A Tall Tail

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A Tall Tail

One desperate night 20 years ago, Woo Doo-sang went home to his Seoul apartment without enough money to buy rice to feed his family the next day. An impatient creditor had stormed into Mr. Woo's furniture store that day and the man's shrill voice still rang in Mr. Woo's ears: "Give me my money - or else."

The only hope he had was in a newspaper ad he'd seen for a kite-fighting competition in On-yang, Gyeonggi province. Mr. Woo had flown traditional Korean kites, yeon, since childhood and had some experience in kite fight competitions. Traditional kite shapes vary from country to country. The yeon is square or rectangular in shape, and flies on one string that is attached to a stool on the other end. Mr. Woo had his sights set on the prize money - 300,000 won ($230).

He turned to his wife, Park Soon-young, and said, "We have nothing else to do tomorrow besides look at our dwindling pantry. Let's at least enjoy tomorrow by being outside and flying kites."

"You're crazy," his wife said. "We're starving, and we owe the bank 5 million won." But she finally agreed.

"That day in 1981 changed my life," says Mr. Woo, 67. He is sitting inside a studio crammed with dusty boxes, rolls of string, stacks of hanji, or rice paper, paints, brushes, glue and kites from all over the world.

Emboldened by memories of flying kites and winning a few recent competitions, Mr. Woo drove down to On-yang the next day. He won his first six one-on-one matches that day to advance to the final round. That guaranteed him 100,000 won, enough at least to feed his family. He won the next match, which assured him 200,000 won, more than enough to feed his family. Though elated with his performance so far, he cleared his mind to face his final opponent. What Mr. Woo did not know at the time was that his chief competition was an elementary school teacher from Busan whose promotion, Mr. Woo says, depended on winning the match.

The sun was setting and the wind eased off. The teacher had 10 extra meters of string to play with to Mr. Woo's 3 meters, giving him an edge. Soon after the fight began, the teacher made a sudden move to draw his kite under Mr. Woo's. Mr. Woo frantically reeled his kite in, wheeled it around and swiftly cut through the teacher's kite string.

"With the prize money, I took six friends out to a Chinese restaurant and we ate like royalty for 12,000 won," Mr. Woo recalls. "I came home and bought two bags of rice, and I even had money left over." While still short of the money he owed the bank, his spirits were lifted.

Mr. Woo turns around and reaches into a cluttered cabinet behind him. He finds on the top shelf the trophy he got for beating the teacher from Busan, and says, "I'll always remember that day."

Asked which was the latest trophy he got for kite fighting, he has to think for a moment. Then he gets up and brushes past heaped-up piles of kite material, kneels on top of a raised platform and fishes out a trophy won at the Asian Festival of Kites in Sri Lanka last September. "I have so many," he says, referring to his 180-odd trophies scattered all over the room.

Mr. Woo is now something of a legend in the world kite flying community. He is "one of the few who lives for kites," according to Bae Chun-ho, an interior designer who can be found Sunday afternoons flying kites in Yeouido. "He's at the top of his class," Mr. Bae said.

Indeed, Mr. Woo's reputation precedes him. That used to work in his favor, but the competing dynamic is getting different. "Before, all I had to do was enter my name in a competition and my opponents would hear my name and lose gi (spirit)," he explains. But after winning competition after competition, in countries from France to Japan, his opponents have been adopting a nothing-to-lose attitude: They disregard conventional tactics and go straight for the kill.

"It's scary," Mr. Woo says.

Winter is the season for kite fighting due to its steadier prevailing winds, which are more suitable for the sport. Accordingly, Mr. Woo has a full season of kite flying ahead of him. His next two competitions will be in Busan and Gwangju, both in February. To train, and to enjoy the outdoors, he flies his kites by the Han River in Banpo-dong. During the week, he holds special kite flying classes for youngsters up to college age. But most of his time is spent making kites by hand to fill orders for stores in Insa-dong and requests from his Web site (my.dreamwiz.com/folkkite).

Though Mr. Woo keeps busy with the sport, kite flying is dying in Korea, he says, adding that the sport and the craft are better respected in other countries. "It's a shame," he says. "Traditional Korean kites are the best fighting kites. I want to see more Koreans remembering their culture and flying kites."

