From my son Max, presently living in Hong Kong…
Who has decorated these trees? They are covered with mysterious squares and diamonds in blood red, the Chinese colour of fortune and prosperity. They look like the sad remains of bunting put up years ago and left to make their permanent home in the branches. I am reminded of the Buddhist prayer flags I have seen fluttering against the cobalt skies of Nepal. But there are no Buddhist temples to be seen nearby, and in any case, these trees seem like unlikely candidates for such a dressing up, standing where they do around a nondescript roundabout on the northern hem of a northern suburb of Hong Kong’s New Territories.
From the junction I take the road towards the seaside, and I see more and more of these mysterious pennants—some whole, some torn and dangling from their strings. They are scattered as far as I can see in all directions: up on the hillside, attached to fences, and even lodged in gutters and perching on ledges of the nearby Baptist seminary. Finally I pass one hanging low by the pavement and I inspect it. It has one strut of bamboo and another of fibreglass holding a square of red tissue paper in tension. This is no prayer or ornament; it is a fallen combatant—a fighting kite. I put my hand out to touch its cut string. It is surprisingly stiff, and rough like a shark’s skin. I am careful not to run it through my fingers, because if it is like the Afghan kites described by Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner, the string will be covered with tiny shards of glass in a coating of glue—the better to cut the string of its opponent. I walk on towards the seaside.
Rounding a corner, I see eight kites in the sky. They spin and dart, spin and swoop, spin and soar. Taking care not to get caught in any lines, I stroll up to the kite flyers, who are all Chinese men, middle aged or older. Some sit in the open backs of cars, others sit on stones or boxes down on the beach. The beach is unattractive, as you might gather from its name, Nai Chung—”Gushing Mud”. Strapped to the legs of the men are curious rails of wood topped with rubber. Against these, they expertly drive the spindles of their reels, achieving the sudden bursts of speed with which their kites vie for position.
The men are only too willing to tell me about their pastime. “When I’m flying, I’m totally absorbed. I feel like I’m fighting,” says one, brandishing his fists at the sky. He has dark sunglasses but his well-tanned face is lit up by a broad, childish grin.
I wonder aloud whether it isn’t just luck which of two kite strings cuts the other, but he sets me right indignantly. “It’s 100% skill, there’s no luck to it at all! It takes 3 years just to learn the basic technique. I have been flying for twelve years, but some of these people have been flying for thirty, forty years!”
When I ask why all the kite flyers are old, he laughs ruefully and mimes playing a computer game console. “The youngsters—they all want to sit at home in their rooms, under the air conditioner, not out under the hot sun.”
He tells me that this isn’t just a weekend sport; people fight kites here just about every day that the wind blows. On a good day perhaps thirty pilots will come to try their skill, and in a day, one person might use a hundred kites. They buy them in bulk, very cheap, from mainland China, so they don’t bother to run after them when their lines are cut. With a wave of his hand he indicates the wooded slopes of the nearby mountain. “There must be a million kites out there,” he says. I do some mental arithmetic and realise that’s no exaggeration. “The string comes from India,” he continues. “It’s made from the same stuff as your tee-shirt, and it’s coated with…” he points to the mud on the beach. I take it he means pumice or something abrasive like that. It doesn’t sound as bad as broken glass, anyway.
“Isn’t it dangerous though? I’ve heard of people getting killed by these kite strings. There were two boys in India…”
“No, no,” he cuts in, blithely. “We’re all expert flyers. We know how to fly safely.”
I think of the notices I saw posted on the fence of the seminary grounds a hundred yards away, next to some trees that looked like an enormous spider has tied them up in a web. One of the notices features a cute clip-art kite and reads “Mind the kite strings” in English and Chinese. The other takes a distinctly chillier tone. In Chinese only, it states that according to the 1995 Aviation Act, kites must not be flown higher than 60 metres, nor within 60 metres of boats, buildings or vehicles, on pain of a 5000 dollar fine. It then helpfully suggests places where kite flying is allowed—nay, encouraged: Shek O, Clearwater Bay Beach, and Tai Mei Tuk. Finally, it provides the phone number of the police and suggests that anybody inconvenienced by kites should call them.
“Oh yes, there are lots of people who want to stop us flying here,” says my friendly kite flyer. “But we were flying kites on this beach before there were any buildings nearby.”
The wind has swung around, and the kites are now flying over the sea. One, that has just been cut loose, is dragging its string in the sea. The water provides enough friction to maintain the tension in the string, and the kite continues flying, even gaining height while it spirals off downwind. The sea itself is flying the kite. At one stage it looks like it will fly all the way to Tai Po, but at last it spirals lower and lower until the sea takes it.
“Part of the kite is plastic, isn’t it,” I say eventually. Don’t you think it might… er… inconvenience wildlife?”
“Yes,” he admits. “Just a little bit. They used to be made all of bamboo. The makers just switched to plastic—they didn’t ask us.”
On my way home I come across a fallen comrade on the road in front of me: a kite undamaged save for a little fraying of the trailing edge. I pick it up as you might a dead snake, as though afraid it might spring to life in your hands. In fact it does, for the wind threatens to take it, and I have to find a point to hold it by the crossed spars and let it blow out like a weather vane between my fingers. I slowly coil its twenty yards of string with my other hand.
I plan to hang it on my wall, but a little later, as I pass an empty stretch of beach, I’m tempted to give it one last flight. I unwind the string and give it a tug. Seeming to sense an imposter’s hand, the kite flies not an inch, but digs frantically into the beach head first. I give it to the wind a little then jerk it back, hoping to rotate it upward. It seems to get back to front, and veers madly off sideways at head height. A moment later, as though putting an end to its disgrace, it cuts itself in half on its own string and flutters back to earth. Its uncompromising spirit fled, it lies limp as a torn petal.
I put it in the bin. That at least makes it one in a million.