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Soaring spirits

Saturday March 12, 2005

Soaring spirits

By LEONG SIOK HUI
Pictures by ABDUL RAHMAN EMBONG

For one week, colossal kites — both traditional and modern — graced the blue skies of Pasir Gudang, Johor as kite enthusiasts gathered for the Pasir Gudang International Kite Festival. StarWeekend joined the 'party'. 

Johor folks are a lucky lot. Every February for the last 10 years, they get to gawk at kites of all shapes and sizes at the annual Pasir Gudang (PG) International Kite Festival.  

Yoshizo Sakuraba from Japan with an Edo kite he took three days to create.
This fest sees the biggest gathering of local and foreign kite lovers, experts, and makers in Malaysia. Jointly organised by the Johor state government and Pasir Gudang Local Authority, the festival began in 1995 with only 11 kite fliers from five countries and 200-plus local participants. But each year, the kite fliers go home with great memories, and as they spread the word, the number of participants keep soaring.  

This year, the festival drew more than 170 kite fliers from 22 countries, who came and mingled with 300-odd Malaysian fliers for a week to indulge in a common passion.  

Among them were a few big names in the global kiting community like Peter Lynn of New Zealand who is credited with designing the largest kite in the world; Australia’s Michael Alvares, a leading kite maker and kite educator; Taiwan’s Robert Yen, a designer and partner of New Tech, one of the biggest kite manufacturers in the world; Troy Gun of the US, a respected kite flier in the global stunt kite circuit; and Wolfgang Schimmelpfenning of Germany, an engineer who designs kites and has written and published five books on the subject. 

The venue, Bukit Layang-Layang, 45 minutes’ drive from Senai International Airport, turned into a huge fairground teeming with kites, food and souvenir stalls. Adults and kids thronged the kite workshops held by participants from countries like Japan, Indonesia and Korea, and witnessed a national wau contest and a Rokkaku kite battle.  

After the official launch by the Johor ruler, Sultan Iskandar, on the second last day of the festival, the crowd was treated to spectacular kite performances.  

A giant cuttlefish kite by New Zealander Peter Lynn.
China’s team of 25 kite fliers from seven provinces flew a double-headed dragon kite, an eagle kite that soared and glided like the real thing, as well as traditional whistling kites.  

Aussie Roger Martin showed off his impressive skills in kite-buggying (kite-buggying is when you sit on a three-wheeled cart and get pulled by a kite) while Kelly Reed of the US thrilled the crowd with his nine-stack stunt kites.  

As music blasted in the background, two chatty DJs entertained the crowd with jokes and informative titbits on the various kites and their owners. The party continued into the night with cultural dances and fireworks display.  

The stunt-kite fliers especially loved to enthral the kids and adults with their skillful manoeuvres. As their kites swooped, dived, hovered and did reverse flights, the kids squealed in delight. One of their more popular tricks was to lightly touch the kids with their kites or knock off someone’s hat.  

“Back in the US at kite festivals, there’s no real connection between the kite fliers and the audience,” said Kelly Reed, 33, of Austin, Texas. “But here you interact with them and they nod, smile or wink at you to acknowledge your presence or your performance.”  

Web designer Reed, who was on his first trip to Malaysia, teaches people to fly and conducts stunt kite and kite-buggying workshops.  

“I find Malaysians warm, friendly and inviting, and – as opposed to some other countries – there are fewer cultural differences and communication problems,” said Reed who has been to kite festivals in Colombia and China. 

Greg Mountjoy and son Michael of South Africa with their traditional motif kites.
Kite community  

Despite the language barrier, there was no communication problem. After all, everyone speaks the same “kite language”.  

Eiji Ohashi, 74, has been coming to the PG festival since the first year. Though he speaks passable English, most of his 32 teammates could hardly string together a sentence in English. But they shared a camaraderie with other kite enthusiasts through sign language and a sheer passion for kites.  

The Japanese team, from various prefectures in Japan, displayed their beautiful edo-dako (Edo kite), rokkaku (meaning “hexagon” in English) and tsugaru-dako kites.  

Edo kites are large rectangular kites made from bamboo and washi paper painted with ukiyoe (traditional woodblock print-like pictures). The tsugaru kite is named after a place in Aomori prefecture where it originated. 

“I’ve seen the festival getting bigger and better over the years,” said Eiji. “Since I’m getting older and tire easily, I only attend three festivals a year, and Pasir Gudang is one of them.”  

A kite (controlled by a stunt kite flier) ‘interacting’ with spectators.
Cultural exchange 

Asghar Belim of India likened a kite festival to a cultural exchange programme. A kite-maker from Rajahstan, Belim hails from a family that has been in the kite business for more than 200 years.  

“I make friends with people from different parts of the world, and we exchange views and information about each other’s tradition,” said Belim, 37, who designs Indian fighting kites adorned with pictures of Indian gods and other mythical figures.  

Greg Mountjoy of South Africa has been to many kite festivals worldwide, including in India, France and Germany. “But this one is a lot more relaxed and you’ve got everybody from the East and West. In the Western countries, you see only one sort of kite at the fest. There are more varieties here,” said Mountjoy, 44, who came with his son, Michael.  

“Malaysians may be sick of seeing wau bulan but for us, it’s something to get excited about,” he added.  

Kite-flying is not traditional to South African natives, Mountjoy explained. In the 1700s, Indonesian slaves brought in the first kites. “Some of the white people picked up on it and developed the kite into what they call a swallow kite,” said Mountjoy, a kite-maker and retailer. “But now, power kites and kite-surfing are big in South Africa.”  

A kite buff who makes his own kites, Leong Chee Wan, 37, finds the PG festival a great source of information. Leong has turned up at Pasir Gudang every year since 1996, and it has been a great learning experience for him. He has picked up tips on many aspects of kite-making including planning and designing from the international fliers.  

Roger Martin from Australia demonstrating kite-buggying.
“This is the highlight of the year for me. I get to fly all day and meet up with the kite greats,” said Leong, an art director from the Klang Valley who loves kite-buggying. “ Being able to show off my creations to the world also excites me." 

Pride of Johor 

“Our festival has become very popular among kite fliers around the world,” said vice president of Malaysia Kite Council, Hussin Haron. “We receive many enquiries and many would like to come.  

“But we are still trying to learn and improve from year to year,” he added.  

Certainly, there were hiccups that needed to be sorted out, such as the irregular and vague announcements, last minute changes and chaotic parking situation.  

All in all, it was a successful festival. The ecstatic faces of the kids, the huge crowd, and the smiles of the kite fliers say it all. W  

For info on the kite festival, contact the Pasir Gudang Local Authority at (07) 251 3720, fax (07) 251 5260 or visit www.pelayangjohor.com.

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