In Honolulu, storyteller Alton Chung learned early there are some things you simply do not do.
"Cautionary stories are what I grew up on," Chung said. "You learn about the legends because you're there. You sit back and watch tourists do silly things. Like taking rocks from Hawaii. Those are Pele's (the Hawaiian goddess of fire) children. You don't mess with that. Or if you come upon a manmade construction, you don't spit on it. Sometimes those are holy sites. The ancient Hawaiian people were a very spiritual sort of people. They brought their guardian priests, and no one told them to go home. So they're still out there, protecting their lands and the island and their people."
Chung, now living in Vancouver, Wash., has been a professional storyteller for the last three years. For the last two, he's been an apprentice with the San Francisco-based Eth-Noh-Tec Ensemble, a husband-and-wife team that specializes in telling stories from Asian cultures.
Now on a tour of Alaska, Chung will share a variety of Hawaiian legends and historical tales at 11 a.m. Thursday, March 9, at the Douglas Library, and 7 p.m. Friday, March 10, at the Juneau Public Library. Admission is free.
In Douglas: 11 a.m. Thursday, March 9, at the Douglas Library
In Juneau: 7 p.m. Friday, March 10, at the downtown Juneau Public Library
"I took speech and debate in high school, but I never considered myself to be a storyteller. I had a radio announcer's voice, and I didn't do anything with it. All of a sudden, when storytelling was suggested, it just came naturally. I finally realized, this is what I'm supposed to be doing."
Chung grew up in Honolulu. His mother was Korean, his father was Japanese and he was constantly surrounded by stories and cultural traditions. He visited Alaska almost 20 years ago while working on an oceanographic vessel in the Gulf of Alaska. For the last 14 years, he worked as a freelance computer programmer and operations planner for Hewlett-Packard.
Chung started telling stories when he took a class in 1997 at a Corvallis, Ore., guild. He put it aside for four years, until revisiting it at the end of 2002. Chung visited a national storytelling festival in 2003, when another Asian storyteller told him about the Eth-Noh-Tec ensemble. He met up with co-directors Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo and Nancy Wang a few months later in Oregon, and they soon invited him to join their apprenticeship program. He visits them in San Francisco about once a month.
Last year, Chung won the 2005 J.J. Reneaux Emerging Artist Grant, a $1,000 stipend he plans to put toward his studies with Eth-Noh-Tec. Chung has released a compact disc of ghost stories by Japanese chronicler Lafcadio Hearn, but his program will be less dark at the library.
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"Robert is a musician and Nancy is a dancer, and their trademarks are very precise, very stylized gestures and instant expressions," Chung said. "You'll strike a pose and freeze. You're telling stories with your body, with your voice and with timing. This is very different from anything I've ever done before."
"A lot of my stuff that I do now has been influenced by their teachings," he said. "My style is still very different. It's not as stylized. It's more fluid and not as practiced, not as precise. But there's more of a flow to it, and if anything it just becomes a very easy way of getting into a story."