City Weekend

Enter the dragon boat: Hong Kong rowers brave 12 hours in Taiwan waters for green fundraiser

The campaign seeks to raise money and awareness to clean up a polluted area, with paddlers hoping to conquer 70km from 4am to 4pm

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 March, 2018, 3:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 March, 2018, 3:01pm

A Hong Kong dragon boat team will row 12 hours in Taiwan waters to reach one of the island’s most polluted areas as part of an environmental campaign to raise money and support clean-up efforts.

The event, organised by rowing group Dragon Overtime, is aimed at raising NT$20 million (HK$5.3 million) and will take place on May 13.

About 35 people will take part in the campaign, according to the organiser, including 20 paddlers who will row 70km – from 4am to 4pm – from popular travel destination Kenting, a national park area in the southern tip of Taiwan, to Orchid Island on the southeastern coast.

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The distance is longer than the 62km stretch between Hong Kong and Macau.

Campaign leader Woo Tse-hong, 55, says he was inspired to launch the event two years ago when he visited Orchid Island with his wife for a holiday. The couple saw heinous amounts of plastic waste and other trash washed ashore from the Pacific Ocean.

The rubbish, according to Woo, come from all around, including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.

Woo was later introduced to a local indigenous resident – Ah Wen – who was so committed to environmental work that he had sold his motorcycle rental business and devoted his time to a one-man effort to clean up his beloved isle and educate others.

“The idea of paddling to Orchid Island came to my mind when I was on a boat leaving the island,” recalls Woo, founder of Dragon Overtime. “I was looking at the water and thinking that it was possible to actually row there. And through the event, we can also raise money to support Ah Wen.”

Woo points out also that rowing is environmentally friendly.

The target amount for the fundraiser is based on Taiwan’s population – 23 million residents – and Woo says he hopes each individual can donate at least one dollar.

The dragon boat coach spent most of his time last year in Taiwan preparing for the event. He even forked out NT$300,000 (HK$80,600) from his own pocket to build the boat.

The dragon theme, however, will not be played up this time because Woo says his campaign will clash with Taiwan’s traditional Flying Fish Festival, and aboriginals think a dragon creature will scare the fish away. There will also be no drummers on the boat.

It is believed that the festival, from January to June, brings a large amount of migratory fish to the island. The event celebrates respect for nature, which is also in line with Woo’s campaign.

Woo founded Dragon Overtime in Hong Kong in 2009 after quitting his yacht rental business. But unlike many dragon boat teams, he expected his members to not only row with him but also help him clean up the local countryside and beaches.

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“There were some members who complained about doing cleaning work as they said they came to me only to learn rowing,” he says. “So, I told whoever disagreed with me to leave.”

His wife Sophia Kwok Siu-yee, 51, says Woo can be “quite forceful” when convincing others to get involved in environmental work. “But we share the same value of building a sustainable environment, that’s why we have been a couple,” she says.

The team currently has eight members, compared with 20 at its peak. And for the upcoming event in May, Woo has recruited people from elsewhere.

In 2012, he also set up volunteer group Actions for Pleasant Nature with an initial objective to clean up the entire MacLehose Trail. The group later extended their mission to other trails and parts of Hong Kong.

Woo says he started to become an environmentalist and first volunteered to clean up a beach in 1997 when he was catching crabs with a net that eventually filled up with trash.

“I knew to expect lots of rubbish, but I didn’t realise there was so much rubbish until I saw them in a net,” he recalls.

Team member Lang Wing-huen, 36, a full-time sales executive who will be joining the coming Taiwan campaign says: “We consume lots of resources every day, so I think it’s worth spending the extra time cleaning up the environment that’s been polluted by some of us.”