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Kite Fighters Own the Sky

  • Mary-Rose Abraham

L.A.'s Balboa Park is crowded with parents and children flying kites on a typical windy afternoon. But they turn away from their colorful butterfly designs and rainbow streamers to watch Johnny Hsiung's fighter kite swoop across the sky.

His kite -- and other airborne warriors -- do battle until one falls from the sky. Mr. Hsiung's kite shoots up like a rocket. He can barely see it, but he can feel the tension of the string on his fingers. Then his friend Basir Beria sends up his kite nearby. He purposely moves his kite string onto Mr. Hsiung's line and cuts it. The kite flutters to the ground, bringing a cry of defeat from its handler. "Ohhhhhh, you got me," he admits. "I was holding it. That cut it. Good fight."

Unlike ordinary kite lines, fighter kites use manjha, string encrusted with glass paste. This is the essential weapon of a fighter kite....and one that Basir Beria spends a lot of time handcrafting at home. The father of three sits cross-legged on the cool concrete in his backyard workshop, pounding a pestle onto glass shards in the mortar at his feet. "It's going to take over an hour just to make almost even half a pound of glass," he says. The process can sometimes take two or three hours.

Mr. Beria has been kite fighting since he was a boy in Afghanistan. His father taught him how to make manjha and he's refined those techniques over the years. Thick glass -- taken from the bottom of beer bottles and jelly jars -- is now smoother than talcum powder, and Mr. Beria dumps the soft mound into a can of boiling glue. "It smells a little bit bad," he laughs, "but I love it!"

His hands are etched with deep scratches from making manjha -- and from the kite competitions themselves. He slowly unravels a spool of string and uses his fingers to smooth glass paste onto 700 meters of the line. While the manjha dries, Mr. Beria crafts the body of the kite. The design is made of ordinary tissue paper in ruby reds and peacock blues. But he uses special materials, like aged bamboo, to make the kite strong enough for competition.

"That bamboo is 40 years can cut it like cheese, so nice," he says with delight. "When you see the bamboo that's bending so good, so curved, everything's so nice...bam!" He laughs, picturing the new kite in aerial combat.

Basir Beria usually spends about five hours constructing a simple fighter kite. More elaborate ones with hand painted designs -- like the ones that fill Johnny Hsiung's home -- are for collecting. Mr. Hsiung has been kite fighting since he was a boy in Bangladesh. As an adult, he has traveled around the world to participate in competitions. In the process, he's collected hundreds of kites. Decorative Japanese kites paper his walls. Dozens of sleek American fighters are stacked in a cardboard box in the dining room. And he proudly displays the largest of the fighter kites, the Afghans, with a meter-wide wingspan.

"People who are crazy about fighting, they love to fly this because they dominate the whole sky," Mr. Hsiung explains. "They know it's like a tank and they don't want anyone cutting them. They just sit up there and wait. They own the sky."

For Johnny Hsiung, Basir Beria and other competitors, owning the sky is what kite fighting is all about. That is what they try to do -- after hours of painstaking work and practice -- when they meet in a Los Angeles park and do battle on a windy California day.