By Linda Wallace

Author's thoughts on the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


At the end of September, I toured a gorgeous stretch of the Oregon/Washington coast. One of the places I visited was the World Kite Museum and Hall of Fame in Long Beach—Washington, not California, home of the Queen Mary. Long Beach hosts the Washington State International Kite Festival in August. World-renown and amateur kite flyers, along with thousands of spectators, descend on the small town. Note the 2006 poster designed this year by Wendi Peterson. The kites featured on Ms. Peterson’s poster are on display at the Kite Museum.

To me, before I visited the museum, kites were only toys that little kids, like Charlie Brown, tried to fly with varying degrees of success. What I remember from the few times I attempted to put a kite up in the sky when I was a child was running until I was dizzy and discouraged with zero flight to reward my efforts. My husband knows kites. "Not enough tail," he said, and sure enough, he and my daughter managed to fly her pink kite with a regal black cat on it after adding yards and yards of tail there in Long Beach on a vacation years ago when she was small.

Modern kites are not only easier to fly than the ones that so frustrated me, they also can be powerful. Having dinner at the hotel where we stayed in Seaside, OR, my husband and I watched the kite flyers on the beach. The kites dragged fairly good-sized men along the dunes as though they were sand skiing. And when a kite first whooshed up into the air, it yanked the flyer several feet up off the ground.

The Kite Museum houses a wealth of information about the history of kites. For instance, kites were used during World War II for target practice, barrage, mail delivery and as an antenna lifter in blow-up life rafts. The first kite competition in the U.S. was at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Alexander Graham Bell and Lt. B. Baden Powell of Boy Scouting fame were among the sixteen contestants, many of whom were experimenting on using kites to lift men. And in 1906, George Lawrence used a kite to hoist a specially built fifty-pound camera to take aerial photographs of the San Francisco earthquake. His widely published photos documented the true scope of the disaster and helped mobilize the public to rebuild the city in a mere two years. The Kite Museum exhibit includes the remarkable before-and-after pictures.

I’m a bit of an airhead about history and can only absorb so much information at one time, so what I most enjoyed at the museum was feasting my eyes on the glorious kites from around the world: China, birthplace of the kite; Japan; Thailand; Malaysia and Indonesia, where the first kites were made of leaves and were used to get their fishing lines farther out to sea. And to catch fruit bats.

But never mind about how useful kites can be, what I love is the art. Birds, fish, frogs, bats, dragons, insects, warriors, bathing beauties—all depicted in intricate detail with rich, jewel-toned colors. Some emit sounds, too. Gongs and drums are controlled with miniature windmills. Whistles made from gourds, reed pipes and bamboo play songs changing with velocity. Bells produce sounds ranging from tinkling to gong-like. Hummers are produced by stretching strings of silk tied to the ends of a bowed piece of bamboo on the back of a kite.

Kite fighting is big in many cultures. When I read that the Taliban had forbidden and criminalized kite flying, I wondered why that was such a big deal. Kite flying didn’t seem all that important to me. Why would they even bother to ban it? But it’s major entertainment in many countries. Large crowds gather on rooftops in Afghanistan to battle with kites. The kite strings are coated with pulverized glass and used to saw at the opponent’s string until one of the kites is liberated. In last Sunday’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer comics, Jason from the Bill Amend cartoon, "Fox Trot," attempts to destroy the competition by attaching a chain-saw to his fighter kite. But, of course, it won’t fly. Somewhat like the kites of my youth.


At 10:13 AM, Blogger EilisFlynn said...

I've heard about that museum! I've always had the same problem with kites -- I couldn't get them to fly, but at least I could watch others get them to soar. I grew up with the different kinds when I was a kid in Japan, and they were always a joy to watch. For whatever reason, I haven't seen them much since we moved back here, and now you're making me feel nostalgic!

At 2:49 PM, Blogger Linda Wallace said...

You definitely need to take a trip to Long Beach. Kite flyers practice their art all up and down the coast. The museum has numerous beautiful examples of Japanese kites and a video of a Japanese version of kite fighting involving bringing huge kites down out of the sky, accompanied by great excitement from the spectators. According to the 1991 "Guiness Book of Records," The Japanese hold the world's record for the number of kites flown on one line, 2,233 flown by Kinji Tfuda in the Chiba Prefecture. Until 1978, Japan also held the record for the largest kite in the world: 36' x 48'. It's still built every year in Showa. Wighing nearly a ton, it takes 50 men to fly.


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