By: Dr. Rodney T. Hard
When my brother Sterling was 6 years old and I was 5, we saw that all the kids and many adults went a little ways up the mountain behind our house and flew kites.
This grand event was a part of the Korean celebration of Chuseok, their harvest festival, which usually took place in September around the Autumn equinox.
Wanting to be like all the other kids, we asked Dad, “Can we go fly kites, too?” Well, Dad had the grand idea that we were going to show them what a real kite was like. We would build a big American style kite and show them what it was all about.
He showed us how to build a giant diamond shaped kite and rigged it with a big ball of twine. Dad took us up the mountain to where all the kite flying was taking place. The Korean kids had these little kites about 12” X 18” in size and they used silk thread or fine sewing thread. They just threw the kite into the air and the wind would take it right up. Our kite was bigger than I was. To the great amusement and bewilderment of the Korean kids, they watched and laughed as we ran back and forth for half an hour trying to get the giant kite into the air. How embarrassing!
Then, pride swelled in my chest as Sterling finally got the kite into the air, and the majestic kite rose up on the winds coming up the mountainside, dwarfing those puny little Korean kites.
Within seconds, my pride turned to shock as our kite went flipping and flopping out of control down the mountain side as all the Korean kids laughed and started yelling, “Chae dong, nah gah tah!” This was the victory chant they used when they cut down someone else’s kite. A little boy, barely five years old, had used his special reel and expert technique to maneuver his little kite over ours and then cause it to dive so that our strings crossed. He then let his kite ride out into the wind so that his razor sharp, powdered glass covered thread cut through our heavy twine like a hot knife through butter.
My brother and I were mortified. I had never been so embarrassed in my life. As we trudged down the mountain in shame, Sterling and I made a pact that we were going to learn how to make and fly Korean kites, and we were going to beat them at their own game.
The Korean ﬁghter kite, the “bang-pae yeon”, is very distinctive; a rectangular, bowed “shield” kite with a hole in the middle of the sail. The elaborate wooden reel has four to eight branches or spokes, with a longer central rod. The reel allows a practiced kite fighter to let out and take in long lengths of line with amazing speed. To manipulate his kite, to make it climb or dive, the flier may pump the reel rapidly from eye-level to knee-level and vice-versa. The flier can also cause the kite to move to the right or left. The line is coated with glue or resin and powdered porcelain or glass. Kite fighters bring their kites, reels, and cutting line to tournaments and engage in a series of one-on-one battles until a winner prevails. Combat can last for five minutes but can conclude in as little as ten seconds with one fighter crossing his line against the other fighter’s line and slicing through it!
Years later in our early teens, my brother and I had perfected the art of kite fighting. We got all the neighborhood kids involved in making kites with bamboo and rice paper, grinding glass with hammers, making glue out of overcooked high gluten rice, and helping us coat and dry long expanses of thread with the concoction. Once the line dried with the glass abrasive impregnated, it was razor sharp.
One fine summer day, Sterling got on top of the outhouse roof to fly his new secret weapon. After an epic cat and mouse battle with an unknown kite fighter from the next neighborhood over, Sterling finally prevailed and cut through the other kite’s line. The untethered kite went flipping and flopping in the wind down toward the bay as we all taunted, “Chae rong, nah gah tah!”
A Korean friend inquired around and found out that the other kite fighter was none other than the head of the gang of hoodlums that ran the red light district next to our neighborhood. Unfortunately, the hoodlum chief had also inquired around and found out that it was Sterling who had embarrassed him by beating him in a kite fight. Rumor had it that he was looking to exact revenge and would probably beat us up if he caught us.
For the next month or so, in order to go anywhere, we had to send out Korean friends out ahead of us to scout for trouble. In order to go shopping, go to church, get a haircut, or go anywhere, we had to pass through the edge of their territory. It was dicey for a while. We eventually heard that he had been arrested in a police raid and was in jail, so we stopped worrying about passing through his turf.
Korean "Bang-pae Yeon" fighting kite with stabilizing tails.
Korean boy in traditional clothes with a kite and reel.
The arrow on the left points to the mountain side on which the kids flew kites. The arrow in the middle points to the little outhouse roof that Sterling stood on to fly his kite.
Dr. Rodney T. Hard
E-mail I received on Feb 18, 2013
I am Peter,Nam, a Korean have been living in Shenzhen,China for three years. I read your essay KITE BATTLES.
You described your childhood times so vividly and it inspired me so much and made me write a letter to you. I am very curious about where and when you had lived in Korea. Could I post your essay on my web http://koreankite.tistory.com/ ?
Bangpae making and flying is my hobby and I had a chance to teach Bangpae making method to a guy live in London. It took me about one and half years by e-mails between me live in Shenzhen,China and him in London. After that I decided to make a site on making and Korean kite, and it becomes famous Bangpae blog on portal as google,yahoo,etc.
If you approve me to post your essay and give me a chance to introduce you on my web about Korean kite, It would be a great honor of me.
Thank you very much.
Note: The post of this page is at http://koreankite.tistory.com/71
To the consternation of my older brother Sterling, Peter Nam listed me as one of three "Foreign Masters" on his website. Sterling called me and asked me why I was named a kite master when he was the one in the story that won the kite battle. Go figure!
Park Deok-Ju, Bang PaeYeon Artisan, demonstrates the elaborate wooden reel which allows the kite fighter to let out and take in long lengths of line with amazing speed.
COntent of this site copyrighted 2016 by Dr. Rodney Hard. all rights reserved.