Reviving the art of storytelling

In this era of mass communications, a dedicated groupof storytellers are seeking to revive the art, writesVanessa Yung

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 4:37pm

Most Hongkongers are familiar with the Chinese folk tale about the hare who lives on the moon, grinding herbs to make the elixir of life for the moon goddess Chang'e. But have you heard the tale about the hare and his friends the jackal, the otter and the monkey?

Inspired by a wise man in their village, the four creatures resolved to do something to help the poor on the day of the full moon. Three came up with ways to feed people in need, but the hare, who knew only how to gather grass, figured the only way he could help was to offer his body. A deity who overheard this decided to see if he would keep his word, appearing before the hare as a starving beggar. The hare didn't disappoint. As a reward, the deity drew a picture of the hare on the moon with soot he obtained by crushing a mountain so that the hare would always be remembered.

"The hare helped the people wherever he was caught on earth. And when the hare's time on earth had finished, he went up to the moon. And there he sat on the silver floor, helping the people whenever he could from his mighty throne on the moon," says veteran educator Lynne Kirk, winding up her tale.

"So, sniff, snap, snout. My story is out."

Kirk loves telling stories, and two years ago she got together with like-minded writer Janet Mann to set up Talespinners, a group dedicated to hosting regular storytelling events and workshops. To mark the Mid-Autumn Festival, they held a special children's session where members introduced tales from round the world that are linked to the moon, including one from Brazil about the moon warriors of the Amazon.

"We both are passionate about stories, and we're both passionate storytellers - not to be confused with reading stories. It's an oral tradition," Kirk says.

An age-old art form, storytelling has long been used to entertain communities and record their history, as well as to teach values to younger generations. Traditionally, the way a story is told also reflects the origins of the tale and the society that produced it. So, at a time when people are increasingly communicating with each via social media or other digital channels, why are these women putting so much energy into what appears to be an anachronistic practice?

"I'm passionate about stories because you can teach so much and learn so much through stories. It's very important, for children especially. It develops their language and listening skills. It opens up their imagination," Kirk explains.

"And you can also see the stories as metaphors for your own life. Being lost in a forest, you can wonder what you're going to do with your life - a career change or something like that. Coming out of the forest means, theoretically speaking, maybe you've found your role in life. The challenges you have to do in stories can be personal challenges you see in life. Stories are very deep. They are not superficial."

Talespinners has attracted a small but devoted group made up mostly of writers and educators, including Jenn Horgos. "I tell stories a lot through teaching. I'm an English teacher, so we use a lot of stories and English literature. It's something I've wanted to develop my skills in," says Horgos, who told a story about about Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon, who is so moved by the beauty of the shepherd Endymion, she kisses him while he's asleep. She also read a poem by Tang dynasty poet Li Bai.

"My long-term goal is to bring kids together and get them telling stories. It helps them learn to communicate and articulate. When they hear stories, it gives them a model and they can start to create their own. It helps with their self-expression. Sometimes it makes it easier to talk about issues that are difficult, too personal," Horgos says. "It's good for adults for the same reason - to communicate better - and it's also a way of reminding yourself of what's important, because stories have lessons, morals and themes in them."

Far from being something for children, the Talespinners believe the power of story is equally strong for young and old alike. They point out that storytelling began as communication for adults. Itinerant storytellers - the original journalists - would travel from town to town, passing on news and messages and dispensing knowledge wherever literacy was low. It eventually became better known as a form of entertainment.

"Because of the development of media - things like radio, television, and now the web - we have new ways for people to get their stories. That's one of the things I try to recreate - in a bit of a different format - with my radio show Asian Threads, because I really believe in the power of storytelling," says RTHK host Reenita Malhotra Hora.

"It's a way to get people's attention. It's how basic communication happens."

For Kitty But Yuen-ching, an assistant curator at the Maritime Museum, it's been an enlightening experience all round.

"If we tell stories based on culture and history, we pass along cultural and historical knowledge. You can also tell stories about yourself and about your life. But it has to be done by the whole society. It has to happen in school and at home so that old stories won't die.

"I know a lot more about my culture and the others after joining this group. There are a lot of traditional, especially Chinese or oriental stories, that I never knew existed before," But says.

Similar stories may appear in different cultures; people just use different ways to express them and have different characters.

"This is what we're lacking locally," says But, a former librarian. "Western parents and children are so used to storytelling. But Chinese are not as expressive. By telling stories, you actually improve presentation skills and you gain confidence to speak up."

To get a better idea of storytelling know-how, or if you just want to hear some stories, Talespinners are organising an event in November featuring Grimm's Tales for adults. For more information, go to