Like many Koreans from his generation, Mr. Woo loved to fly kites for fun when he was young. His father was a kite craftsman; as a boy in the small town of Jinju, South Gyeongsang province, Mr. Woo would watch his father churn out as many as 200 recreational kites a night. In the morning, the younger Mr. Woo would sell them at the market and bring the money home for the family. When he was in his 20s, he left the rural life behind to attend college in Seoul. Just after he graduated, his father died.

After working in the furniture industry for years at a number of different jobs, Mr. Woo started making kites again, and the memories came flooding back to him. "After flying kites once more, I was determined to immerse myself in them and become a master."

The table in front of him is covered with bundles of thin bamboo sticks. He picks one up and heats it against the gas stove. He looks at its length, bends it, and heats it again. "The craft has changed from when my father made kites," he says. Not only have the materials improved, but the standards of good fighting kites have gone up.

A quality fighting kite has to be strong enough to survive the strongest winds but light enough to lift off in the faintest. The paper must not disintegrate if it is snowing. The paint has to be waterproof.

The sticks form the backbone of the kite. Mr. Woo places a protective rubber mat over his right thigh, picks up a notched knife and whittles at each stick. He picks up a blue sheet of hanji painted with two black triangles on the upper corners. He glues the sticks on the rice paper to form an X, stretches the paper and glues on one more stick.

He leaves the partially finished kite on a plastic chair by the gas stove to dry. Then he gets up and walks over to a small butane stove on the floor, saying he wants to make some tea. He shakes several fuel canisters to see if they've got any fluid left. The first five or so are empty, apparently, but then he finds one with enough gas to boil water for his tea. He turns and says that none of his four children, in their 30s and 40s, is interested in taking up his craft.

Mr. Woo's children send him and his wife money so he can live comfortably and spend his days hand-crafting kites. He also has sponsors. "By myself, I only make enough money for cigarettes and rent," he says.

He sips his tea, then picks up the kite and props it against a plastic object. He glues one more stick to the taut surface. "The kite has to be slightly curved to catch the wind," he says.

With the long nail of his right pinkie finger, he tucks in some loose ends, then gently irons the paper. He checks each corner and side for perfect alignment. He finishes gluing on the strings in silence. The strings are all tied together on one end in a loop. When the kite is ready to be flown, a string several dozen meters long will be attached to the loop.

Then he looks up, and says, "I am alive because of kites."

Once upon a time, kites helped win wars

The first record of kites in Korea dates back to the 7th century and the Silla Dynasty. General Kim Yu-sin was commanding an army for the newly enthroned Queen Jindeok. After 10 days of combat against a rebel army that was seeking to oust her, a shooting star appeared. The general's army believed it was a bad omen and lost heart. The next night, General Kim attached a flaming doll to a kite and sent it into the air, raising his troupe's morale. His army was victorious.

The military turned to kites once again during wars against the Japanese at the end of the 16th century. Soldiers flew kites with diagrams that communicated secret codes.

Of course, kites have also been used as toys. At one point they were so popular that King Yong-jo (1724-1776) of the Joseon Dynasty banned them on the ground that kite-flying farmers were neglecting their fields. He decreed that anyone caught flying kites after the January full moon would be labeled a baekjeong, a term for a lower-class person typically used then for butchers.

About 50 years ago, traditional Korean kites became popular as fighting kites. The object is to cut the string of your opponent's kite. While most countries have a tradition of kite-flying, Korean kites are rather distinctive from the rest: The rectangular-shaped yeon can rotate more, up to 280 degrees, on a single thread, making it versatile in kite fights. The best fighting kites have simple designs. The more paint on the hanji, the heavier and more unwieldy the kite becomes.

To make good string music, read the wind, brace the feet

The sky by the Han River becomes a garden of kites every lunar New Year's Day, which this year falls on Feb. 11. But flying traditional Korean kites is not as easy as it appears.

According to the many grandfather kite fliers you'll find on Seoul's grassy areas on Sunday afternoons, flying a yeon takes lots of skill and a healthy body.

You have to read the wind and swiftly reel the kite in, or loosen the string, all while keeping two feet planted to the ground. But the experience of being outdoors, feeling the breeze and watching the yeon fly high in the sky is well worth the effort.

One school that teaches the making and flying of yeon is Korea Kite, which can be reached at 02-701-9408 (Korean only). Also, shops lining the banks of the Han River sell recreational kites that are easier to fly.

by Joe Yong-hee

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