Living heritage of Hong Kong

Hong Kong celebrates Dragon Boat festival with rowing rituals, family and fancy dress

Racers and spectators turn out at locations around the city for a day of competition and community

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 12:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 11:04pm

Revellers and rowers gathered at waterways across Hong Kong on Monday morning to soak in the fun and festivities of the Dragon Boat festival.

Amid mild and slightly breezy weather, boat races took place at locations such as Sha Tin, Tuen Mun, Cheung Chau, Tai Po, Stanley, Aberdeen and Sai Kung as part of a ritual that has roots stretching back more than 2,000 years.

“The weather was good, and the water peaceful,” said Clarence Lee Yui-cheung, chairman of the Hong Kong Fireman Services Dragon Boat Team West Division, which clinched two of the major prizes in the Aberdeen races. “We come here every year, and every year our team wins.”

“Dragon boat racing has a rich history here and you’ve got to visit this event if you’re a part of Hong Kong,” said local Ray Chan, 38, who turned up at the Sai Kung waterfront, in the eastern New Territories, to catch a glimpse of the celebrations.

A total of 157 teams turned out for this year’s Sai Kung competition, which ranged from corporate races to contests for participants with intellectual disabilities.

For the first time there was a race for teenagers, which organisers said was aimed at training new blood and introducing the traditional pastime to a younger generation.

“The best thing about these events is teamwork,” said Jacky Cheung Yat-leung, executive vice-president of the preparatory committee for the Sai Kung races.

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“We can bring the entire district together, from the district council to community NGOs to locals, to work on the same thing with a common goal.”

The atmosphere in Aberdeen on the south side of Hong Kong Island was just as festive.

The former fishing town hosted a total of 33 races, with 60 teams made up of everyone from local villagers and company employees to university students.

Crystal Kwok Chi-yu, a 32-year-old photographer, arrived just before 7am to secure a spot from which to capture the best shots. “This is my fourth year here. I love how lively and energised the photos of dragon boat races appear to be,” she said.

Chan Chung, a fisherman in his 60s watching the races from the stands, used to take part in his younger years.

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“Back in the old days, every fisherman took part,” he said. “The whole village would join the games and then have dinner together at night.”

Nearby at Stanley Main Beach, the Sun Life Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships got under way at 8am with 264 teams made up of more than 6,000 rowers and 140 companies.

Winners included the Seagods Red for the Mixed Gold Cup Final and the DCH Dragon Boat Club for the Sun Life Gold Cup Final.

The Stanley races broke with tradition as many dressed up in costume to compete for the Most Outstanding Outfit Award. Pirates, clowns and spectators in face paint and colourful wigs crowded the beach.

The Spanish Dragons bagged the award with their synchronised swimmers’ outfits.

Fellow competitor Mark Chan Sze-wang from the Fair Dinkum Club, decked out in a lion costume, said: “We dress differently every year, depending on the theme, what’s trendy and how we feel at the time.” The team has raced in costumes for eight years, with this year’s theme being “animals”.

Joey Hau, who was in charge of the their costumes, said: “We came up with the idea when we were all drunk.”

Organisers also set up workshops with interactive games to raise awareness of the importance of protecting the local environment, mindful of the impact of large sporting events.

Alson Wong, chairman of the organising committee for the Stanley race, emphasised the importance of the new environmental approach this year.

“People have a good sense of duty,” he said. “There are many young people here, they love to enjoy their time and protect the environment.”

Advocacy group The Green Earth collaborated with Sun Life to set up seven recycling points manned by 80 volunteers. They were expected to collect about 10,000 plastic bottles and aluminium cans.

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“We can see that the environmental awareness of the racers is pretty high. Some teams have their own recycling bags,” said Vivien Cheng Yu-wai, director of Green Earth’s community partnership.

In Aberdeen, Greeners Action was on hand to promote an environmental message.

Competitors were urged to bring their own water bottles and recycle lunch boxes and other items at temporary collection points.

Yip Chui-man, the NGO’s assistant project manager, said more than 50 volunteers had given up their time. 

The group would monitor waste management for the Aberdeen event and provide the organiser with suggestions on how to improve next year, Yip said.

The annual festival, also known as the Tuen Ng festival, falls on the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar. Many Chinese also mark the occasion by eating rice dumplings and paying tribute to the ancient poet Qu Yuan from China’s Warring States period (475-221BC).

Legend has it that Qu, banished and disillusioned with the state of his government, threw himself into a river.

To stop the fish devouring his body, villagers took to their boats, splashing their paddles, beating drums and throwing rice, to ward off any and all in the water.