisco at this time?
There wasn’t that many. When I was there as a grommet, there were about 10 or 15 of us grommets and a few older guys we used to follow that took us under their wing and tell us about surfing. Then there was another generation of 10 or 15 and then there was another generation that was less, and each generation older was less and less. And the older guys like Stan Ross, they were mat surfers, they didn’t even surf on surfboards. They surfed on mats. They had these giant air mattresses and they would go out on 20-foot days and drop in on them.
Modified Bill Hickey, 1975
This is the oldest board I have. I’ve surfed this right here in Kelly’s Cove and I took it with me everywhere I went, except Hawaii. … All around Southern California. …
These were single-fin boards back then. This one is loose, it gives. That was before the tri-fin boards were coming in.
Guy Okazaki pintail
This has a pretty mild rocker and soft rails. … I gave [Guy Okazaki] the color plan. I had this board made in Venice Beach. I lived right on Venice Beach on 20th and Speedway. There was a break right out in front. It was the perfect Southern California surf pad. …
I ran my own company back then. I made TV commercials as an animator. … When I had my own studio, that’s when I would just surf whenever I wanted, and I had a shop, and there were people working in it. I’d just show up and came and went when I wanted, and I had my boards at my work, or at home. It was just like that back then. I’d say, “The surf’s up, see you in a couple of hours.”
When I first started surfing, we had longboards, then we went long to short. And when we went long to short, it was an innovative time, it was an exciting time. … We were like cutting boards turning them into all kinds of shapes. … So board shapes were going through a lot of changes, and they mellowed out into something like that [ Here Arne points to an Al Merrick Channel Island thruster] … and they kind of stayed like that. …
When I saw this board, I said, “Now here’s an innovation,” and not a lot of people liked it. … It was a shortboard bottom with a longboard top. So [Wise Surfboards] had one for tryout and I took it out, and what was great was that I could paddle [like on a] longboard so I could get out easily, and I could take off way before shortboarders even started … and once I got up, I got the shortboard turning. … The problem is when you get to the middle, … you start to slow down … so you can only stand all the way at the top, or all the way at the back, and there’s no middle. That’s the drawback on that board.
People constantly stop me and ask me, “What is that,” but I was at Marin Surf Shop, and hanging on the wall is a 7’0″ version of this that was made in the ’70s. Somebody had thought of this back then, but it just never flew, and then I saw in Surfer Magazine a collection of boards from Dave Bellsey, an old shaper from the ’60s, he actually made a board like this, so Meyerhoffer isn’t the first guy.
Al Merrick Channel Island thruster
This board here is the Channel Islands board. This one belonged to a friend of mine, Mark Jones. He died of leukemia. He and I used to surf all the time at Malibu. When he died his wife gave me his wetsuit and his board. … It’s a special board, and I’m riding it for him. Whenever I go out with it, I always say to myself “Mark, I’m riding this for you.” He was so young, only 30-something. …
We met doing Tai Chi at a Tai Chi school in L.A. He came up to me and asked me, “Are you Arne Wong? the guy who did the cartoons?” because I made surf cartoons. … I’m infamous in the surf world because I made the first surf cartoon in 1969 that played in “The Natural Art.” …
I made a couple more surf cartoons … and after that no one wanted any more, so I stopped and went to L.A. to become an animator. … Everyone remembered the surf cartoons. … Laird Hamilton, on an interview with Oprah, he say,s “When I was about 8 years old, I saw this cartoon of this guy on this wave,” and he said, “I gotta do that!” … So the cartoon kind of inspired people.
OBB: When so many other guys have dropped out and are no longer surfing, why are you still doing it? What has kept you coming back?
For me, surfing is my religion. … My father is from China. When they came here, they just put us in the nearest church. They kept moving every four years. … What they didn’t know was that every church was different. … As I got to the fifth one, they were all using the same book, but telling different stories, so I never really got that. …
So as I got older, it was through surfing, this guy David Elfick who made “Morning of the Earth,” that surf film, … he gave me a book about Tao Te Ching, which is about the Chinese philosophy, the Tao. … And it was through that I got a sense that there is something to spirituality and the mysteries of life and it coordinated with surfing. …
After that, I got involved in some Native American stuff, and sweat lodges and vision quests, and again, it was all similar to surfing. … And after that, I realized that surfing really was my religion, and the church is in the tube and paddling and surfing is all about the prayer. … Passion and inspiration, that’s what keeps you alive, keeps you young, and when I jump in the water I’ve got this big smile, and it’s like I’m back to being 15 every time.
All photos: Tom Prete / Ocean Beach Bulletin