London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

2010 Travel Diary #15: Korean Kites, Kim Ki-chan and Cho Se-hui’s Dwarf

Tuesday 4 May 2010. Although I’m very proud of the organisation I work for – a multinational company with a long heritage – I try to keep my Korean hobby and my day job separate. But I thought that as I was in Seoul I ought to pay a visit to some of my local colleagues: one day I might need their help. So I arranged to have lunch with the local head of communications, Ms Kim (not her real name). She’s someone with a truly international outlook, having worked overseas for a European industrial company for many years. She’s now got the job of managing media relations, internal communications and corporate social responsibility for the Korean operations of the organisation I work for.

Kim Ki-chan
from the Kim Ki-chan retrospective at the Seoul Museum of History

We have the normal get-to-know you conversation, and chat about the challenges and rewards of doing business in Korea. But it’s the third part of her job remit which interests me most: for corporate social responsibility includes things like art sponsorship.

Korean Fighting KiteOne of the pleasures of running my website is the occasional off-the-wall question I get asked by visitors. When I first logged in to my email account on arriving in Seoul a few days previously I received the following random query:

“I am trying my hand at making Korean fighting kites. A friend is visiting Seoul on business in a week’s time and has kindly said he will try and get me the real thing. Do you know of the address of any shops or kite makers in Seoul where he could buy a traditional bamboo and paper Korean fighting kite, and especially, if any would speak English.”

That’s a bit of a specialist question, but while ago in London the Korean Cultural Centre had an exhibition by some of Seoul’s finest craftsmen and women – holders of the city’s intangible cultural properties. I recalled that one of the exhibits was a traditional Korean kite.

And now Ms Kim was telling me that as part of her remit she tries to support some of Seoul’s intangible cultural property holders.

Before I know it, I have the name and phone number of the holder of Seoul’s intangible cultural property number 4 (traditional kite making) together with details of an Insadong store which sells his kites, which I immediately send to my interested reader.

Job done. And I had a very nice lunch into the bargain. Thank you, Ms Kim.

Seoul Museum of History
Seoul Museum of History

We have half an hour to kill before setting off for our next appointment and so head off to the Seoul Museum of History in the Seodaemun area. It’s getting warm and muggy, and schoolboys are playing in the fountains outside the museum entrance.

from the Kim Ki-chan retrospective at the Seoul Museum of History

Inside, there’s no time to see the permanent displays. Instead, there’s a retrospective of Kim Ki-chan’s atmospheric photographs of 1970s Seoul: the narrow alleys between the precariously built small houses which formed much of the housing stock before being cleared away to make room for the new apartment blocks which are now a familiar part of Seoul’s landscape. It’s this very area of Jungnimdong in Jung-gu, central Seoul, which is the setting of Cho Se-hui’s A Dwarf Launches a Ball, which tells the story of the lives of the ordinary people who live in these shanty areas. Kim Ki-chan’s images eloquently bring them to life: car-free alleys where children can safely play and mothers can sit with their neighbours and toddlers: a communal life which is perhaps less possible in the tower blocks which replaced them. Seoul seems to be full of felicitous coincidences: it just so happens that I’m reading Cho Se-hui’s Dwarf at the moment. And it’s good to see that in Seoul’s rapidly developing history these phases are chronicled, enshrined and remembered.


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6 thoughts on “2010 Travel Diary #15: Korean Kites, Kim Ki-chan and Cho Se-hui’s Dwarf

  1. Playing on the boundary between order on chaos
    – the subtle elegance of the Korean fighting kite.

    Thank you Philip and Ms Kim,

    My friends have just brought the fighting kite back from Korea. What a kite! They are the fastest fighting kites in the world. I built my first in the 1970s and launched it in a gale. It lifted off like a rocket and zipped around the sky like a formula one motor car. Before smashing itself to pieces as it hit the ground at speed. I never forgot the exileration. Since then my interest in Korea has been as a campaigner against nuclear weapons and as a historian. But once you have flown a fighting kite … well recently I determined to try again. To prepare my wife for the inevitable I told her to look at it as “aeronautical” experiments. Crash followed crash. I built better kites. Better crashes followed. I learn a lot from Mac at Macfighter kites who is a master builder of Indian fighting kites. He is immensely generious with advice. Finally I had a kite that flew! But now it was too stable! A fighting kite operates on the border between order and chaos. Unlike a Western stunt kite it has just one string. If the string is taught, the wind bends its spars backwards and it is stable. Release some string and it becomes flat. It is now unstable and flits about. You then pull the string when it is facing the way you want it to go…. and it shoots off. Such an elegant solution. So much more subtle than the Western stunt kite which you use two strings to simply force it to go where you want!

