Atonement, if rather late, for a lack of action on my part

A representative example of a type of leaf kite known as a kaghati. The kamuu, a bamboo bow whose sound is designed to keep birds away from valuable crops, is clearly visible. CASM.

Bonjour, my reading friend. Yours truly is indeed atoning for a lack of action. You see, back in October 2003, the Canada Aviation Museum, today’s Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, acquired one of the largest, if not the largest privately-owned collection of kites from around the world in existence in Canada. This amazing material belonged to Yves Laforest and Anne Clément. Back then, it was their hope, and mine, that kites from this collection would be put on display. For a variety of reasons, this did not happen – and I deeply regret that.

The present article cannot compensate for a lack of action on my part but it should give you an idea of the breadth of the wonderful kite collection acquired by the museum 15 years ago this month.

Born in Ontario in April 1959, Laforest was fascinated by kites ever since he was a child. Indeed, he began to fly some at the ripe old age of 6. As time went by, Laforest put these aside and went on with his life. In the early 1980s, he met a group of people who flew controllable kites. They gave him a chance to try one. Kites came back into Laforest’s life in a big way. Indeed, Laforest was on the board of the Fédération québécoise du cerf-volant for a year and served as its president between 1988 and 1991.

Around 1992, Laforest met a teacher, Anne Clément, at a kite making workshop. At the time, Clément was looking for some new hands on activity for her pupils. She soon developed a passion for kite flying. Like Laforest, she wanted to share this passion with as many people as possible. A kite shop, Vent en Fête, opened its doors in Saint-Eustache, in 1993. It soon became the biggest of its type in Québec. For some time, Vent en Fête made the largest kite in Canada, a gigantic caterpillar kite. If truth be told, Laforest became quite famous within the kite flying community for his superb giant kites.

Some of the Québec-based activities Clément and Laforest were involved with in the 1990s and early 2000s include:

- the Festival Air et Espace of Mirabel (1992-94),

- the Festival Sable-Eau-Vent of Fatima, Îles-de-la-Madeleine (1994-96),

- the Festi-Neige of La Baie (1994-2002),

- the Rendez-vous mondial du cerf-volant of Verdun (1994-2002),

- the Grand combat Rokkaku of Venise-en-Québec (1995-96),

- the festival Saint-Honoré dans le Vent of Saint-Honoré (1995 + 1997-2002),

- the Rencontre hivernale of Grand-Mère (1996-97),

- the Grande Envolée of Saint-Adolphe-d’Howard (1997-98),

- the Grande Envolée of Shawinigan-Sud (1998),

- the Combat de Rokkakus of Ste-Rose-de-Laval (1998),

- the festival of Saint-Bruno-de-Guigues (1998), and

- the festival of Granby (1998).

Several of the events they helped to create were still going strong as of 2018.

As well, Laforest and Clément organized kite making workshops in many places in Québec. They also took part in family celebrations and school activities.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Clément and Laforest attended kite festivals as far away as New Zealand. One only needs to think of

- the International Kite Festival / Uttarayan at Ahmedabad, India (1994),

- the Rencontres internationales de cerfs-volants of Berck-sur-Mer, France (1994-97),

- the Vulandra – Festival internazionale degli Aquiloni of Ferrara, Italy (1994-2002),

- the Festival Coloriamo i Cieli of Castiglione Del Lago, Italy (1994-2002),

- the Festival Colorissimo of Cap d’Agde, France (1997-2002),

- the Festival international de cerfs-volants of Narbonne, France (1998-2002), and

- the Artevento – Festival internazionale dell’Aquiloni of Cervia, Italy (1998).

As they travelled around the globe, Laforest and Clément acquired a great many kites. This collection was displayed a few times in Québec in the late 1990s and early 2000s. One only needs to think of the 1997 Rendez-vous Mondial du Cerf-Volant of Verdun and the Un ciel, un monde kite event in Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu. The collection was also on display twice at Saint-Honoré dans le Vent, in Saint-Honoré. In 2002-2003, it went on permanent display at Laurentian Elementary School in Lachute, Québec, where Clément was a teacher.

At the time, Laforest was a programmer / analyst responsible for the websites of the INRS – Institut Armand-Frappier in Laval, Québec. He had joined this organisation in 1980, before it became a unit of the Institut national de la recherche scientifique involved in health research. Laforest was still there as of early 2018.

Sadly, Laforest was seriously injured in 2002. As a result, he and Clément had to sell Vent en Fête and were forced to end their kite festival activities. They also sold some of the kites in their collection around that time. Most of what they had left, 60 or so in all, went to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in 2003. As time went by, Laforest and Clément gradually renewed their kite flying activities. Laforest was still active as of 2017-18.

