WHITE DREAMS: Snowboarding China with the Kung Fu Kids

Interview by Sam Baldwin
Photos courtesy of Steve Zdarsky/Mellow Parks
Published Jan 2006

ImageThis is the first in the series of WHITE DREAMS, where we get close up and personal with someone who has taken a line less ordinary and has carved themselves a living from snow.

First up, SnowSphere speaks to the Beijing based Austrian, Steve Zdarsky, the head honcho of Mellow Constructions China. Prepare to get jealous; this guy designs, builds and maintains the perfect terrain parks and gets to snowboard everyday on the other side of the world. But he’s not just shoveling snow, he’s shaping the future of snowboarding in China.


SS: We know Mellow Constructions builds and markets terrain parks, and promotes snowboarding events, but why China?
I was involved in the snowboard biz years ago but I had a short break after I hurt myself pretty badly snowboarding so I started to study economics and Chinese. I was a nerd (pretty good student) so the Austrian government sent me to China for a year.

I couldn’t handle not snowboarding for a whole year, so my friends back home sent me my stuff and I went up to the north of China to work as a snowboard instructor (back in 2000). From there everything started because nobody had seen snowboarding before. I got a job at the Nanshan ski resort in Beijing, and survived the first winter.

Then I did some snowboard education for Chinese instructors with the Austrian Snowboard Association, built the first ever half pipe, and a year later the first full terrain park.
ImageWhen did Mellow Constructions start, and how did you get involved?
Mellow Constructions Europe started building terrain parks 6 years ago in Austria. Last season, my old friend Tommi Marsh (the C.E.O. of Mellow Construction Europe) and I hooked up, and now we have Mellow Constructions China and work with Nokia on that project.

Before Mellow China I was involved in a ton of other snowboarding projects in China, but it is not easy to work alone on such a big thing. Tommi was stoked on China and he loves to shop here, so it was the best thing for both of us to combine forces and do something together.

ImageWhere are you from, how did you end up in China, and how’s your Chinese?
I am from a small town called Styria in Austria. I came to China to study the language and now I live there. My Chinese is fluent because I barely have any “foreign” friends and nobody here can speak English. German - don’t even start with that.

What jobs did you do before you started Mellow China?
I’ve worked as a snowboard instructor, an I.J.C. snowboard judge around Europe, the right hand man of Austrian Volcom Distribution and I spent a couple of years behind a bar during my studies.

How did you get into snowboarding?
I was brought up on skis but started snowboarding when I was 11. My dad runs a small ski school back in Austria and after snowboarders showed up at the slopes I had to switch from skis to a snowboard because it was so much more fun. Later on, I worked in his ski school as a snowboard instructor.

Where are you based and how far is it to the mountains?
I’m based in Beijing. It’s about a one hour car drive to the nearest ski area, but during the winter, I relocate to the “mountains” and live there.

ImageWe noticed you called them “mountains” rather than mountains… what’s the story?
Nanshan, where I’m mainly based, is not so much a mountain, as a hill with 100% artificial snow. Wanlong is a real mountain and does have real snow though.

We know you are Mellow head honcho, but are you involved in the actual shaping of the snow, or only the business side?
Dude, I shape and I ride everyday in winter – that is exactly why I do this job!

Is it a full time job? What do you do in the summer?
It’s full time - 24/7 and not only in winter! In winter I am actually not that busy and have time for riding. People always ask me what I do in summer… well, I’m working my ass off to make everybody a sweet winter! Parks and rails, events, sponsors, media work…there is tons of stuff that has to be done.

Talk us through a typical day working at Mellow in winter?
Get up at 7am, out in the park for shaping until at least 9 (depends on the park – I am mostly with the Nanshan team), breakfast (good instant coffee), riding until 12, short lunch-break and checking emails, then 2 till 5 riding and reshaping the park. Home – shower – dinner – pc work until midnight.

That is a “normal” day for me in winter – summer is completely different, plus if we have upcoming events or other stuff I am completely stressed out.

What are the downsides to your job at Mellow?
Having to check emails 24/7.

What does the future hold for Mellow?
We have a 3 year contract with Nokia, Quiksilver and Deeluxe which will hopefully mean another two parks (we want to do the 5 best parks in China – not more) and an even better tour with an even bigger Nanshan open.

