by Mimi Montgomery
photographs by Jill Knight
When a friend approached Lily Chan a couple of years ago about starting a dragon boat festival in Raleigh, she was hesitant. “Are you kidding me?” Chan said. The founder and president of the Asian Focus group, which aids Asian Americans, worried her nonprofit organization was too young. “We are only about four years old. This is a huge project and there is a lot of organizing involved.”
Yet she dove in. And last September, the group hosted its first annual Dragon Boat Festival. Fourteen community and corporate teams participated in the race, and more than 3,000 people came to watch. This year, on September 19, Chan predicts over 20 race teams will compete, and as many as 5,000 fans will cheer them on.
Dragon boat racing is originally associated with the Duanwu Festival, a Chinese holiday that commemorates the death of the Chinese poet Qu Yuan. When the poet was banished from the Emperor’s court, he jumped into a nearby river; the local villagers attempted to save him by racing out in their boats, and the tradition of dragon boat racing was born.
In recent years, dragon boat racing has boomed in popularity. The tradition has evolved beyond the Chinese holiday and become a beloved sport, with multiple festivals in over 60 countries dedicated to celebrating the act of racing itself. Originally popular in Hong Kong and Europe, the sport made its way over to Canada and has now trickled down into the United States – even all the way down into North Carolina. In May, Charlotte celebrated its 16th annual Asian Festival and Dragon Boat Festival.
In Raleigh, Asian Focus partnered with Pan Am Dragon Boat Association, a Florida dragon boat production company, which provided boats. While each boat has a sleek, streamlined structure for modern day racing, the ornate dragon heads and tails are a nod to ancient Chinese origins.
Each racing team is composed of 20 paddlers, a drummer who keeps the pace, and a team member at the back of the boat who steers. Needless to say, a great deal of synchronization is required. “The key is not how strong you are, it’s the organization,” says Yun Chuu, vice president of operations for Asian Focus.
Some teams are made up of experienced dragon boat racers, such as the Raleigh Dragon Boat Club. Others will be out there just for fun – many local corporations, school clubs, and community groups have formed teams as a way to bond and increase cultural awareness. “Last year, one of the school groups that had no experience whatsoever won the championship in the B Division,” Chuu says with a smile. “They were so happy.”
In addition to the races, the festival will host over 60 booths and 32 performances throughout the day. There will be live music, a children’s area with games, food, a health fair, a magician, and even an international fashion show. Each activity is targeted to boost cultural and international appreciation. “This is more of an international festival instead of just a Chinese holiday,” says Chan. “It’s beyond just that … Our objective is to promote diversity, to promote culture, to promote cultural understanding, and then offer all these different facets of tradition and ethnicity and bring people together cross culturally.”
Sept. 19, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.; free; Koka Booth Amphitheatre, 8003 Regency Parkway; dragonboatnc.wix.com/festival