I awoke at dawn as a soft light filtered through the green canopy of coconut palms. A rooster crowed, a fly buzzed, and a warm sea breeze was blowing off the South China Sea. Somewhere overhead, I could still hear the droning sound of a musical kite. The kite was tied to a tree, and it had been flying all night.
I was staying in Kampong Jambu, a Malay village of rice farmers and kite makers. It is in the northeast corner of Malaysia, not far from Kota Bharu, the capital of the state of Kelantan. The people of Kelantan are well known for their excellent kites, and in most rural villages, beautifully made, often ornately decorated kites hang beneath the eaves of private homes. I was visiting the villages near Kota Bharu to talk with the master kite-makers, and to watch the Pesta Wau, the annual, five-day kite festival held in late May of each year to help celebrate the end of the rice harvest. At this time of year, the northeast monsoon provides favorable winds for kite flying, and thousands of villagers attend. I was also curious to know why the men of this region are so passionate about flying kites.
Joseph Needham, author of the multi-volume Science and Civilization in China, speculated that kites were first flown in China nearly 2000 years ago. In Mandarin, they are called mu yuan, which literally means "wooden kite." Yuan is Mandarin for the small, graceful hawks of the Milvinae subfamily, which in English are called "kites." However, the Malay word for the wooden, crafted kite is wau, and it is unrelated to the Mandarin. One popular suggestion for its origin is that it comes from the Arabic letter و, pronounced "wow," which when written in a mirror-image pair approximates the bird-like shape of a traditional Malay kite: .
Details from the famous cave frescoes at Dunhuang, in China's Ganxu Province, depict the recreational use of kites in the year 698. The Islamic world knew of flying kites from at least the ninth century, when the writer Abu Uthman al-Jahiz, in his book Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Animals), describes boys flying kites made of Chinese paper. It is uncertain when kite-flying came to the Malay Peninsula, but there is anthropological evidence that kites have been in use in many parts of Southeast Asia since ancient times. They remain popular today in southern China, Indochina, India, Indonesia, Melanesia and Polynesia, and in Japan, where kites are flown recreationally and "fighting kites" are flown in fierce competition.
The earliest literary reference to Malay kite-flying is of kite combat. An account from the Sajarah Malayu (Malay Journals) tells how, in the late 15th century, during the season of paper kites, Rajah Ahmed, son of Sultan Mahmud of Malacca (1488-1511), had his favorite kite cut from the sky by a boy who had secretly coated his kite string with tree sap and powdered glass. (Today, kite-fighting experts debate the relative merits of different types of glass and porcelain for the same purpose: One popular choice is the glass of pulverized television tubes.)
But the people in Kelantan have developed a peaceful and aesthetic approach to kite flying. In the small villages around Kota Bharu, men and boys can be found launching kites on the steady winds of late afternoon. The kite flier then sits back to enjoy "the song of the kite," which is generated by a bow fastened to the kite's neck that, once airborne, resonates in the wind to produce a melodious, droning note. The sound is akin to that produced by blowing against a sheet of paper held up to a comb, and the volume and pitch rise with the speed of the wind. An experienced flier can identify a kite simply by its "song."
The kite bows were originally strung with a dried palm leaf called daun pokok mulung, but today most kite makers prefer either 16-millimeter acetate movie film or, for the most refined sounds, industrial plastic pallet-strapping that has been shaved thin with the edge of a piece of window glass. In the steady winds that prevail at the time of the monsoon, a well-balanced kite can easily fly until dawn, and its sonorous tones can be a soothing contrast to the usual night sounds of a Malay village.
Yusof bin Senik, from the village of Kampong Jambu, was the first kite maker I met. He learned how to make kites from a childhood friend nearly 30 years ago, and he has been building them ever since. Yusof showed me examples of wau kuching, "the cat kite," wau bulan, "the moon kite," wau burung puyuh, "the quail kite," and wau jala budi, "the fishnet of wisdom kite." Despite their different names, these kites all share the same basic, bird-like shape, with slight variations in their wings and tail.
The frames of these kites are made in the traditional way, from strips of seasoned bamboo and rattan that are then reinforced with a network of string that also supports the wing covering, which may be either paper or plastic. Decorative kites, not designed for flying, are covered with intricate cut-paper designs, while the no-nonsense flying kites have less decoration. They are also carefully balanced with lead weights, and reinforced to survive crash landings. Although most Malay kites are about a meter wide or a bit more (3-4"), Yusof showed me one of his quail kites that measured some six meters (almost 20') from wing tip to wing tip. It looked like a hardwood spear attached to an almond-shaped wing and a crescent moon tail, both of which were stretched taut with pink and black plastic.
