At 36, Jonathan Wong has put in years at his family’s grocery store in Chinatown, cutting vegetables at 13, chopping fish at 16, and then driving a truck at 18, picking up produce at the break of dawn.
“Chinese culture is work hard, get paid,” Wong said in a documentary about his life, “El Chino” made by Max Esposito and Saade Barbar. “The whole 40-hour- week thing is an American attitude. There’s no such thing as overtime in Chinatown.”
The Wong family operates one of the oldest Chinese grocers in the state, tucked away on a narrow one-way street where the air smells of raw fish and the noise — from traffic, conversation, and construction — seems nearly constant. Facing the same life of mundane repetition stacking produce and seafood as his father, Wong embarked on an altogether different second career: making custom surfboards for the burgeoning surf culture in New England.
“When you retire and you get older and people are like, ‘Hey, what did you do your whole life?’ ” Wong said in the documentary, “you want to say, ‘I stacked boxes my whole life,’ or you wanna’ go, ‘Oh, I made surfboards my whole life — got to travel around the world, meet people, hang out. And I got paid doing it.’ ”
Wong first caught the surfing bug at 15, and for years rented boards or fixed up old ones before wanting his own custom board. Unable to find a maker in Boston, he started tooling his own. Over the years what was a sideline hobby has snowballed into a full-blown business, christened Chino Surfboards after his nickname. With support and cautionary advice from his father, he stopped working full time at the family grocery, and last year built 60 custom surfboards that sold from $500 to $1,500 each, and repaired at least 100 for customers.
Though for a niche sport, retail sales of surfing goods have been steadily increasing, to $787 million in 2013, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association. With the nation’s surfing scene focused on the West Coast, Chino is among the few board makers in New England.
Chino is located on the top floor of the nondescript five-story building where his great-grandfather started the family store, Sun Sun Co., in 1934, reached by a rickety elevator and past mountains of storage boxes filled with Chinese antiques, chopsticks, and ramen noodles. It’s a messy — and loud — business, with Wong blaring Pearl Jam and Sublime as he sculpts blocks of foam to suit the subtle dynamics a board needs to cut through rolling water. Each board receives a layer of fiberglass and coats of resin and a finish that needs sanding and polishing.
Wong’s unconventional story has circulated among the surfing clique, helped along by the El Chino documentary, which won an award at the San Diego Surf Film Festival in May. He receives calls from aspiring builders who want to be interns, businesses that want surfboards as decorations, surf clubs and camps in faraway places like Taiwan and Costa Rica looking to network, and even TripAdvisor, which wanted to inspire its employees with the documentary about Chino.
He’s made boards for his friend Sam Lorusso Jr. for five years, who said that Wong has designed surfboards perfectly suited for the smaller, less powerful waves found in New England.
“A lot of other shapers make high-performance boards for high-powered waves,” Lorusso said. “He knows how to make the types of boards for the conditions we normally surf in. He understands what the board needs and he understands my capabilities and he puts it into a surfboard.”
Wong said the surfing part of his life has been just as rewarding, despite occasional bracing conditions. He’s braved winter mornings with frozen hair and numb feet, the temperature dipping to 10 degrees and his wife pouring hot water down his icy wet suit so he could catch the best waves of the season. He’s crashed on friends’ couches in Maine and New Hampshire, appeared at surf festivals in New Jersey and Rhode Island, and hosted loud parties in his Chinatown shop.
“I think I’ve lived a lot more lives than regular people who have regular jobs. I feel lucky,” Wong is quoted in “El Chino.” “Surfing is an escape from reality. To get away from everybody. To get away from the hectic world of living.”
The world reeled Wong back in when his father, Warren Wong, died of liver cancer at age 61 in May. Wong is back downstairs in the grocery, working the aisles of roasted seaweed, lychees, dragonfruit, and Chinese candies, making the dawn run for produce and working as much as 65 hours a week.
The surfing life and second career are on hold for now. He had dreams of growing the business, maybe hiring employees, but for now he’s not taking new requests for surfboards and is extending the build time for the boards he’s making for loyal customers. Between the surf shop, the grocery store, and family, Wong is still sorting out the balance.
“I have to choose which one is more important. I really haven’t made a choice yet,” Wong said. “I need to figure that out.”
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story failed to note that several quotes from surfboard maker Jonathan Wong were taken from comments he made in a documentary film about him called El Chino by Max Esposito.