This June 18, hundreds of Hong Kongers will enjoy the Chinese Dragon Boating Festival (also known as Tueng Ng) as boats, beers, and cheers draw thousands to our city. Many of us use this public holiday as an excuse to hit the beach and catch some dragon boat races, but do we really know the full story behind this special celebration? Our friends at Sam the Local take us back in time to where it all began.
This holiday commemorates a famous and respected poet named Qu Yuan, who was also a minister of the State of Chu that supported the fight against the increasingly powerful State of Qin. Because the King supported the State of Qin, Qu Yuan was exiled for opposing the alliance and wrongfully accused of treason. Then, 28 years later, the State of Chu was taken over by the State of Qin and Yuan committed suicide out of despair by drowning himself in the Miluo River.
The local people raced out on their boats to go save Yuan, or at least retrieve his body, and that’s where the tradition of dragon boating on this day comes from. In addition, Yuan’s admirers threw rice dumplings (zongzi, more on that later) into the river so the fish would eat that instead of Yuan’s body. This is why eating zongzi is also a tradition for the Dragon Boat Festival.
So what is dragon boating? It consists of a long boat that carries a crew of 22 people: 20 paddlers, 1 drummer, and 1 sweep. The drummer’s role is to produce the heartbeat of the dragon boat which guides the paddlers with a rhythmic beat to dictate the frequency and synchronicity of the paddler’s strokes. Of the 20 paddlers, the first pair of paddlers are interchangeably called pacers, strokes, or timers. They are responsible for setting the pace for the rest of the team and synchronizing their strokes with one another. Lastly, the sweep is responsible for steering the dragon boat by using an oar as a rudder.
Races are typically sprint events with distances such as 200, 500, 1,000 and 2,000 meters (500 meter is the most common distance). Although dragon boat competitions have been held for over 20 centuries, it gained popularity as an international sport in Hong Kong in 1976.
As mentioned before, these Chinese treats are wrapped and eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival as a way to commemorate Qu Yuan. Zongzi are a pyramid shaped dumpling made from glutinous rice, or “sticky rice”, and have a variety of fillings depending on which part of China they’re made in. Southern-style zongzi (common in Hong Kong) may include fillings such as mung beans, peanuts, salted duck egg, pork belly, taro, shredded pork or chicken, Chinese sausage, and shiitake mushrooms. It can be wrapped in a variety of large flat leaves such as bamboo, lotus, maize, banana and pandan. Each one will infuse a unique and distinct flavor into the rice. To cook zongzi, you can steam or boil them, unwrap, and enjoy!
Local tip: dip small parts of your zongzi in worcestershire sauce for an extra kick and flavor.
Warning: zongzi are rather heavy and should be eaten as a meal on their own.
Now that you know everything there is to know about today’s holiday, head off and catch the action at one of the Best Spots to Watch the Dragon Boat Festival.