China: ‘Don’t Be Hard-head Like Me’

After open-heart surgery, China Uemura hopes to be back on the waves soon

China Uemura is grateful he was given a second chance in life more than 20 years ago.

“At one time it was all about me,” he told MidWeek in March of 2008. “I was doing drugs and dealing drugs and destroying lives. I had money and power, but for what? I’m finished with all of that.”

The longboard surfing legend turned his life around and started hosting surfing contests as a way to serve the community. Over the years, his events have raised nearly $250,000 for local charities, including American Diabetes Association, Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Sex Abuse Treatment Center at Kapiolani Medical Center.

“I love giving back,” he says with pride. “I owe it to the community.”

Recently, Uemura was given yet another chance in life, thanks to his family and friends. This latest chapter started late last year when Uemura said he started feeling “different” and attributed “dizzy spells and feeling lightheaded” to stress. Friends urged him to go see a doctor.

“I told them it’s just one of those things,” he says. “No worry, I’m fine.”

His body was sending a clear message that something was not right, but Uemura refused to listen. In June, that message finally grabbed his attention when he blacked out on the beach during one of his surf contests. Doctors believed he suffered a mild heart attack.

“An EKG found that I had an irregular heartbeat,” he says.”My arteries were clean and clear, but my main valve wasn’t working properly. But even after all of that, I told everybody, ‘I can ride this thing out. I can get better.'”

But things only got worse.

Uemura’s aorta was working overtime, and despite pleas from family and friends, he continued to teach people every morning how to stand-up paddle at Ala Moana Beach Park. Uemura recalls a chilling conversation he had with his doctor.

“He told me I have to stop and I told him if I stop, I’m going to die,” says Uemura. “He said if you don’t stop, you could die. That’s when he told me I needed open-heart surgery.”

Uemura shared the news with his longtime surfing friends, who encouraged him to go forward with the procedure. He says the turning point came when one of those friends, Guy DeMello, struck a nerve.

“Guy kept telling me, don’t be afraid of the surgery, these days everything is high-tech,” says Uemura. “I told him, nobody is going to open up my chest. That’s when he said, ‘China, don’t only think of yourself, you get one family!'”

It was exactly what he needed to hear. Several weeks later, Uemura was in the hospital fighting for his life.

“I’m scared of needles, and I don’t like hospitals,” says the 57-year-old Uemura. “I was scared like hell – actually I was horrified. But the staff from Queen’s Heart made me comfortable. It was no big deal.”

On Sept. 26, Uemura underwent successful open-heart surgery and was released Oct. 1. He continues to heal at home.

“I want to let the public know, don’t be hard-head like me, go get your checkups, and if you need surgery, get the surgery!” says Uemura. “I can’t believe they used a cow valve on me. I’m happy to be alive. Thanks to everyone, I have a second second chance!”

On Nov. 11, Uemura’s family and friends will host a fundraiser at M Nightclub at Restaurant Row (the old Oceans Club) to help offset medical and recovery costs. For more information, email Kanoe Uemura Abilla at