Wugiao: Hi-flying Hometown of Chinese Acrobatics

After executing six handsprings in a row, the cherubic six-year-old beams with satisfaction, while one of his fellow acrobats winces as he tries to contort his body into a metal tube.  It’s all in a long day’s work for these Chinese children in Wugiao, in Hebei Province, who are studying at the elite International Acrobatics Art Training Center.  Their parents have paid as much as 8000 RMB ($1280) per month for the privilege of having their children learn an ancient art that has thrived here for over two thousand years and that may prove to be their ticket to success. If they make it here, a few of these children may even be accepted into the China National Acrobatic troupe that travels the globe entertaining audiences in capital cities of the west.  Others, who may not have what it takes to be hand-standing, back-bending ambassadors to the world, might join the many acrobatic troupes who perform locally throughout China.

I spent three days while on my Grand Canal story  [NG magazine, May 2013] in the small town of Wugiao, known as the hometown of Chinese acrobatics, and saw firsthand the tiny troupers who practice amazing physical feats.

Wugiao has a long history of training aspiring acrobats from 3 to 18 years of age from all over China. From tumblers to contortionists to jugglers and trapeze artists, all the circus arts come together here.  The training center is run like a family of athletes, with older students caring for the younger ones.  Children live in dormitories and are schooled by teachers who were former performers themselves.

Covering the local acrobatic schools and troupes in Wugiao provides a rare glimpse into the elite, often extreme, training techniques used for Chinese athletes, without the tight security and oversight of government-sponsored national schools and camps.  The provincial schools follow the same formula for producing world-class athletes as the national teams; they take children at early ages and work with them until they reach their prime age for performance or competition in their teens.

Watching these kids go through their paces puts a whole new spin on the concept of running away to join the circus.

©Michael Yamashita

Three-year-old twins are among the youngest students at the Changfa Acrobatic School in Wuqiao County.
Their program includes tumbling, juggling and basic education.

©Michael Yamashita
©Michael Yamashita
©Michael Yamashita
©Michael Yamashita

©Michael Yamashita

©Michael Yamashita
©Michael Yamashita

©Michael Yamashita

Dorm life at the Changfa Acrobatic School.

©Michael Yamashita
©Michael Yamashita

©Michael Yamashita

Aspiring performers attending school.

 

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Posted in China, Photography | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Fighting Fire With Fire

The Fourth of July is a day when members of fire companies all over the country, myself included, dust off their dress blues and shine up the trucks, in preparation for local parades and all the other Independence Day festivities.  It’s usually a day of great camaraderie and celebrations, but this year, we’ll be marching with soberness and sadness, as we think about the 19 firefighters who lost their lives fighting the wildfires in Arizona.  Whenever a fire-related disaster occurs, it feels personal to anyone who’s ever entered a burning building or raced to push back a wall of fire from a parched forest.  We know what a daunting adversary fire is. While there’s an undeniable rush of adrenaline that comes with tackling a major blaze, as any firefighter will confirm, those who’ve experienced it know that this is no game.  A mere shift in the wind can unleash the full fury of fire.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots were an elite group, thoroughly trained in how to manage wildfires, the hardest kind of blazes to contain.  And yet, even with all their training, their bravery and their instincts, a change in the direction of the wind gave the fires the upper hand.

The Hotshots were skilled professionals, but the methods they used were the ones we all learn, even those of us who are volunteers.  A firebreak, which the Hotshots were attempting to build in Arizona, is one of the basic tools that we use to contain raging blazes.  The idea is to dig a deep trench around the flames — to stop their forward progress.  A second technique is to beat fire at its own game by removing what it can devour.  To do that, fire companies use a technique called a back fire — a counter-intuitive approach that preemptively stops a fire’s forward progress by intentionally igniting the inner edge of a fire to consume any fuel in its path.  A fire can’t survive without something to burn.

Both these techniques are used to hold back advancing fires, and as we saw in Arizona, a storm front combined with wind can make doing that not only difficult but also life-threatening.  That’s why forest managers use a third technique — controlled burns — to help stop fires before they even start.  To eliminate fire’s food –underbrush, dried leaves and branches — we lay down an accelerant along a defined line and lighting it with the wind to our backs. We use controlled (also called prescribed) burns a lot where I live in western New Jersey, which has vast tracts of forests and green spaces.  During droughts, we, too, are susceptible to wild fires, so controlled burns ahead of time can literally be lifesavers.  (To donate to a fund for the Hotshots’ survivors and others affected by the Yarnell, AZ fires, here’s a link: www.unitedwayyavapai.org.)

 

©Michael Yamashita

Creating a firebreak using a back fire.

©Michael Yamashita

Controlled Burn, starting a fire using gasoline in a drip can to remove the fire’s food, dried leaves and branches on the forest floor.

©Michael Yamashita

©Michael Yamashita

©Michael Yamashita

Hot and sweaty work in heavy smoke conditions.

©Michael Yamashita

©Michael Yamashita

A firebreak acts as a barrier to stop or slow the spreading fire by creating a gap in the combustible materials that feed the flames, here created along a country road.

 

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Posted in New Jersey, Photography | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments