Hou Kai: The Story of a Chinese Acrobat

This article originally appeared in Circus Girl Magazine

It’s 8:30 pm and we are both exhausted from the training day, I can see he’s nervous about giving an interview especially to a Westerner. It’s a hot, sticky Beijing night. The Chinese acrobats and arts students are just leaving their night training sessions and classes.

“My Chinese name is Hou Kai. My English name Kai.”

Photograph by Faith Wassmann

I first met Hou Kai a year ago while training as a part of a professional development towards my own skills as an acrobat at the Beijing International Arts School, home of The China National Acrobatic Troupe. He’s a handsome young man, stylish and has an air of grace about him. Charismatic and unlike most of the young men here, not shy around a western girl. Hou Kai is one of two children in his family making him even more unusual in China’s one child policy.

“I started training with the Shaolin [monks] in martial arts when I was five years old. I changed to study acrobatics at seven.” It surprised me to hear that he liked training (most of the time), even though it was his parents that chose his path. In my experience and conversations many acrobats here at the school do not love what they do. Their path was chosen for them or in lieu of another sport; the training in China is extremely difficult by any world standard. Early mornings, long days and late nights, 6-7 days a week. It is also highly controlled. Your teacher (or Lao shi) owns your time, your pain and your progress. Although Hunan is his hometown, Hou Kai moved to Beijing at 10 years old where he specialized in Chinese pole and Acrobatics. It was at this time that he started performing with the China National Acrobatic Troupe. From as early as 11 he toured with the Troupe to the US, Turkey, Germany, Japan and Greece. When I asked him his favorite country he told me it was Greece, because of its history, philosophers, athletes and the sea. He traveled with both The China National Acrobatic Troupe and as part of smaller troupes, as a guest in foreign countries. It is very unusual but Hou Kai has a working passport and a personal passport as a result of one of the smaller shows (some countries require Chinese visitors to have a personal and a working passport), which means he can travel quite freely unlike his classmates.

At 15 Hou Kai blew out both his ACL’s – what would be a game ender for most acrobats in China. He remembers that day and how much he cried. He loved tumbling but needed an operation. This was the end of tumbling for him in the Troupe. The scar tissue in both legs is thick. For over 3 years he has dragged himself to the second floor of our training building at the school to retrain new acts so that he could perform. No teachers, no directors, no help. Just sheer will and a little inspiration. This is how I met him: 6:00 am classes, training and studying every morning until final class at 8:30 pm – including weekends. Finally, after all this time, he has started to tumble again. Although he tells me he has trouble on colder days. His regular program consists of bounce juggling, hat juggling and manipulation, and of course (one of the circus disciplines China is famous for) Diabolo. He also loves to dance. “I want to make my own style in my own way; I want to be someone like Michael Jackson.”

Hou Kai says he likes the spirit and for him (and many other Chinese) Michael Jackson represents freedom of the spirit, a miracle or inspiration. In broken English he tells me, “My parents ask me do you like Michael Jackson? Michael Jackson is not of your age. When I first saw Michael Jackson I am in the injury home [hospital], I don’t know what I can do [anymore]. I think it’s a power. I can do most things. I felt life. My Father Mother don’t like me to like this. I see his power. I think can do these most things.”

It has finally come for Hou Kai to leave the school after nearly 9 years. The current captain of the school does not like his program – or him for that matter – which means that Hou Kai is unable to work in the regular shows that the Troupe puts on for tourists. Fortunately, Hou Kai’s English is better than average which he says gives him freedom in a way. “Freedom” is a word that he has used often throughout our conversation.

He says he is leaving this month, and will continue to study and work on his programs. He doesn’t know where he’s going yet. He has not been to another city in 3 years because of his injury. He says he has no fear but he’s not sure, though he believes hard work will get him there. Finding work in China for a solo acrobat is a relentless task. “It’s important to always have a spirit for study and work hard.” Something, it appears, has already served him well.