Where you’re from influences who you are. Growing up skating with Jamie Palmore, then being mentored by Willy Santos, and for most of your adult life absorbing the other-worldly talent and laid back vibes of Wes Kremer, Tyler Surrey and Marius Syvanen, it’s no surprise Jimmy Cao blossomed into a versatile powerhouse on four wheels. He’s beyond past due for this—his first magazine interview. Find out why Vietnam will be the next big skate destination, how Finesse Skateboards and Hubba Wheels’ ads factored into his career path, how he avoided Scandinavian boat jail and more. Get ‘em Chippy.
So what’s happening with Jimmy Cao as we close out 2016?
A lot of skating, about to have a baby. Life hammer right there [laughs].
Do you have a name picked out?
We’re thinking Mason Parker.
Nice work. What ethnicity is Cao?
I’m 100-percent Vietnamese.
Have you been to Vietnam?
I used to go a lot when I was younger, I first went when I was five years old, then I would go every three years after that. I would always go with my family, but recently I got to go on a skate trip, my first time bringing my board, and dude, there are some spots out there. I feel like it’s going to be the next China.
Were you born in Vietnam or here?
I was actually born in San Jose. My parents drove down when I was three months old to San Diego and I’ve been here ever since.
Who are the big Vietnamese pros out there?
Nuge [Don Nguyen], Jon Nguyen, Danny Nguyen too, Dank Tank.
All Nguyens! Gotta throw a Cao in there somewhere.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Mira Mesa.
“MODUS OPERANDI WAS STUCK IN MY VCR.”
Was Willy Santos an influence on you being from there?
Definitely, first of all he’s Asian, I was like, “Sick! Asian pro skater!” I got hyped on that and then his skating in general was always awesome, always technical and smooth.
Do you remember the first photos or footage you saw of him?
One of the first videos I saw was actually The End, so…
Did you skate for Willy’s Workshop?
Yeah I did, I sent in a sponsor-me video, to Willy. Got sponsored.
Was that your first sponsor?
No actually it wasn’t, Finesse skateboards was—Steve and Rod James. I was skating at Canyonside Park in PQ, we were skating a six-stair handrail. Steve was there, and he was like, “Yo man, that shit’s tight. Send me a tape!” I found out he lived down the street from me so I’d just go swoop some boards and kick it with him.
How old were you?
Then did Willy help you out in your career and give you advice?
He was definitely a big mentor. He didn’t really tell me, I just watched through him. Going out, getting footage, get photos, try and be productive when you can. He was definitely the pro I was trying to be like.
Then what happened? Did you leave Finesse or get kicked off?
I think I left. I can’t remember why. I started getting boards from Jay Henry, he was a Zoo York rep. Then Nick Lamm sent a tape to Hubba Wheels for me.
Why did you want to send a tape to Hubba Wheels?
First of all, Hubba Wheels had the illest ads [laughs]! The TM at the time asked if I had a board sponsor and I told him I was getting rep flow from Zoo York. He was like, would you rather get flowed from City Skateboards? I was like, fuck yeah, I’m down. I skated for them for a while, I went up to SF a bunch and met Tony [Vitello]. From there we worked on a video and somehow I got on.
Did City go under and everyone went to Think?
Yeah I quit before that happened. I was on DVS at the time and they were making the slipper that was a collab with Sk8mafia. I wasn’t going up to SF as much and I was always skating with the Mafia guys—I grew up skating with them. It made sense to have a DVS x Sk8mafia slipper and have someone who skates for both of them. So that kind of pushed it.
So Gabe Clement [DVS TM at the time] was instrumental in getting you on Sk8mafia?
Yeah, but [Josh] Preebz was always down, even years before, he was always, “Jimmy, let me know when you’re ready man. We’ll do it.”
When the Sk8mafia Am Video  came out, it seemed like you were missing.
Yeah, I was like fuck man, these are my boys. I had a few tricks in Jamie [Palmore]’s part, so I was kind of in there [laughs]. The year after that I was on. It just felt right.
