Text by Dan Kircher
“I don’t know if many people feel it, but rolling through the street, ollying up a kerb, it’s fun. Just being on a board is fun.” This sort of touchy-feely-ism is perhaps not quite what you’d expect from Bernard Foo, perceived by many as a straight-up-and-down tech-machine, someone who has actually been the victim of typecasting. Fact of the matter is, Bernie’s more than happy to get in touch with his grassroots side, capable of handling pretty much whatever sort of terrain you’d care to throw at him, and, once you get to know him, a lot more outspoken than his quiet demeanour suggests. Still waters indeed: his trick bag, experience and style run way deep.
Bernie was born in Singapore, relocating here at age three after his mother remarried a New Zealander. It was in late ‘80s Upper Hutt where he encountered skating. “It was really big and I was amped on watching people skate all the time. I used to see people on blast ramps and was like, ‘Yep, I want to start skateboarding.’ I went to the neighbour’s garage and borrowed their plastic board, that’s how I learned to roll.”
The price of a decent set-up prevented him from taking it much further. “I kinda just chilled out like, ‘Oh I don’t really want to skate any more,’ because I felt too stupid to skate with people who had these good boards.” But as fate would have it, a shortcut on the way to school yielded a tailor-made surprise. “It was really early – I don’t know why I was going to school that early! It was in the middle of this primary school just lying on the tennis courts. I grabbed it and biked off as fast as I could, stashed it in some bushes.” It, of course, was a skateboard – a Santa Cruz Jeff Grosso, to be exact. Bernie was away laughing. “I came back after school, took it home and told my parents I found it in a rubbish bin.”In around ‘92, another transplant saw Bernie deposited in rural Mt Somers, 45 minutes from Ashburton. With literally no concrete in sight he converted their tiny woolshed into a makeshift training facility – a few feet of wooden ground, slippery from the grease of the wool, and a curb. (I’d put money on Foo’s infamous flatground repertoire stemming from these confines.) “My friends Dion and Lonnie Kwoksun used to send me videos. They were the connection to hang in there!” Bernie knew that if he wanted to accomplish anything to do with skating he’d have to migrate north. “Ashburton wasn’t cutting it, I wanted to be back where I started skating and where heaps of my friends were, which was Wellington. I’m not very good with years, but I moved back when I was about 18, around ‘96.”
My friends Dion and Lonnie Kwoksun used to send me videos. They were the connection to hang in there!
He crashed at Jeremy Tavendale’s house for several months, and the two decided to get a place in the city together. “We figured that since we were sharing a bedroom at his parents’ house, we could share a room in the flat! There were some pretty bad situations, like with girls and stuff.” Unbelievably, this cost-cutting arrangement lasted about a year. “It wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t out of control, but if we were going to have a party then everyone was into it. We had these things called Meetings, everyone would come over for drinks and watch Party of Five.”
This was his favourite era, what he calls the Mount Cook Days. That particular school, with its tarseal and benches, was hallowed ground and played host to weekly sessions with many of Wellington’s finest. “Mouse had come out ages ago, but we were still sitting on it. People were skating benches and picnic tables, it was just a good vibe. Filming was so easy, it was like a skate park. But it was legit at the time.”
Sponsorship found Bernie the old-fashioned way: he sent in a tape. He got hooked up by Boom, then Strobe (where he eventually had a few boards with his own name on them). Being in the city helped with the coverage. “When the first NZ Skateboarder came out, we started getting photos with Caleb (Smith). It was kinda easy then, not much stuff had been documented. You could just go out and do stuff and it would still be cool.”
After Strobe, Bernie had a stint riding for the US brand Monkey, who were also poised to make him professional. He made the trip to LA several times, was put up in a house there and did the appropriate shmoozing. Injuries and the low-volume demands of NZ skate stores canned the pro-model, however. “I came back after spraining my ankle, that’s when they’d decided to do the board. I started skating but sprained it again real badly. The board thing didn’t really work out, but I was kinda happy because I didn’t want the pressure.”
Foo has been around the block a few times, lived through the internal climate-changes that skateboarding precipitates. “When you’re a bit younger you think that skateboarding is about doing the gnarliest stuff, trying to make a name for yourself. A lot of people go through it. Now that I’m getting a bit older I have to start thinking about these things…” he laughs. “Am I going to be able to walk the next day?” The extremes of stunt-work and excessive technicalities have been replaced by a more selective approach. “It used to be all about doing tricks that were really, really hard. That and gnarly stuff. But it’s just not very fun spending a whole day trying to get a trick. Nowadays it’s rare that I can learn a new trick straight off the bat. So it’s just making stuff you have look cool, not trying to force yourself into something that you’re not really going to look comfortable doing.”
Since his sponsor-me tape beginnings, a large percentage of Bernie’s exploits have happened in front of a lens; has that affected the way he looks at his skating? “I love skating flatground, having games of SKATE with no letters – you can just go forever. It reminds me of how fun skating is when you can just go out and do that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be getting a photo or filming a clip, you can just cruise and joke around.”
Sometimes I do need someone to push me, otherwise I’ll turn into a pile.
“After the Irrom vid, I just went into party mode though, I guess. I skated, but it was kinda half-assed, just bringing out the old standards.” Before this hiatus became hibernation, Bernie rebounded, now working on a new video and getting plenty of photos for this expose. “I’ve actually had the confidence not to put my body on the line, but just to push how I can actually do things without having to jump down stairs. I’m hoping with the video part and the photos that people are going to realise there’s other things to skate than stairs and handrails.”
Foo dissects the contemporary scene: “Skateboarding in NZ is getting really good, but I still think that people need to think outside of the square. Just be more creative in what they do rather than going out and doing stuff that’s been done, or going to spots and trying to one-up someone.” He has no qualms in playing favourites, either. “All my favourite skaters in NZ are just really good friends, so I can be biased I guess. Glenn [Wignall] has a good head on him. His skating is definitely mature, trying to be a bit more creative. I like Gus [Curwood] and the South Island guys in general – they’re concentrating more on skateboarding rather than whether it can get them somewhere. They’re doing their own thing and that’s what I like about them.”
The past year or two has been a period of reinvention. “I still party and stuff now, but you’ve also got to remember that there is a sort of job to do. I’m sorting out how I want to skate, getting back in there again and doing stuff, rather than chilling. Sometimes I do need someone to push me, otherwise I’ll turn into a pile.” There’s still the maintenance of the focus/let-loose balancing act. “When I’m around people that are really fun, I can get carried away.” Perhaps he’s referring to this year’s Huffer birthday party, which saw a more-than-mildly intoxicated Bernie repeatedly screaming “You suck!” to Rhys Campbell, laughing maniacally and cavorting around the dancefloor with a woman at least twice his height.
In between the occasional big night Bernie is comfortably finding his niche. “It’s easy to go down to the school, set up a bench and film the techest trick ever. I prefer to go out, try and find something a bit different. Just being more of a street skater, finding stuff that’s more natural, trying to adapt.” At 27 he’s still on-point, perhaps even more so now than ever. “I’ve been around for ages, but it’s actually getting easier, now that I know what I want to do. I don’t do stairs and rails, I just choose stuff that I like to see and I don’t really care what other people think. The people who like my skating, I’m stoked, but if not I don’t care. It’s just my thing.”
Some brief acknowledgements from Bernard: Thanks to Morri and Rhys at Irrom for hooking me up; Steve, Dan and Faith at Huffer; James at Ipath; Ivan at Red Bull; Kircher for filming and the interview; Dave and Ren for the photos; all my friends who I skate and party with. Also, if you get a chance, check out our new video Forays.
First published in Manual Magazine Issue 17