The Tommy Zhao Interview

on Tuesday, 18 March 2014. Posted in a

Behind all that footage of buttery marble ledges in China there's a guy named Tommy Zhao, a Delawarean (is that a word?) who has been documenting the growing skate scene in Shanghai from behind a Sony VX since moving there in 2008. Tommy is also a master chef, has a mean noseslide, and has been known to let his living room out to legions of skate rats for months at a time.

Tommy recently premiered his second full-length film, Something Sinister, to an audience in Shanghai and.. just wait. With parts from Lucas Puig and Brian Peacock and a bunch of other dudes who you have probably never heard of but who kill it in China every single day, this video is the gnarliest thing to come out of the Middle Kingdom since baby milk laced with melamine.

Tommy runs Legion of Sorts, but don't go there until you've read this interview, fool!

Mark Del Negro | Switch Flip

Basic question to start with- who are you and what’s your story?

I was born in Nagoya, Japan but grew up on the east coast of the United States of America.I’m from a small town called Hockessin in the state of Delaware. It’s crazy because I’ll tell people I’m from Delaware and no one ever knows of it, and even people who are from the US are like “Isn’t that in Pennsylvania?” Haha.

When did you first go to SH?

Since my parents are from a town called Huainan in the Anhui Province of China, I actually came to China a few times before I made the move out here in the autumn of 2008. I guess when I was an infant, my parents would fly back from Japan with me to make sure I knew my relatives, but of course, I don’t remember much of that since I was like a year old or so, haha. It wasn’t until my dad got a job transfer in 1997 to Suzhou, that we made the move from Landenberg, Pennsylvania out here. We lived in Suzhou but I was attending an international school here in Shanghai because at the time there weren’t many options for expat children to study in Suzhou. And then after almost two years, we moved back to the States and I wrapped up all my schoolwork before coming back out to Shanghai after I graduated from university.

Why choose Shanghai over other cities in China, like Beijing or Shenzhen?

Well, when I was in my sophomore year of high school, I had somehow talked a friend of mine into traveling China with me and just seeing if there were any awesome skate spots here. So basically that summer, we flew to Shanghai and just skated and took the train all over the place. It was such a rad experience and so when I graduated from university, I basically just bought a plane ticket out here and was initially only supposed to stay for a few months or so but now it’s been like five years I’ve been here, haha.

Craziest thing you’ve seen on the streets for Shanghai? Didn’t you get in a fight with a bunch of security guards once?

Haha, I wouldn’t even call it a fight. It was more like a few skaters and myself running away from a 20+ gang of security guards who were bummed on us skating in an apartment complex. But that somehow happens a lot here so it’s not that crazy anymore. The crazier thing is probably just the pollution. Somedays, you can’t even see across the street. I wish I was exaggerating but I’m not.

Jay Meador | Frontside 180 Fakie 5-0

How is your life as a filmer different in China than it would be if you were in the US?

I don’t know if I would’ve become a “filmer” if I hadn’t moved out here. It all happened quite organically and just being at the right place at the right time, but isn’t that how it always is? Haha. When I lived in the States, we were always filming each other skating and so when I moved out here, I brought my camera with me and it just so happened that the Fly Skateshop homies were filming a video and it just went off from there.

Living in Shanghai for about 6 years now, what are the biggest changes you have seen take place in that city?

Everything changes so fast, it sucks but at the same time, it’s pretty rad. When you find an awesome food joint or restaurant, you end up going there a bunch in a short amount of time because you never know if it’ll be gone next week, haha. But on the bright side, buildings get torn down and other things get put up, resulting in more skate spots. Shanghai has gotten a lot more expensive over the years though, especially in terms of rent in the city but… that’s life right?

Best cities in China for skateboarding?

Shanghai. It’s an east coast feel with the added bonus of the skate industry in the same city, like if LA and NYC had a baby.

Other cities that kill it for skating are Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Beijing, Kunming, Nanjing… the list goes on.

Favorite skatespot of all time?

LP in Shanghai. No doubt about it. The homies, the flatground, the city, the vibe, it’s perfect.

Favorite skate video of all time?

Habitat skateboard’s Mosaic, it was one of the only skate videos we had in my apartment for a period and we basically watched it everyday.

You just got back from a trip to Cuba.. tell us about that.

Patrik Wallner (of VisualTraveling) mentioned that he was going to Cuba on a RedBull trip with Michael Mackrodt and Walker Ryan and asked if I wanted to be a secondary filmer, so of course I couldn’t pass that up! Cuba is a gorgeous country, the colors, the people, and the cars! Hollywood wishes they could build movie sets like that! It really is like waking up in 1959, and you step out the door and all you see are these classic American cars driving by, bands playing music on the streets, beautiful beaches… the romanticism is all there. There’s almost no internet on the island, I think there were like three hotels in Havana that offered internet and it was $10 USD/hour. So it’s cool, people actually have to talk to each other over the dinner table instead of like now where everyone’s staring at their phones, haha. Cuba’s definitely a place to visit and I’m excited to see what changes come as they open their doors more and tourism starts flooding in.

You’ve stayed with the VX 1000 while others have moved on to filming in HD.. Why is that?

It’s not really a reason of choosing one or the other. I film commercially in HD, but when it’s my own project like Something Sinister is, I chose the VX because that’s how I like to see skateboarding captured. The VX cameras are pretty old now so sometimes you get problems like glitches in audio or video and you go into it knowing that can happen, but that’s just how it is now and it just adds to it. In a few more years, the VX1 will be to us probably how the Super8 is to us now. But by that time, HD will be old news as well, haha!

Click to watch the Something Sinister trailer

You are close to finishing up filming for Something Sinister. When did you first start filming for it, and what has the experience been like overall?

At the time of this interview, I am very proud to say that Something Sinister is a wrap! We’ll be having a premiere this weekend and I’m excited to celebrate with all the homies! We didn’t really have a video in mind until about a year ago. A large majority of the footage was filmed from January2013 to February 2014. The only old footage is Mark Del Negro’s but that’s because he came out here in 2012 and we wanted to save his footage for the video so we basically just sat on it for a year.

What has been the biggest difference between filming this video and Gift Skateboard’s “It’s a Wrap”?

It was actually similar in many ways; like having to wake everyone up everyday, missioning it to spots, traveling to other cities, but instead of it being on Nike/Gift Skateboard’s wallet, it was basically all out of our own pocket. It’s also the first video part for almost everyone in the video so everyone put in a 110% percent and I think it really shows in their parts and we really grew together as friends throughout the process. We’re all family in this video.

Lucas Puig | Back Tail Up

Are you going to have footage in the video?

Ahaha, yeah, I’ll have some tricks in the homie section.

Where can we find you online, and where can we get a copy of Something Sinister when that is out in March?

If you live in the USA, you’ll be able to get the DVD online from or on our blog at

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