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Dragon boat racing puts modern twist on an ancient tradition

Dragon boat festivities have taken place in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere (Chinatopix via AP)
Dragon boat festivities have taken place in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere (Chinatopix via AP)

Across the Chinese diaspora, racing in dragon boats has been a tradition reaching back thousands of years.

But change is afoot – most recently in central Taiwan, where the races were switched to the evening to take advantage of cooler temperatures, a refreshing breeze and the sight of the boats lit up with LED lights running the length of the low-lying watercraft.

A drummer pounds out a rhythm behind the elaborately carved dragon head in the bow, while a navigator sits in the stern, where a tail rises to complete the look of the mythical animal, a traditional Chinese harbinger of prosperity and good luck.

People in Barbie costumes
Competitors with Barbie costumes take part in the annual dragon boat race to celebrate the Tuen Ng festival in Hong Kong (AP)

It is mainly an amateur sport and crews are formed among groups of neighbours and co-workers.

Emily Lin, 31, who works as a sales executive in Changhua county, said training sessions at a local junior high school were an excellent way to strengthen friendships outside of work.

“This dragon boat race allows us to meet, exchange and take part in something,” Ms Lin said on Monday following qualifiers the previous night.

People in a colourful boat
A parade in Xixi Wetland in Hangzou drew many spectators (Chinatopix via AP)

Daytime racing means dealing with the intense central Taiwan sun reflecting off the river, leaving you feeling unwell, said Chen Ta-tzung, a 28-year-old machinery maintenance specialist.

“But in the evening, you don’t have the sun,” Mr Chen said.

“When we focus on rowing during the race, we cannot enjoy the beautiful scene. But when we row back, we can really enjoy the beautiful sights,” he added.

This year’s races hold a special meaning for many participants and observers as they are the first after a three-year break because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A little boy looks at a carved dragon head
Dragon boat races celebrate the Tuen Ng festival (AP)

The sizes of the boats vary and the numbers of rowers can range from 10 to 20 or more. The festival generally falls at the start of June based around the summer solstice according to the Chinese lunar calendar.

In recent decades, the sport has spread in popularity around the world and standards have been imposed on rules and equipment, including the size of paddles and requirements that the drummer, playing a similar role to the coxswain in college and Olympic rowing, maintains a constant beat.

Dragon boat races are also being held in Hong Kong and Macao, as well as around mainland China, where lax safety standards have occasionally led to deadly accidents.

A photo finish on the line at a dragon boat race
A close finish in one dragon boat race in Taipei, Taiwan (AP)

At least one person was killed after a dragon boat capsized in the south-western Chinese city of Chongqing on Sunday, the local government reported.

At a competition on a canal in the east of Beijing on Monday, participant Shi Shulei cheered the event as a celebration of traditional Chinese culture, devoid of commercial or foreign influences.

“Nowadays people celebrate many festivals invented by merchants or of other countries. We sometimes forget about Chinese traditional festivals. This event should be promoted because it helps to rejuvenate Chinese traditional culture,” they said.

Twenty-five teams representing companies, universities and residential compounds raced over the 650ft canal, where two boats collided in the preliminary round after one of them veered from its lane.

People in red paddling a boat
The festival honours an ancient adviser who drowned himself when his sage advice was not acted upon (AP)

The 24 participants were swiftly rescued from the water and no-one was reported injured, while organisers called for more life vests and rescue boats.

Despite temperatures of 35C, crowds from around the city of more than 20 million lined the canal and cheered from a reproduced Chinese ship from the imperial era.

In Hong Kong, a former British colony where political and civil liberties have been increasingly restricted in recent years, the emphasis among racers was on working together to achieve a common goal.

A flotilla at a spectacular bridge near Beijing
A Dragon Boat Festival takes at a canal in Tongzhou, in the outskirts of Beijing (AP)

“Dragon boat is a team sport. It’s important we share a team spirit,” said Andy Ng, the coach of a local team. “Each member strives with the same objective which is being the fastest to the finish point. Everyone in my team enjoys it and we enjoy the workout together.”

The races are connected to the tale of Qu Yuan, a loyal adviser to a Chinese emperor some 2,500 years ago who drowned himself in a river after his sage advice was rejected.

According to legend, to prevent fish from eating his body, supporters tossed in rice cakes, a tradition that continues to this day as observers mark the fifth day of the fifth lunar month by eating sticky rice dumplings.