Total dedication - the life of young Chinese acrobats

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 22 February 2016

By  Lynda Chanwai-Earle 

Renowned Zirka Circus was in town participating in this year's Chinese Festival Day Street parade. The Circus will also perform in Lower Hutt, Porirua and Kapiti coast over the week prior the Festival.

They start learning acrobatics at the age of five and will have chalked up to 8000 hours practice by the age of 10. Showing absolute commitment to their craft the young acrobats of Zirka Circus are performing in Wellington City to celebrate Chinese New Year of the Fire Monkey.

The acrobatic troupe from China is run by two sisters famous in their own right; acrobat Jeni Hou and magician Judi Hou. Originally from China, both are now New Zealanders based in Hamilton overseeing the New Zealand troupe of around 30 performers.

I wanted to learn more about what’s behind the troupe's dynamic life style and what life is like for these young acrobats, who range in age from 10 to 22.

Total dedication (Co-founder Judi Hou and two young acrobats)

Total dedication (Co-founder Judi Hou and two young acrobats) Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

So I meet a small representative group of five at the gathering place for dozens of floats for the annual street parade. It’s a sizzling hot day at Tennyson Street in Wellington. The waterfront will see thousands packing the walkway to Frank Kitts Park and the TSB arena for the festival day.

Stephanie Timms, Rita Tom and Linda Lim are the dynamic trio of the Asian Events Trust in charge. I’m following Steph and Rita behind the scenes at the parade. 

The Asian Events Trust and Wellington City Council bring the colourful festival to the public each year. Fifteen years ago the annual Chinese New Year Festival started with a humble audience of 50 on Courtney place, now it’s a week long celebration that takes place over Wellington region.

Steph is stridently rounding up street marshals, with just minutes before the parade begins. Rita points out a white ute at the rear of the parade, just opposite the Poon Fah Association float (my own Chinese clan from Guangdongsang). The ute is brimming over with the Zirka team.

Benjamin Hemi is their tour manager. He tells me that Zirka Circus loves that Wellington has a Chinese New Year Festival as this gives them an opportunity to be part of something that makes them feel at home. It's also their first time in the Capital - and for many of these young performers who have only been in the country for a year, it's a special visit.

After a rowdy introduction where the battle is won by the Taiko drums in the next float, I hop into the cab of the ute to hear more from their tour manager. "Uncle Benji" tells me that he loves the absolute commitment shown by all the troupe but particularly the youngest acrobats who are only about 10.

He tells me that many of the children are brought by their parents from poor rural areas in China to audition in the main cities. If they show promise these children have a chance at a real education, better life opportunities and travel abroad.

If they're selected for Zirka Circus in China around the age of five, they become members of the circus organisation. By the age of 10 they will have already achieved around 8000 hours practice, necessary to be able to perform with the level of professionalism needed for this internationally renowned circus.

What about schooling or rest time and playtime, the kind of activities that many New Zealand children may take for granted?

He tells me that the children are schooled each day by two members of the dedicated support staff that travel with the troupe looking after their needs. These children will be practicing around 2 hours per day throughout the week. The tour is demanding but there are one or two days of dedicated rest where only play and fun rule.

There's a Zirka Circus troupe of around the same number in Australia too.The acrobats will spend two years traveling and performing throughout New Zealand before they are either selected to perform Australia or elsewhere in the globe.

All too soon we've reached the end of the road for the parade, I'm hopping out to let Zirka travel to their next performance venue in Lower Hutt.

It's a busy day for these young acrobats but they're still beaming at the crowds lining the waterfront and getting the gasps of appreciation that they clearly deserve, at the very least for the utter dedication they have shown their craft at their young and tender age.

Dragon Dancers herald the year of the fire monkey

Dragon Dancers herald the year of the fire monkey Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle