Early every morning, longboard surf legend Roy "China" Uemura parks his blue van and sets up post at Ala Moana Beach Park.
There are no regular hours at his "office," which is pretty much a second home for the semiretired surfer whom most folks at the beach refer to as "Uncle China."
Uemura, 59, father of two and grandfather of three, has for years been offering free stand-up paddling lessons at the beach park, loaning boards to students of all levels.
"This is what keeps me going," he said. "I love meeting people, and I do it for free because everything in Hawaii, they always have a price to it."
Since he has both the knowledge and equipment, including an especially large board he designed for beginners, Uemura said it’s his way of giving back.
He’s taught students ages 5 to 90 how to stand-up paddle, with a few simple rules.
First, he says, relax. The more tense you are, the more difficult it will be to balance.
Another simple rule: "You look down, you fall down."
The former professional longboarder switched to stand-up after a friend from Tropical Blends loaned him a board and paddle about 10 years ago. At first Uemura thought it was just a gimmick, but once he tried it he was hooked.
Every summer, Uemura also organizes two events that are close to his heart: the Wahine Surfing Classic and the Longboard Surfing Classic, which in 2015 will be in their 19th and 31st years, respectively.
Both annual surf competitions at Kuhio Beach in Waikiki draw hundreds of participants from throughout the world. Proceeds from the competitions have raised funds for nonprofits in Hawaii, including the American Diabetes Association and Kapiolani Medical Center’s Sex Abuse Treatment Center.
Last year Uemura was recognized for his efforts and inducted into the Hawai’i Waterman Hall of Fame.
While he Is still teaching today, some may not know that Uemura went in for open-heart surgery at the Queen’s Medical Center two years ago to get a valve replaced.
A scar runs down the center of his chest.
Signs that something was amiss came when he blacked out after teaching one day. Doctors found that his aortic valve was not opening properly.
Even then Uemura was reluctant to go in for surgery, saying he wanted to "ride it out." He was so dedicated that he wanted to wait until his surf events were done.
He suffered a mild heart attack at a competition and was urged to go in about two weeks later.
After his surgery the first thing Uemura asked the doctor was, "How fast can I get out of this hospital?"
The doctor replied, "’Well, if after surgery you come out and can walk, the more walking, the better,’" said Uemura. "So soon as I came out, half an hour, I was walking already."
Uemura had to slow down and take a break from teaching for about a year, but he’s back. Today he walks around Magic Island about three times a week.
Teaching and being on the water are part of his healing. Organizing the events is also rewarding, as he’s watched champs like Carissa Moore and Bethany Hamilton grow from groms to professionals.
He said both have become good ambassadors for Hawaii.
The surfing events were also what helped Uemura, a Kaimuki High School graduate, turn his life around from a former life dealing drugs in his younger years. He wanted to come clean, particularly after his daughter and son were born.
Stand-up paddling has helped him shed weight and keep his Type 2 diabetes in check. He recommends it to everyone, including seniors, for its health benefits.
"He has a big heart," said friend Byron Cuban, who hangs out with Uemura in the mornings. "We sit here, talk story and laugh our hearts out. People come from all over the world to see him."
For Uemura the greatest reward is seeing the light go on in people’s eyes when they get the hang of stand-up paddling. He’s grateful for a second chance at life.
He plans to keep on surfing, teaching and organizing his charity surf events, he said, "as long as God keeps me alive."