Chinese festivals, Western festivals and more, Asia’s self-proclaimed ‘World City’, Hong Kong celebrates them all. Hong Kongers revel in the celebration of festivals. The Hong Kong government accordingly declares Public Holidays for most festivals to enable the populace to participate and enjoy the celebrations.
The Tuen Ng or the Dragon Boat Festival is a water-themed festival, which signals the onset of summer in Hong Kong. The festival is slated for the fifth day of the fifth Lunar month and usually comes around in early or mid-June. The term dragon boat refers to the long, narrow boats on which energetic rowing crews paddle as they take part in competitive races held all over Hong Kong. These races are one of the star attractions of the festival.
Like most Asian festivals, the Dragon Boat festival also has a legend associated with it. The origins of the festival hark back to the third century BC and Mainland China. The Dragon Boat festival commemorates the death of Qu Yuan, a much-admired poet and minister at the court of the kingdom of Chu.
Qu Yuan was a court favorite who was adored by the people as well. His popularity invoked jealousy at the court, and a corrupt and crooked Prince accused him of misconduct. As a result, Qu Yuan was disgraced and banished from the court.
Qu Yuan was tremendously anguished by the false accusations and to escape the unbearable humiliation, he plunged into the Milou River to end his life. Several local fisherman and villagers were witnesses to this suicidal act, and they rushed out in their boats in an attempt to save their hero. They splashed water and beat drums to keep evil spirits and fish away from Qu Yuan’s body. But alas it was too late for by then Qu Yuan had drowned.
The villagers then ingeniously thought to throw cooked rice into the river with the hope that the fish would eat the rice and not Qu Yuan’s remains. The legend goes on to state that an apparition of Qu Yuan became visible to the villagers at this time. The ghost advised the villagers to wrap the rice in silken cloth to prevent it from being eaten by other sea creatures.
All these events are believed to have transpired on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in 277 BC. Hence, the festival is slated for this very day every year. The term dragon boat is a reference to the shape of the villagers’ boats, which were used to look for Qu Yuan.
Dragon Boat Racing as a sport
Teams in Hong Kong practice diligently for months before the grand boat races of the Dragon Boat Festival. Corporate as well as communities teams feature in the races. The typical crew aboard a dragon boat features twenty paddlers who sit in pairs and face the front of the vessel. A steer person (the sweep) stands on the stern accompanies the rowers while using a long oar to pilot the boat. The rowers with their vigorous paddling provide propulsion and speed to the boat. They are egged on by the rhythmic beat of a drum played by a drummer who is aboard the boat with them.
All Chinese festivals have traditional foods associated with their celebration. Zongzi or glutinous rice dumplings, which have a reference to the rice thrown by the villagers into the Milou are the star eats of the Dragon Boat festival. The Zongzi are made with sticky rice, which is wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed. Aside from rice the triangle-shaped dumplings also feature fillings like mung beans, Chinese mushrooms, barbecue pork, salted duck yolks, dried scallops and more. Other dishes on offer for the festival include Jiandui (a fried cake made of rice and wheat flour) thin wheat flour pancakes stuffed with sprouts, leeks, mushrooms and meat and glutinous rice cakes.
Viewing the Dragon Boat Races in Hong Kong
The Sun Life Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships is an annual event that attracts Hong Kong’s best dragon boat teams. Hordes of spectators descend on Stanley Beach to cheer for their teams and enjoy the carnival atmosphere that prevails. The quaint fishing villages of Aberdeen also host dragon boat races on the day. The boats participating in the races in Aberdeen are decked with colorful flags and dragon caricatures.
Sai Kung Town in the New Territories of Hong Kong also hosts Dragon Boat races for the occasion. The festival is scheduled for the 20th of June this year. Aside from the dragon boat races planned for the day, Hong Kong also hosts an annual event called the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Carnival after the day of the festival. This year, this raucous event is scheduled the 3rd to the 5th of July and venue will be the city’s iconic Victoria Harbor.
Dragon Boat Water Parade
The boundaries of Hong Kong encompass 260 outlying islands. Dragon Boat Races are also held on some of the remote islands such as Cheng Chau and Lantau. On Lantau Island, apart from the races, another annual event for the festival is the Dragon Boat Water Parade of Tai O.
On the day of the festival, the fishermen of the Tai O head to the four main temples of the island aboard their dragon boats. They then take the deity statues from these temples to the association halls. The dragon boats pull special sampans that carry these deities. As the parade passes the stilt villages on the island, villagers burn paper offerings to assuage the wandering ghosts and spirits. After the ritual is completed, the statues are returned to their rightful places in the respective temples.