A tradition passed down from generation to generation, wau-making is truly the pride of Kelantanese artisans
Like two gladiators they circled each other and then backed off, waiting for the right moment to strike. Strong wind was blowing in constantly from the South China Sea, its up-drift lifting our gladiators high into the cloudless blue sky. A continuous pleasant, buzzing sound which comes from a bow-like apparatus attached to the neck of the kite, sets a background for the chattering crowd below. Then they encircled each other again, this time the lines crossing. But unlike any other form of contact sport, it’s not the kites that fight each other. Both the “puppet” and “puppeteer” are just playing secondary roles. The kites and the handlers just assist to bring the strings holding the kites aloft together in battle. Entangling themselves like snakes they go for each other’s jugular.
Usually the strings are doctored with finely crushed glass applied with glue to give them a more cutting edge and do more damage to the opponents. As one string broke, the crowd roared and the kite for a while float aimlessly before slowly falling to the ground, it’s handler hurrying to catch it and ensure that there’s not too much damage done. It will live to fight another day, maybe even have a rematch, after some minor repairs. Its victorious opponent is slowly reeled in and makes a slow landing. And with that the kite flying and fighting competition comes to an end on the bright May afternoon.
Kite flying and kite fighting are usually during the months of May to July when the wind is strongest in the state of Kelantan. It may seem like child’s play, but kite fighting is serious business for the initiated. It used to be an amusing local pastime for farmers after the padi have been harvested but had grown in stature with numerous state and international competitions being held.
There is an annual International Wau Competition in Kelantan which is part of the state’s effort to attract more tourists since 1982. Competitors come from as far as Europe, Australia, South East Asia, Japan and China. In Johor, the Pasir Gudang World Kite Festival is held yearly since 1995.
Believed to have originated in China, and brought to this part of the world by traders, the kite or wau as it is known locally, could be traced back to the times of the Sri Vijaya Kingdom. In fact, together with sepak raga, it was also the two favourite games played by royalty and the masses during the Melaka Sultanate.
The wau bulan or moon kite, had its origin in Kelantan although an animistic folklore said it may have started in Kedah as a way of paying homage to the spirit of the padi and spirit of the wind. Testament of its status is that the wau bulan is considered a national symbol together with the hibiscus and the keris. When in 1972 the wau bulan was adopted as the logo of national carrier Malaysia Airlines, its position is cemented in the national pride.
The wau bulan is bigger in size than other kites, usually as big as three metres, giving more space for elaborate patterns to be put on the body. It is made by pasting coloured papers on a bamboo crescent-shaped frame. Favourite colours used are gold, silver, red and green. Beautiful ornate designs are then worked into the design. But these are usually kites for exhibitions and decorations. Those for flying and fighting tended to be less intricate in design.
The importance of the wau bulan in local folklore can be seen from the fact that there is a song and dance created in its honour known as Eh Wau Bulan and Tarian Wau Bulan.
The tradition of kite-making is usually passed down from generation to generation but most youngsters now seemed to have moved on to more high-tech hobbies. Thus kite-making had become the purview of true artisans.
There are some wau specialists who could be hired to do kite-making demonstrations and conduct kite-making workshops. Sometimes, they are hired to conduct kitemaking workshops as part of larger events.
Apart from wau bulan, there are a few other types of wau such as wau tukung or wau kekek, wau barat, wau kucing, wau merak, wau baying, wau keluang, wau ikan, wau puyuh, and wau burung.
In Pantai Sri Tujuh, a picturesque beach in Tumpat about 30km out of Kota Bharu, is located the Kelantan Wau Museum where exhibits include the various types of elaborate kites which are popular in Kelantan and elsewhere in Malaysia such as Wau Kenyalang (Sarawak), Wau Helang (Perlis and Terengganu), Wau Kangkang (Kedah), Wau Seri Bulan (Perak), Wau Kapal (Selangor), Wau Kikik (Melaka), Wau Cenderawasih (Pahang) and Wau Puyuk (Kelantan). You can also see kites from Japan, Thailand and Cambodia on display. Regular demonstrations of kite-making are also held by skilled craftsmen. It is open from Saturday to Thursday.
If you are in Johor, there’s another kite museum known as Muzium Layang-Layang in Pasir Gudang. The People’s Museum in Melaka also incorporates a kite museum while a number of other museums, such as the Malay World Ethnology Museum in Kuala Lumpur, also have sections dedicated to the hobby and craft of kite making and flying.
Borneo International Kite Festival
If you’re in Bintulu from September 25-29, 2019, get ready to be blown away by an array of kites during the Borneo International Kite Festival. To be held at the huge, windy open space of the Old Bintulu Airport, the festival will showcase 400 kiters from 25 countries – both amateurs and professionals in the mix. On the ground, you can also learn about kitemaking, including the wau. There’ll also be cultural performances showcasing Malaysia’s multi-cultural diversity – plus an array of hawker food to indulge in!
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