My mother, unschooled though she was while she was still alive, taught me one thing about life and relationships. She used to say “Being in a relationship, is like flying a kite – you pull a little, let go a little so the string won’t break”. I am not too sure if that valuable lesson did anything to my relationships but it sure did not improve my kite flying ability. The closest experience I ever had with kites was when my brother allowed me to hold the harness of his airborne kite very briefly when I was 7 years old.
I confess I am more into ceramics and oil painting but kite design is somehow intriguing to me. I made a trip to Kota Bharu recently to meet two kite makers, an arrangement made by a retired Prof Abd Aziz Shuaib, who taught architectural design in UMK. He happened to be an ardent traditional craft enthusiast. That morning when we reached his beautiful house near Pantai Cahaya Bulan, I was surprised to find a kite maker of Chinese blood in an arguably 98% Malay tradition. His name was Tan Sheng Hai (Fig 1 & Fig 3). The other artisan was supposed to be Anuar, a young man about 30 years old, son of the late legendary kite maker, Pak Shafie Jusoh, who used to launch his Wau Bulan on Pantai Geting beach on the outskirts of Tumpat.
While one has made it big commercially at such a young age of 30, with one workshop and a thriving business, selling his enormous 7 feet wide kites to Italian tourists for a neat sum of five thousand ringgit, the other remained a passionate artisan, working from the house at 53 years of age. Tan Sheng Hai is an active member of kite associations and participated in various local and international kite competitions.
Tan grew up in predominantly Malay communities throughout his life. Growing up in Malay communities exposed him to Malay and Siamese traditions like wayang kulit, dikir barat, menora, mak yong to name a few. Tan moved around a lot during childhood even staying in Tanah Merah. He was brought up by his grandmother in Kampong Kulim Wakaf Baru, Kelantan. While he lived in Wakaf Baru, Tan was surrounded by neighbours who spoke Siamese so Tan could speak both Siamese and Malay beside his mother tongue, Hokkien.
He showed keen interest in kite making since school days. At 10 years old he made his first kite. At 15, he made his first big kite. A big kite could measure as wide as 10 feet from one wing tip to the other or 4 feet as in Fig 2 above. Some of the popular traditional kites are Wau Bulan, Wau Puyuh, Wau Barat, Wau Merak, Wau Kikik, Wau Kuching, Wau Jalabudi to name a few. Tan’s first real entry into kite competition was upon encouragement by his father who was also an active kite maker himself. Anuar , the young man in a hurry, entered the kite world at age 16. Upon his father’s insistence (when he was in secondary school), he entered a competition but did not quite make it.
What makes kites fly? What is the science behind kites? The four forces of flight – Lift, Weight, Drag and Thrust, affect kites as they affect aeroplanes and anything else that flies (https//airandspace.si.edu, Mike Hulslander, 2012). To launch the kite into the air, the force of lift must be greater than the force of weight. To keep the kite flying steady, the four forces have to be in balance. Lift must be equal to weight while thrust must equal drag.
Lift is the upward force that pushes the kite into the air. Lift is generated by differences in air pressure, which are created by air in motion over the body of the kite. The force of weight pulls the kite towards the earth. Thrust is the forward force that propels the kite in the direction of the motion. While an aeroplane generate thrust with its engines, a kite rely on tension from the strings and moving air. Drag is the backward force that acts opposite to the direction of the motion. Drag is caused by the difference between front and back of the kite.
And to think that 7 or 8 year old boys, some of whom didn’t even know how to read, living in the kampongs during the 1960’s times of innocence, have actually crafted simple diamond kites (in the shape of Wau Kikik) using bamboo sticks and newspaper, then flew the kites and kept them flying in the air, truly amazed me now. We thought nothing of it back then.
That Saturday morning at breakfast of nasi tumpang et al, a gesture of Kelantan goodwill, Tan explained the play of factors affecting the flight of kites. He mentioned about teraju, the three strings that control the flight of a kite. Manipulating this teraju (Fig 3) requires skill. But the most interesting gadget was the busor. Tan explained that a busor is a structure made of bamboo, shaped like a bow. The busor is fixed to the back of the wing of the kite. Once the kite flies, it will make a sound similar to waauuu…and that, it seemed, was how the name wau was given to our Malaysian kites.
Happy flying…and watch out for my next post when I will catch up with Anuar flying his big kite on the beach of Pantai Cahaya Bulan.
(10 January 2019)