The famous Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival is an ancient traditional event held every June in the town of Tai O on Lantau Island. This year the sleepy fishing town hosts the festival on 23 June 2012, which is the fifth day of the fifth moon (hence the alternative name of the ‘double fifth’ event). Held in honour of the death of a great Chinese hero who gave his own life in protest 2,000 years ago against the leaders of his day, it is filled with colorful sights, pageantry and local food. It is a fun day for all and a national holiday in Hong Kong, and although I’m sure it’s a great honour to be a participant, I’d rather skip the exertion and be one of the many thousands of observers instead.
The History of the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival
The Dragon Boat Festival is also known locally as the Tuen Ng Festival which marks the death of Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet and hero. Protesting against the corrupt leaders of China, he drowns himself in the Miluo River in Dongtingg region in 278 BC. As the legend goes, people tried to save him by beating on drums to scare away all of the fish. In case that didn’t work, they also tossed dumplings into the river so the fish would have something other than his body to eat.
What to see while at the Festival
The main highlight of the Dragon Boat Festival is the actual race itself. A lot of intricate detail goes into the boats used and planning can last a full year. Each one is at least ten meters long, and they are decorated with a carved dragon head and tail. The boats are colourfully painted, and they will hold between 20 and 22 paddlers. Teams race the boats to the sound of drums to emulate the original event of Qu Yuan’s death. Crowds go crazy as they call out encouragement to the competitors.
How locals Hong Kongers celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival
Before the race, there is the Deities Parade where competitors take their boats to four different temples and get the deity statues. On race day, to pacify the water ghosts, the statues are placed on sampans that are towed by the dragon boats through Tai O in western Lantau. Residents along the way give offerings as they go by. Afterwards, the statues are put back in place at the temples.
Along with the boat race, locals celebrate by eating meat and rice dumplings. It is customary, as well as something all look forward to, to touch the water. Many will even go in swimming. In all, it is a day filled with excitement and merriment that locals and visitors alike can enjoy.
Dragon boat racing as an international event
The Chinese dragon boat racing has inspired the world to take up the sport with the many countries outside of Asia now holding their own events annually. Malmo in Sweden comes alive each year with Europe’s largest display of dragon boat racing where over 200 crews compete. Canada has hosted its own tournament since 1986 with major cities Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto all competing. Here around 200 teams of 25 people crews take to the waters, again at the same time as HK. The UK has the British Dragon Boat Racing Association and runs its own league with 23 teams racing in a series between May and September with nine races in total. The sport is also picking up significant interest in the Middle East, Australia and the Caribbean.