    I was delighted when my friends Robert and Katheryn told me they were going to Korea and would be happy to track down a stunt kite.

    A short internet search gave me this website and Philip took up the challenge. Well as soon as the kite arrive back I took a careful look at it and it was immediately apparent that I was getting some things wrong. The Japanese paper I was using was too heavy … the bamboo spars too rigid. I was up before dawn building a new kite… and flew it in the tiny local Shoreditch Park next day.

    It flew like a dream and suddenly I noticed that it was being chased by two young children. I would bring it down to within their reach … then get lift a bit and fly along parrallel… they would chase after it and I would let them catch it. A bit of direction and the elder of the two girls worked out how to launch it. She was very concerned to keep it out of the hands of her younger sister who kept reaching up to get it from her. I soon swapped places and she was completely entranced to watch it lift up into the sky. I encouraged her to crash it… the best way in my experience to relieve anxiety in novice fighting kite fliers is to tell them to practice crashing! and her younger sister tried too. I carefully disentagle her from the kite line and rescue the kite before she tramples it… and we fly it briefly… harmony between sisters is restored.

    Well there is still much to be mastered. If any Korean kite makers can advise me on exactly the technique for applying steam to the paper prior to gluing it to the bamboo spars and the degree of bend the spars should have I would be most grateful… Also, I am keen to understand the mysteries of the four string bridle and its adjustment! I hope to write a brief paper on Korean fighting kites. I would be very interested in an e-mail correspondence with kite fliers in Korea who make their own fighting kites. Anyone interested should also look at the website of the Drachen foundation in Seattle who have a great collection of Korean fighting kites and have been advising me on the correct paper and other details – I believe they plan to have building instructions on their website soon.

    I hope to write a brief paper introducing Korean fighting kites (perhaps London Korean Links would be interested in putting it on their website!).

    To end. To me there is something tremendous about such spontanious cooperation between people previously unknown to each other across the world. In the European/Mediterrainan/North African world the idea that it is only humanity as a whole that can accomplish what man is capable of and that peace is required to do this goes back to the Muslim philosopher Averroes and to Dante, passes to the present by way of Karl Marx’s general intellect, and on to us in the present.

    So three cheers for
    Ms Kim (Korea),
    Philip, Robert, Katheryn and Mac (UK),
    and Ali Fujino and Shelly Leavens (Draken Foundation, Seattle).

  2. My students and I, too, made a number of Korean fighting kites, and practiced flying them in Rizal Park, Manila. Many of my students and viewers initially thought of the kites as weird or a joke because they have holes in the middle. Then I explained to them why, and demonstrated how Korean fighter kites are flown, utilizing the shift from stability to instability as the string is fed through (let go) or pulled.

    We learned to make those kites, many years back, from the descriptions of Korean students who were then studying here in Manila.

  3. I’m wondering whether you’d be willing to share the store information with me as I, too, have an interest in kites, and will be traveling to Seoul soon. I’d love to find a store selling wonderful Korean fighting kites.

  4. Hi Andrea

    This is an edited version of the email I sent to Dominick back in May 2010. Whether the guidance will still work, I’m not sure. But anyway, Insadong is a nice place to visit. Good luck




    My recommendation is that your friend goes to Insadong shopping street,
    which he will love to browse anyway, and pop into the Tourist Information
    shop. They speak reasonable English there. They should be open in the
    evenings, though after 9pm would be pushing it a bit. Ask them to log on to and click on the bottom link in the left hand sidebar – this gives details of where a shop is near Insadong, which is an outlet which has a number of different artists / craftspeople. I think it’s a high-class place, and I’m told the retail space is upstairs, so you’ll need to ask at the Tourist Information place exactly where it is otherwise you probably won’t find it, though there seems to be a picture of the outside of the shop if you click on the link.

    Or maybe you could ask them to click on and ask them to advise.

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