Hong Kong goes water sports crazy in early June, specifically with the Dragon Boat Festival. The annual event falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which in 2014 is June 2. During the festival, teams compete at various locations all over Hong Kong, including Stanley, Tai O, Aberdeen, Cheung Chau and Sai Kung. And then from June 6 to 8, international teams will compete against each other in Victoria Harbour.
It’s hard to imagine that the vibrancy and fun of of today’s colorful festivities originated in a tragedy that took place 2,000 years ago. The Dragon Boat Festival, also known as the Tuen Ng Festival, commemorates the death of Qu Yuan, a Chinese national hero. In a protest against corrupt rulers, Qu drowned himself in the Mi Lo River.
Hong Kong's Dragon Boat races are a riot of color — Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Tourism Board
To scare away fish from eating his body, the townspeople beat drums and threw glutinous rice dumplings called zongzi into the water. Today, this event is remembered by Chinese people around the world, who eat zongzi and go swimming or at least dip their hands in rivers or lakes.
But the real highlight of the festival is the fierce-looking dragon boats racing in a lively, vibrant spectacle. Teams race the elaborately decorated dragon boats to the beat of heavy drums. The special boats, which measure more than 10 meters, have ornately carved and painted "dragon" heads and tails, and each carries a crew of 20 to 22 paddlers.
Participants train in earnest for the competition. Sitting two abreast, with a steersman at the back and a drummer at the front, the paddlers race to reach the finish line, urged on by the pounding drums and the roar of the crowds.
Communities across Hong Kong celebrate the festival with locally organized dragon boat races, which are watched by hundreds of spectators.Bigger and bolder races take place on Victoria Harbour, when international dragon boaters vie for the championship.
It all started in 1976 when Hong Kong fishermen participated in an international dragon boat race (There was one foreign team – from Japan.) off Shau Kei Wan. Nobody would have guessed that this humble event would go on to spark an explosion of worldwide interest in dragon boat racing and transform this ancient Chinese folk ritual into a modern international sport.
This year, thousands of athletes from all over the world will compete in Victoria Harbour, with Hong Kong’s iconic skyline as the backdrop. As always, it promises to be a thrilling event in the home of modern dragon boat racing.