So, my reading friend, would you like to see some, and I do mean only some, sorry, of the Asian kites acquired by the Canada Aviation and Space Museum? Yes? Wonderful.

The origins of the kite are somewhat mysterious. It may actually have emerged independently at more than one place. The announcement in September 2002 of the discovery of a painting that appeared to show a human being with a kite on a wall of a cave on Muna Island, Indonesia, generated a huge interest in the international kite community. The authenticity of this work is unfortunately far from assured.

This being said (typed?), the fact is that the people of Muna Island have been making a variety of kites known as kaghati, or kagati, for a very long time. You will remember, my reading friend, that a photo of one of these kites is at the very beginning of this article. A kaghati has a frame made of bamboo, braided pineapple fibre or hibiscus bark on which leaves (wild cassava or gadoung, a variety of sweet potato) are sewn. The strings are made from braided pineapple fibres. Kaghatis are still used today for entertainment purposes. Many peasants in Sulawesi, however, used these inexpensive kites to protect their fields at planting time. These flying scarecrows were fitted with a kamuu, a bamboo bow with a rattan or palm leaf band acting as a vibrator whose sound effects were unpleasant to birds.

Other kites made from leaves have also been / are still used by fishermen of the Indonesian archipelago, and this for a long time. Some go so far as to suggest that these are the descendants of the very first kites in the world. Used in shallow water by fishermen in canoes and equipped with a snare to catch fish, these kites had the advantage of not scaring their potential prey. Very simple, they often consist of a simple orchid leaf, reinforced by two thin bamboo stalks threaded into the leaf. This type of kite was also found in the major archipelagos of the Pacific Ocean (Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia).

Other versions, used for fishing from the shore or from boats, were equipped with a hook. These flying fishing rods greatly increased the range of lines that no longer had to fear obstacles, or surf. Interestingly, some lighthouse keepers in Scotland used kites until the early 20th century to place their fishing lines beyond the reefs surrounding the small islands on which their lighthouses were built.

The use of leaves to make kites was not limited to the Indonesian archipelago and the Pacific Ocean. The Gaoshan of Taiwan, as well as the Li of the island of Hainan, off the coast of China, used to make kites using breadfruit leaves. In Martinique, in the Caribbean, a relatively similar model was made from a leaf of cecropia, breadfruit, almond tree or grapevine. The chosen leaves must not be too curved. They must be cleaned and flattened before a rod was attached to them to anchor the line. Although fragile looking, these elegant traditional kites could withstand winds of almost 30 kilometres / hour (more than 16 miles / hour). They were flown mostly around Easter, between March and May. Introduced after the arrival of Europeans in the Caribbean, this type of kite is unfortunately endangered.

In many Asian countries, kite flying has long held an important and varied place in religious, daily and cultural life. In these countries, this ingenious flying machine was not an object of leisure but an art, even a passion, which was transmitted from generation to generation. Often made from materials used for centuries (leaves, bamboo, silk, paper, etc.), the kite carried traditional, mythological or historical motifs that made it a living witness to the lifestyle of those who made it fly.

What could be more natural than having each country, not to mention every region of a country, create styles or patterns found nowhere else in the world? Thus, over the centuries, a large number of geometric shapes were put to use: circle, square, rectangle, diamond, pentagon, hexagon, etc. The kite being a flying machine by definition, the craftsmen were also inspired by birds, insects such as butterflies, or mythological creatures like the dragon, to build beautiful kites rich in colors and details.

In China, for example, the presence of kites used for various purposes seemed to be confirmed by various texts written well before the beginning of the current / Christian era. Some people began to fly kites for the sheer pleasure of it no later than the 7th century. This new entertainment was very popular and gained more and more followers. A kite day made its appearance. It was / is held in the fall, on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, at the same time as the Chong Yang festival, or double-nine festival.

The use by the Chinese of musical kites with a bamboo bow, bamboo tube or strings stretched over a small sound box seemingly began in the 10th century. The sound produced by some of these kites being somewhat similar to that of a musical instrument, the zheng, the expression feng zheng, or wind instrument, was gradually adopted in China to identify kites of all types.

A typical shayan. CASM

A typical Shayan. CASM.

Even today, kite flying remains one of the favourite leisure activities of millions of Chinese. Tiananmen Square, for example, is one of the favourite kite flying sites of Beijing residents. A type sometimes known as the shayan, or chubby swallow, is native to this region. It is a rigid wing kite resembling a swallow that flutters in the sky to announce the arrival of spring. Its structure is made of bamboo and its wing, of silk or paper.

A typical dragon kite. CASM.