In the nearby village of Kampong Gertak Sagu Panchor, I found kite master Yasok bin Haji Umat on the front porch of his house. After the rice harvest, this is where he spends his time, assembling layers of intricately cut and pasted paper designs. These stylized motifs are, he says, taken from cloud patterns, architectural wood carvings, local vegetation and the floral borders of batik fabrics. Yasok's kites are purely decorative, for they are fragile and, at a cost of about $75 to $100 each, intended for display only. He learned kite-making from his father, but his own son will not be carrying on the tradition. "Today, young people are not interested in kites," he says.
Friday is the traditional day for village kite competitions, and during May, June and July it is not uncommon to see kites flying above the palm trees while large crowds of men stand in the fields to cheer on their favorite kites. The flights have a time limit and, in the past, before mechanical clocks became commonplace, the timing device was a half coconut shell with a hole drilled in the bottom. On a signal, the kites were launched and the coconut shell was placed in a bucket of water of a standard depth. When the shell sank and touched the bottom of the bucket, the kite flying highest at that moment was declared the winner.
At this year's Pesta Wau competition, teams came from all over Malaysia. Hundreds of traditional kites from different villages and states flew in preliminary rounds leading up to final competitions among the best in each category, based on style and name—"moon kites," "cat kites," and so on. The kites are flown by two-man teams, each made up of a juru tarik ("master puller," or flier) and a juru anjung (the "master high-holder," or launching assistant). To fly the kite, first the juru tarik lets out the full, regulation length of 150 meters (480') of string while the juru anjung carries the kite to the launch area and holds it aloft. At the buzzer, all 20 kites in that 10-minute "heat" rise, zigzagging and colorful. While the juru tarik controls the flight, it is up to the juru anjung to stand by in case a crash—which incurs a small penalty—should require another launch.
The site of this contest is a beach called Pantai Sen Tujuh, approximately 20 kilometers (12 mi) north of Kota Bharu, near the town of Tumpat. The field measures about 300 meters (1000') long, and it is laid out to catch the prevailing winds. This means that the line of kite flyers, standing in a row at the center line of the field, can use either onshore or offshore winds. As each kite rises and seeks a fixed position, it is scored by an official judge. One of the judges, Ismail Bukhary, explains that 30 percent of the score is based on the beauty of the design; 40 percent on the angle of flight (the closer to vertical the higher the score); 20 percent on the kite's airborne stability, and 10 percent on the music of the kite.
During the three to four hours of daily competition, thousands of family members, friends and spectators sit on blankets in the shade of the casuarina trees that grow at the edge of the kite-flying field. Mixed in with the crowd, the competitors tune up their kites and make last-minute repairs. Food and drink vendors do an excellent business selling local favorites such as deep-fried shrimp and calamari along with iced lychee drinks, fresh coconut water and sugar-cane juice.
On the final day of the Pesta Wau, kite teams from Europe and the United States put on an airborne show of elaborate, experimental kites made with carbon-fiber rods and rainbow-colored synthetic fabrics. This held the crowd's interest until local kite master Shafii bin Ahmad emerged from the trees carrying an eight-meter (25') quail kite and a ball of parachute cord the size of a watermelon. From that moment on all eyes were on this little man and his giant kite.
Bin Ahmad had waited for the afternoon wind to steady itself, but now the conditions seemed just right, and he was ready to show the crowd his best. Kites of this size have been flown as high as half a mile, but, depending on the strength of the wind, it may take six men to successfully launch and control the flight. It can also be dangerous: Not long ago I had witnessed a six-meter (19') quail kite plunge into a salt marsh and impale the earth like a spear. It had taken two men to dislodge the hardwood shaft. Weeks earlier, a different kite on a test flight had pierced the roof of a parked car.
Bin Ahmed made one final adjustment to the angle of the bridle before fastening the kite to his parachute cord. A few minutes later he was standing some 200 meters (650') away, ready for the launch. His assistants held the kite off the ground and then, without any apparent signal, the giant kite was in the air. The deep booming drone of its three-meter (10') humming bow brought the kite to life, and the rich vibrato seemed to galvanize the crowd, which immediately broke out into cheers urging the kite to climb higher and higher.
Standing at my side, 72-year-old Ismail bin Jusoh watched the kite lift into the sky. Ismail had built kites for nearly 60 years, but the look in his eyes made it clear that he had not lost a bit of the childhood thrill of seeing a kite well flown. Amid the commotion, I turned to Ismail and asked him why people were so passionate about kites.
"Why do we fly kites?" He laughed as he watched the powerful kite continue its breathtaking ascent. "They are beautiful, they are exciting to fly. They can even make an old man like me feel young once again."
Writer and photographer Eric Hansen has spent 25 years documenting contemporary village life in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.