Do you remember the first time you heard about Sk8mafia?
I do, I was skating at Poway skatepark and DC [Dan Connelly] was there and he had his VX2000 and he had the first Sk8mafia promo on the VX2000 on a DV tape. We watched it on his little VX2000 screen. He was showing us all the footage of little Wes killing it. Hippie Surrey with his long-ass hair. I was like, what the fuck, these kids are retarded.
First favorite videos you watched religiously?
Modus Operandi was stuck in my VCR. Black Cat, Maple video.
How good is Jamie Palmore really in person?
I grew up skating with him and if you know, you know how good he is. It’s something you gotta see in person. You can tell in the videos how good he is, but it’s even better in person.
How long has he been that good?
His whole life [laughs].
What was it like when Sk8mafia turned you all pro at the same time?
I felt pretty undeserving of it. Wes should have turned pro years before all of us, but I guess he waited until we all had enough footage or whatever. It was a dream come true for sure. I’m still tripping on it.
Thoughts on Smolik quitting? Wes was pretty outspoken about it!
I don’t know what to say, he just left. He was the Don and now he’s gone [laughs].
Favorite Mafia graphic of all time.
Probably the Kosmo Kramer/Kremer graphic.
“9AM TO 3PM THEY WOULD HAVE DOLLAR GAMES. BEFORE WE’D SKATE, WE’D HIT THE ALLEY TO WARM UP OUR ARMS.”
Sum up the skate scene in San Diego.
No spots, lots of homies, good weather [laughs].
Since you do a lot of lines, who are skaters that can put together great lines, or a really good line that comes to mind that kids should look up when they read this.
Watch Tyler Surrey’s parts. We call him the marathon man. He just goes for days. Even when he’s filming a single trick, he’ll do like four tricks before, not even on camera, like four no-complys or four kickflip variations, and then go for his single trick that he’s trying.
He’s kinda low-key like the best skateboarder.
Low-key, best skateboarder ever, guaranteed.
Tell me about getting thrown into boat jail with Marshall Heath on the voyage from Helsinki to Stockholm.
It’s an overnight ferry, they have a duty free store that’s really cheap. We got a hold of this bottle of liquor called Salmiakki that tastes like black licorice. Everyone had their own bottle, I had mine in my shirt pocket, so I blacked out in like two hours. What people tell me that I did, was we were in the shopping center zone, I grabbed a shopping cart and Marshall was in it. I was pushing him full speed down stairs and into signs and stuff. Security came obviously and Marshall got put into boat jail and I got fined 75 Euros for breaking a few things. Marshall got the shitty end of it and it was my fault for sure. I didn’t have to go to boat jail, I just went to bed [laughs].
What does boat jail consist of?
Marshall said he was screaming his ass off in there by himself. We landed in Sweden and they almost forgot he was in there.
Wes said he went fishing with you and your mom off the OB pier and you guys caught like 40 mackerel and your mom was schooling you on fishing.
My mom likes to go fishing out there and certain nights, the mackerel will just bite anything. We were just reeling them in and me and Wes were getting high on the other side of the pier, and my mom started yelling, [in thick Vietnamese accent] “Jimmy come here, hurry, there’s so much fish.” I was like, aw fuck! Me and Wes were cracking up.
What’s the story with the bowling ball Wes and P-Kid got you?
We used to go bowling a lot because in Mira Mesa there’s a bowling alley, and from 9am to 3pm they would have dollar games. Before we’d skate, we’d hit the alley to warm up our arms. It was me, Jamie, Brandon Lefever, Kremer, Surrey, Marius—we would get three or four games in.
Then they all bought you a ball?
Yeah, one birthday they all chipped in and got me my own ball. It said Chippy SM4L. My nickname is Chippy.
What’s Chippy from?
In Spain, they got a chocolate bar called Chippy Cao.
Best skatepark in San Diego:
PQ park for days.
Best Asian skater, all time:
Willy Santos [laughs].