This being said (typed?), the dragon kite, also known as a centipede, is one of the most spectacular kites. They come in all sizes. The dragon is composed of two parts: a head and a body. The head can be animated (turning eyes, moving tongue, etc.). It was / is often painted by hand. The body, on the other hand, consists of a series of discs, connected to each other by threads, which are for all practical purposes miniature kites. The discs, of identical or slightly decreasing size, are made of silk or nylon and can be printed or painted by hand. Each of them carries two pendulums at the end of which one finds a feather or paper decoration. Their role is to balance the kite. Many types of dragons exist but the most popular ones came from Weifang, southeast of Beijing. Some dragons are so big, over 400 metres (more than 1,300 feet) long, that it takes a well-trained team to fly them safely. These giants can indeed create an ascending force of several hundred kilograms (about 1,500 pounds).

Japan is also one of the countries distinguished by the wide variety of kites found there. Their presence in the Japanese archipelago actually dates back at least 1 000 years. A 10th century text, for example, mentioned a kite made of bamboo and paper. Since then, artisans and masters have developed models of kites with unique shapes and patterns. Among the patterns used and re-used for a long time are samurai, mythical characters or others drawn from Japanese theater, and various symbols such as the turtle which represents longevity.

A typical edo kaku dako. CASM.

A typical edo kaku dako. CASM.

Matsutani Hideo, a retired firefighter from Akashi, a town not far from Kobe, was one of the great masters of the edo kaku dako, or Edo kite, one of the most decorated traditional Japanese types. Himself a quite colourful character, Matsutani has taken part in many festivals and workshops both in Japan and abroad. The Edo kite takes its name from the ancient name of the city of Tokyo where it has been flying for a few centuries. Its structure is made of strips of bamboo, and its wing of Japanese paper sheets, or washi, prepared from mulberry bark. Its decoration is inspired by prints of samurai in their beautiful armour, kabuki theater actors or signs of the Chinese zodiac, often the dragon. The Edo kite often carries a vibrator at its top, whose sound is amplified by the wing.

A typical bangpae yeon. CASM.

A typical bangpae yeon. CASM.

The use of kites in Korea dates back a long time. Nowadays, many South Koreans fly their kites in winter and spring, especially during the Lunar New Year festivities. The kite used most frequently during these activities is rectangular in shape with a circular opening at its center. It is made of bamboo and mulberry paper. Known as the bangpae yeon, or shield kite, this fighting kite is virtually a cultural symbol in South Korea.

As is the case elsewhere in the world, the game consists of using a kite whose string is dipped in glue and covered by powdered glass to cut the string of an opponent’s kite. This sharp string is potentially dangerous. The use of combat kites has sometimes been regulated to reduce the number of incidents / accidents.

A typical wau bulan. CASM.

A typical wau bulan. CASM.

Malaysia also has a long kite flying tradition. Aerial fighting competitions were so popular that they were mentioned by chroniclers as early as the 15th century. The wau bulan, or moon kite, is the traditional fighting kite of this region of the world. Its name comes from its crescent shape and the small circle at its center. Today, it is made of bamboo and different types of paper (crepe, aluminized, silk, etc.) decorated with many fringes of color. This tailless kite is often equipped with a vibrator. The identification of the wau bulan with Malaysia and its culture is such that the national airline, Penerbangan Malaysia Airlines Berhad, has chosen it as a symbol.

The Malay kite, found in the Indonesian archipelago, attracted the attention of an American journalist and photographer during the 1890s. William Abner Eddy used it for his photographic and meteorological research. These trapeze-shaped kites, used with varying degrees of success by millions of children, including a certain Charlie Brown, are still known as Eddy kites.

A typical layang-layang. CASM.

A typical layang-layang. CASM.

The beautiful kites made in the shape of butterflies, birds or bats that fly in the sky of Bali are an integral part of local folklore. The Hindu tradition of this island in Indonesia states that kite flying was the favourite sport of the gods. There is even a kite god, Rare Angon, one of the many incarnations of the god Shiva. Some kites shaped like birds of prey have sometimes been put to a more down to earth use. Peasants flew them over their paddy fields to keep away harmful birds.

Whatever the form and style, kite flying was / is very popular in Bali. In general, these kites are made of hand-painted silk and attached to a bamboo structure. The motifs that adorn them were often drawn from the Ramayana, an ancient epic poem that told the story of the legendary gods and kings of India. Known by the generic name of layang-layang, Balinese kites take many forms. The janggan, for example, looks like a bird and has a head and a long tail.

And yes, my hard core reading friend, the “Gibson Girl” kite mentioned in a September 2018 issue of our blog / newsletter / thingee is from the collection acquired by the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in October 2003.

See you next week.

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Rénald Fortier