Tai O fishermen keep tradition afloat

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 June, 2010, 12:00am

Dragon boat races held across the city yesterday in the annual festival mostly symbolised the watery death of the patriotic poet Qu Yuan, who drowned himself to protest against political corruption during the Warring States period.

At Stanley, Sha Tin, Tai Po, Sai Kung and Discovery Bay they recalled the tale of how supporters, learning that Qu had leapt into a river, rowed out and tried to save him by beating drums, splashing water with paddles, and feeding fish and evil spirits with rice dumplings to keep them away from his body.

But in one corner of the city the annual dragon boat races are held not to venerate Qu but to perform a religious ritual to pacify wandering ghosts and bring prosperity and peace to residents.

The little-known festival at Tai O on Lantau Island is on a shortlist of 349 items - culled from more than 3,000 by the mainland's Ministry of Culture - that are awaiting approval from the State Council next month as part of the nation's intangible cultural heritage.

Originally practised to dispel the effects of a plague more than 100 years ago, the men-only ritual is now organised annually by three fishermen's associations: Pa Teng Hong, Sin Yu Hong and Hop Sum Tong.

Tai O resident and restaurant owner Elisa Pang Ho-sheung, 50, said the parade helped to maintain community spirit as many former residents came back yesterday to help row the dragon boats. 'It is the happiest day in Tai O, even happier than the Lunar New Year,' she said.

Hop Sum Tong representative Cheung Hoi-ping said: 'We do not want such a traditional activity to fail to be passed down to the next generation. It has been passed to at least four generations so far.'

Members gathered early for the rituals in which each association paddled its boat - purified with the blood of a live rooster - to four temples where effigies of the resident deities were collected and taken for a ride around the stilt village.

Each dragon boat towed a small boat with an altar to the temples of Yeung Hou (Marquis Prince), Tin Hau (Empress of Heaven), Kwan Tai (God of War) and Hung Shing (God of the Sea) to 'invite' the four deities to join the parade.

When the three associations had gathered all the images they paddled along channels between the fishing town's landmark stilt houses, burning paper offerings and throwing rice into the sea to feed wandering ghosts, while residents on either side burnt incense and prayed.

After the parade, the dragon crews detached the deities' boats and raced three times around Tai O to entertain the gods. Banquets followed the returning of the effigies in the afternoon to complete the festival.

Cheung said each fishermen's association had spent HK$50,000 to HK$70,000, money that was contributed by members, to organise the parade. He said he hoped both the Hong Kong and mainland governments would sponsor the event if it was declared national heritage.

Also on the list are Cheung Chau's bun festival, Tai Hang's fire dragon festival and the Chiu Chow-style ritual opera.

The parade attracted hundreds of residents and tourists, including British manager Robert Smith, 63, who said he found the parade colourful and interesting. He hoped it would be preserved.

Maruyama Chiemi, 30, who had watched dragon boat racing in Stanley before, said the conventional races were more commercially oriented while the Tai O parade had a more local flavour.

At dragon boat races elsewhere, the usual teams from various corporations were joined by competitors who were mentally and physically impaired.

The Hong Kong Federation of Handicapped Youth fielded eight rowers with lower-limb disabilities to form an 18-strong team with workers from the Correctional Services Department. They came fifth in a mixed division joined by 10 other teams in the Hong Kong Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships and made the second round, their best achievement since joining the contest last year.

'We're happy with the result, which was our goal,' said Ng Sung-wai, an adventure training officer at the federation.

'What's more important was that the disabled teammates could bring their abilities into full play. They came across challenges during the month-long training but they overcame them. And they could do something the able-bodied were doing.'

He said they would be back to compete next year.