Did you know that there are many types of traditional kites in Malaysia? The famous “Wau” or traditional kites are mostly made in and associated with Kelantan. The kites are made of split bamboo and coloured paper with tassels and strings. The art of making kites is not easy. The kites need to be of a certain composition, structure and weight, and made of specific materials so they can fly well. The span of a wau can go up to 12 feet from nose to tail, yet it can still fly well. Wau Bulan, the traditional, crescent moon shaped kite from Kelantan is well known for its ability to be stable and fly well.
The artistic element of a wau, or its beauty is as important as its function. The images on a wau and its shape reflect its origins and surrounding, whilst the coloured papers of a wau are meticulously cut and pasted together in multi-layers to create a sense of harmony in colours and reflect the light as a wau flies in the sky. Often, a wau competition awards points for both its beauty when it is on the ground, and its function when it is flying in the sky.
The name “Wau” apparently came from the Arabic letter, which resembles the shape of the kite. However, it is also said that the name Wau comes from the sound the kite makes – a low droning repetitive sound from the string when it is moved from side to side or when it moves in the wind.
In Malaysia, the kites have been in use for centuries. Farmers have been known to use the kites as scarecrows in the paddy fields as well as to lull their babies to sleep with the repetitive, droning sounds. The legendary Wau Bulan apparently was created during the Srivijaya Empire (from as early as the 7th century). According to the legend, a young prince Dewa Muda used the framework of the kite to map territories that he will then conquer and later illustrate on the map. As his territories grow, the kite illustrations will too.
Other types of Wau include “Wau Dodo Helang”, “Wau Kebayak”, “Wau Daun”, “Wau Kikik”, “Wau Merak”, “Wau Puyuh”, “Wau Kapal”, “Wau Seri Bulan”, “Wau Helang”, “Wau Kangkang”, and the “Wau Seri Negeri”. Although beauty is important, to the Wau enthusiast, the most important factor to determine a good wau is actually the sound or ‘dengung’ that resonates from the Wau when it is high up in the air flying against the strong winds.
The art of making kites is still alive in Malaysia, though less people play kites as a past time or grow up flying kites compared to before. If we stop to think, the traditional wau has entered our visual vocabulary for a long time. MAS airline uses the Wau as a brand image. The iconic shape of “Wau Kucing” appears on the tail of each plane of Malaysia’s national airline. Pak Sapie, the late master wau maker from Kelantan was prominently featured in a Visit Malaysia Year poster. The popular Johor International Kite Festival is a highlight every year for Malaysians and tourists.
We visited a Wau maker recently in Kelantan – the wau maker inherited his special skills from his father, who was a famous Adiguru or master Wau Maker, none other than Pak Sapie. Pak Sapie was a master kite-maker who innovated a way to make foldable kites so that they can be collapsed into smaller pieces for better transport.
The wau maker now makes kites to order from his workshop along Pantai Cahaya Bulan in Kelantan. He makes a wide variety of traditional kites by hand. He works with his wife, who designs the kites. Although the demand for kites has lessened, some of his biggest customers come from Johor or people who want to compete and participate in the Johor International Kite Festival every year.
People also order kites for ornaments and souvenirs. He laments that not many young people play with kites anymore although he still gets students to come to his workshop to make, then go out to the beach or nearby open spaces to play kites. The thought of getting more young people being interested in the art of making and playing kites brings a big smile to his face: “Our tradition is important, and must not be lost. The young people must carry on our tradition for us, that is why I am still making kites”.