What’s the snowboarding scene in China like and what standard is the riding?
ImageThe scene is small. It’s a lot about the pimpin’ and not really the riding and having fun with it. There are only a couple of good riders (with style) – on the other hand there are the kung fu kids who will kick ass in this years Olympics, no idea of snowboarding or what trick they are actually doing, but still spinning like shit. Watch out Shaun White!

Are there many sponsored Chinese riders?
Everyone is a sponsored rider! If you can do a turn you get sponsored! There are not that many people riding yet but all the brands are already here and they need riders to push their brands. In my opinion, the only good “team” is the new Quiksilver team (formerly known as the Nivit team) their riders are pretty good, and I manage the team ha ha!

How popular is snowboarding in China, and does it attract much foreign interest?
It’s getting more and more popular and more and more media coverage. This year we even have a Ticket To Ride competition (a qualifier for Terje Haakosens prestigious event, The Artic Challenge, widely considered the most important competition on the circuit - Ed) coming to China in February 2006! They are working on a quarter pipe contest but here in China they work with the Chinese Ski Association which is a little bit weird.

We hear that there is powder in China but no roads to take you there. Are there plans for ski resort expansion?
There is powder in China (tons I guess) but I have no idea how to get there! No roads or anything. There are tons of new ski resorts appearing every year, but no really good ones lately. The older ones get bigger and better though.

ImageDoes Mellow build all the parks in China?
Last year we did all the parks (because there were no other parks). This winter I hope it will different and everywhere will at least have a kicker or something, otherwise snowboarding will never grow the right way and we’ll only have racers, like they do in Korea.

It must be exciting being on the forefront of snowboarding in a country not traditionally associated with it? How does that feel?
It’s weird, but cool because we help push it in the right direction. There’s a lot of ‘firsts’: first pipe, first rails, first S rails, first pro park etc – it’s cool to be spreading the love overseas.

What kind of problems did you face when trying to get Mellow’s Chinese operation up and running?
Foreigners have tons of problems in China daily but I don’t want to start telling you guys because that would most probably fill a book! I’ve learned to live with that and now I actually miss the problems when everything runs perfectly.

Asia has a potentially huge market for snow sports, do you see Mellow expanding into other countries, like India, Nepal or Mongolia in future?
Asia has huge potential for sure, especially China. Mellow Construction will do some projects in Korea in the near future but that’s it for now. There are only a few of us and quality is more important than quantity. China needs another 10 years to develop its scene and after that… let’s see what’s happening in India or wherever.

Mellow Constructions build parks back in the motherland too, are you involved much in Mellow’s European Operations?
A little bit, but only with graphics work, I am more than busy here. We cooperate on any international projects, but we each have our own teams in the countries in which we work – I am on the China team and China is big.

ImageHow much time do you get to actually just ride the snow?
Pretty much every day during winter and now also in summer because we have a park in the ski dome in Shanghai. Still not enough though…

Is there a backcountry scene in China, or is it all just parks and groomers?
It’s all parks and especially rails – no backcountry. The most powder I’ve ever had here was 25 cm of fresh snow. There will be accessible backcountry riding in the future but first they need roads for that and heli-drops are prohibited at the moment due to governmental issues.

As the planet gets warmer, do you think that countries like China, with their high mountains and northerly latitude will get a larger share of the ski tourist market?
No. Most ski resorts here are light years away from European resorts in terms of size and facilites.

Where’s your favourite place to ride in China and why?
All the Mellow Parks because we build them; Nanshan, Wanlong and the Qixing Snow dome in Shanghai.

ImageWhere else have you ridden?
Outside of China, pretty much everywhere in Europe (Slovenia rocks!) and I had a trip to Korea a couple of years ago. This year I want to go to Japan.

Where’s your favourite place to ride in the world?
Austria of course….

Are snowboarding and skiing affordable in China, or are they only within reach of the upper classes at the moment?
At the moment they are for middle-class people. For example Beijing has 16 million inhabitants, 8 million are middle class so that’s a lot of people that might go snowboarding (or skiing).

ImageHow long have you been in China, do you miss home and do you think you’ll stay in China for the long term?
I’ve been here 5 years, and yes, I miss Austria and my friends like hell, BUT I live here now and my girlfriend is here as well (she’s not Chinese though). I still have a shit load of stuff I want to do and I guess I will end up in China for good, or at least for the next few years.

Are you ‘living the dream’?
Yes, I am living my dream right now.

Thanks Steve and all the best with Mellow’s future projects.
Thanks to Snow Sphere, hope to see you guys sometime soon in China!

For more information about Mellow check www.mellowparks.cn