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Hear the Roar – The Insider Guide to the Dragon Boat Festival

June 7th 2013

The ancient Chinese Dragon Boating Festival (Duanwu Festival), also known as Tuen Ng in Cantonese, has become one of the world’s greatest parties, celebrated with particular vigour right here in Hong Kong. On June 12th , Hong Kongers will enjoy a public holiday, while the boats, beers and cheers will once again draw thousands to our stunning city.

An estimated 30,000 of the world’s top dragon boat athletes will be in Hong Kong for the heart-stopping races on June 12th, which will bring a collage of colour and chaos to the water, mainly focused around Stanley. This will be followed by the fun and frivolous Hong Kong Dragon Boat Carnival, which will feature races at TST’s Victoria Harbour during a three-day festival from June 21st.

In this Insider Guide to the Dragon Boat Festival, compiled in collaboration with Kwiksure, we bring you all you need to know about the world’s favourite boat races.

The Spectacle

The June 12th Tuen Ng Festival will see races take place at several locations, including Sai Kung, Sha Tin, Tuen Mun (Castle Peak Bay), Cheung Chau, Tai Po, Aberdeen, Discovery Bay, Tai O on Lantau Island and, of course, Stanley.

Stanley is home of the Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships, which will run from 8am to 6pm from the Main Beach. This is the largest and best-attended dragon boat event, this year set to draw a record-breaking 5,000 participants and 30,000 spectators to the waterfront. But it’s not just the sporting spirit that makes this the biggest summer party of the year, as the vast amount of corporate sponsors and drunken junks ensure their plenty of merrymaking as well.

If you want to avoid the crowds and do Stanley in style, why not see the races from the water with Localiiz favourite Hong Kong Yachting. You can charter an entire boat if you’re rolling with a large crew, or simple book an individual spot on a fully-catered group junk or sailboat for just HK$1,200 per person (discounted to HK$1,080 per person for groups of four).

For a more low-key experience, head to Aberdeen where there will be a modest 65 teams racing against a backdrop of food and drink booths along the promenade. And for a real dose of dragon boat culture, head to the sleepy village of Tai O on Lantau for the traditional God’s Parade (see below).

If you’re holding out for the Dragon Boat Carnival between June 21st and 23rd, all the action will be taking place at Victoria Harbour, where the water-based activities will battle with beer-based activities in the form of the San Miguel BeerFest, a non-stop dry-land party featuring music and live entertainment.

The Origins

Although known to have been performed in China for more than 2,000 years, the origins of dragon boating remain somewhat contested, as the festival is thought to have existed in a slightly different form long before taking on its present incarnation as a race.

The most widely accepted story starts with the legendary Qu Yuan, a man who embodied the unlikely combination of a much loved statesman, fearless warrior and a poet in the kingdom of Chu (situated in the present-day Hunan and Hubei provinces).

Qu Yuan was driven to suicide in 278 BC by jealous political rivals who falsely accused him of treason, resulting in his banishment from the kingdom. In despair, and as a protest against the vile corruption, Qu Yuan threw himself into a river.

Nearby fishermen did everything in their power to save the disparaged poet, but their efforts were in vain. Upon Qu Yuan’s death, the townspeople did the only thing they could – distract the fish from eating the good man’s body by frantically beating drums and throwing rice into the river. The tradition of eating zongzi (stuffed glutinous rice dumplings) during the Dragon Boat Festival is thought to have derived from this part of the story.

In memory of Qu Yuan’s brave and sacrificial act, the Chinese began commemorating the occasion each year on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Racing boats were carved to resemble a dragons (with the paddles acting as feet), as the deeply symbolic creature represents strength and power in Chinese culture.

The symbol of the dragon is also used to ward off evil spirits that are thought to arise due to the inauspicious timing of the fifth lunar month. This protection of the dragon is said to ensure a good crop for the following year, and to this day it is still considered good luck to swim in the wake of a dragon boat.

The Rituals

Prior to the races, it is customary for a priest to say prayers and make offerings to the gods in the form of fruit, tea and rice before burning symbolic ‘hell money’, whose smoke will rise to heaven to appease the gods. After placating the sea gods further with a few extra notes thrown into the ocean, the priest commands the spirits of the dragons to arise so the competition can begin.

