The Hong Kong Information Center in Atlanta conducted the Fifteenth Annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in Atlanta in September of 2010. The Festival last year took place at Lake Lanier on the same venue that hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games Rowing and Paddling events. Activities commenced with races beginning at 9am and the colorful Opening Ceremonies at noon. The race has grown from a handful of teams and a few spectators to an event which is one of the hallmark diversity events in the metro Atlanta area. The event now boasts a field of more than 50 teams with over 5,000 spectators and a wide variety of Chinese artisans either performing or displaying their wares.
The legend of the festival is quite interesting. The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival is undoubtedly one of Hong Kong’s most popular events, drawing thousands of spectators and racing teams from across the globe. The popularity of this event is growing at a surprising rate throughout the world but especially in the USA, Canada and Europe.
Since 1976, when Hong Kong introduced the world’s first international races, dragon boat racing has grown in popularity, with clubs and associations forming in countries throughout Asia, Europe and North America and competitions taking place in cities around the world. The colorful Asian tradition turned exciting international sporting event has attracted quite a following in the United States as well. Moving into its eighth year, the Atlanta event is part of a series of races taking place in major metropolitan areas along the east coast including Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York.
The sport itself dates back some 2,000 years and has as its origins an ancient Chinese legend. As the story goes, there was a well-loved statesman and poet by the name of Qu Yuan who lived in the Kingdom of Chu during the 4th century B.C. Although this popular figure was a favorite of the people, he found himself banished from the court at the advice of corrupt officials.
Unhappy and in deep despair, Qu Yuan roamed the countryside writing poetry about his love of the country and its people. Unable to bear his sorrow any longer, or perhaps as a final protest against corruption and a plea to the Emperor, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Mi Lo River.
Local fishermen raced out in their boats in an attempt to save him but arrived too late. In order to lure fish away from the body, they beat the water with their paddles and tossed rice dumplings into the river.
The Chinese people have never forgotten Qu Yuan’s desperate, heroic feat. Thus was born a tradition that continues to this day, dragon boat races are a re-enactment of the failed attempt to save Qu Yuan. The Dragon Boat Festival has deep cultural ties, evidenced by the ceremony and ritual surrounding the races. Four days before a traditional festival, the dragon boats are taken from repose to have their heads and tails attached. Typically, a community leader is invited to “dot the eye” of the dragon in a ceremony designed to rouse its sleeping spirit. While in some cultures the dragon is considered to be evil, in Chinese culture dragons are viewed as strong, powerful and frequently a symbol for the spring rains and growth. Dragons are also viewed as protective and benevolent, which is why dragon boat racing is often thought of as a means of spreading good luck. In return for staging the dragon boat races, it is believed that the community will be blessed with happiness and prosperity.
The dragon boat itself is a spectacle to behold. The slim, 39-foot teakwood racer (and fiberglass models) is crafted today in only a handful of boat-yards in Hong Kong. Distinguished by a fierce-looking dragon’s head at the prow and a tail at the stern, traditional dragon boats require thirty days, three craftsmen, and years of practice to produce.
The event has been held each of the last three years in Atlanta at Lake Lanier which offers an absolutely beautiful background for all of the activities. Here is a little of what you would see at our event which is regarded as one of the premier cultural, diversity events in the Atlanta area.