Tai O on Lantau Island is home to the Dragon Boat Water Parade, also known as the Gods’ Parade, which dates back more than a hundred years to when the area was hit by a plague. In an effort to dispel the epidemic, local fishermen borrowed deity statues from nearby temples and paraded them through the town’s waterways on dragon boats. The plague ended but the custom still lives on to this day.

Three fishermen’s associations collect the deities the day before the festival from the four temples of Yeung Hau, Tin Hou, Kwan Tei and Hung Shing. Before setting off in the dragon boats, they perform a ritual known as ‘Picking the Greens’, where they pluck fresh grass from the hillside and place it inside the dragon’s mouth.

The God’s parade sees the statues towed among the picturesque stilt houses as gold and silver paper offerings, representing departed souls, are burned in the water. This is followed by races, a send-off ritual and finally a jubilant feast.

In the old days, the village elders would take part in ‘Drinking Dragon, whereby a few drops of rooster blood were mixed with Chinese wine and sprinkled on the dragon’s head. This tradition died out however when the government introduced a ban on keeping live poultry.

The Modern

As Chinese communities grow and migrate around the world, so has the interest in Tuen Ng or dragon boat racing, now considered to be one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Since 1976 when the first Hong Kong international race took place, this ancient sport found a modern platform from which to attract a wider audience, gradually increasing its popularity. Dragon boat racing is now practiced in more than 60 countries around the globe, all functioning under the strict scrutiny of three worldwide governing bodies.

Today’s festival remains true to its ancient traditions but has grown into a true spectator sport, and even the most casual observer could not fail to be impressed by a flotilla of colourful boats pounding through the water to the steady rhythmic beating of the drum. The visual spectacle and camaraderie (not to mention marketing potential) has not been lost on the corporate world either, and many well-known businesses now take the opportunity to sponsor crews, provide merchandise and help raise money for charity.

The Teams

Each boat usually bears a team of 20 paddlers, distributed evenly according to weight and strength. The drummer helps keep pace, while the all-important Sweep (or Cox) steers the boat, acts as safety officer and instructs the crew. Although the Sweep always has the final say and the drummer is the nerve centre, it is said that each element of a dragon boat is no greater than the sum of its parts.

Generally speaking, the first three rows are for the pacemakers, the middle four rows for the strongest paddlers, and the last three rows support everyone else. A true team sport, a successful dragon boat crew requires power and strength, but above all, balance and unity – with timing and technique thrown in on top for good measure!

The Health Benefits

Although dragon boating may look easy, it can take many months of practice to get a crew in shape. Training can be tough, even for recreational teams, but paddling is a fantastic way to increase strength, stamina and endurance, lose weight, tone up and improve coordination and cardiovascular health.

There are other more surprising health benefits too, particularly for breast cancer survivors, who often suffer lymphedema, a painful swelling of the arm after undergoing mastectomies. For a long time it was thought that strenuous upper body exercise was bad for lymphedema, until a 1996 Canadian study proved the theory wrong.

There is now very compelling evidence that demanding, repetitive upper body exercise is not only safe for those with breast cancer, but highly beneficial. One study found post-diagnosis physical activity “reduced breast cancer deaths by 34%, all-cause mortality by 41%, and breast cancer recurrence by 24%”, particularly in those with the estrogen-receptor-positive type disease.

The psychological aspects of exercise should not be underestimated either, with many breast cancer sufferers attributing a huge sense of empowerment and positive body image to their participation in dragon boat racing. These findings have prompted the establishment of many breast cancer teams across the globe, perfectly encapsulating the positive message behind the sport.

The exhilarating sensation of dragon boat racing can perhaps best be summed up with the words of one breast cancer survivor mentioned in the Canadian study: “When I am in a dragon boat, when I am dragon boating, I feel free, exhilarated, in control, powerful, all those good things.”

Whatever you get up to this dragon boat season, be sure to use #localiiz when uploading your pictures to Instagram so we can share in the fun. Your picture may even win the crown of Snap of the Week!

To read more about health and happenings in Hong Kong, visit the Kwiksure blog

 


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