How the Dragon Boat Festival's origin story helps keep local heritage alive

A musical show blended two traditional tales to teach the legend of Tuen Ng to those who might not know it

Nicola Chan |

Latest Articles

Hong Kong's current Legco members will continue to serve for one year, says Beijing

Student-founded Class of 2021 Community provides support for university applicants

Jimmy Lai's sons, pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow released on bail

US presidential hopeful Joe Biden chooses Senator Kamala Harris as running mate

When we think about the Dragon Boat Festival, most of us think of dragon boat races, zongzi (stuffed glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves), and the beating of the drums during the races themselves. What many people don’t spend much time thinking about is the origin tale of the festival itself.

On May 28, performing arts group Premiere Performances of Hong Kong put on The Beat of the Dragon Boat. This musical performance was an original reinterpretation of the Dragon Boat Festival tale, and blended the traditional legend of poet and minister Qu Yuen with another story about the Dragon King.

The programme featured chamber music performed by six musicians – Born Lau, Juliana Beckel, Mai Wai-him, Mark Lung, Masami Nagai, and Yang Sin-yu – playing Chinese and Western instruments, as well as a story told in English and Cantonese by Gregory Rivers.

Young Post talked to writer Christina Matula-Häkli and composer Alexis Alrich to learn more about the melding of the two Chinese folk tales, and how important music was in the performance.

“I knew about dragon boat racing, and we ate zongzi at home, but I didn’t know they had anything to do with each other,” the half-Chinese, half-Hungarian Matula-Häkli said.

Matula-Häkli grew up in Canada, and didn’t much about Chinese festivals, or their origins. Her fascination with them began in 2007 when she studied Putonghua, and four years ago, she began “tinkering around with different legends and stories”.

“Generally Chinese stories don’t have happy endings,” Matula-Häkli said, and it’s no different in the Dragon Boat Festival story.

In short, a minister called Qu Yuan, is wrongly accused of treason by his king, and is exiled. During his exile, he writes lots of poems. When the state is invaded and conquered by another state, Qu Yuan jumps into a river and dies. When the local people heard of his death, they were very sad and tried unsuccessfully to find his body. To stop the fish from eating his body, the people threw lumps of rice into the river, hit the water with their paddles, and beat drums to scare evil spirits away.

It’s pretty heavy stuff, and Matula-Häkli wanted to make it lighter for her audience – while still remaining somewhat true to the original tale.

She decided to weave into the tale a story about the Dragon King – the Chinese god of water and weather, to whom villagers in their boats beat their drums to as they ask for rain.

In her adaptation, Qu Yuen and the Dragon King became friends and, after the poet’s death, the Dragon King makes Qu Yuan’s spirit the guardian dragon of the river he died in.

Two of Qu Yuan’s famous poems – The Lament and Heavenly Questions – were incorporated into the story, and are delivered in song by Rivers.

“When we’re introduced to Qu Yuan in the story, [a double] bass is used,” said Alrich. “You don’t hear bass used solo very much, as they’re usually used as a kind of percussion [accompaniment].”

(L-R) Andrea Fessler, Alexis Alrich, and Christina Matula-Häkli had much to say about The Beat of The Dragon Boat.
Photo: Nicola Chan/SCMP

Alrich, who has a background in classical Western music but who has also been exposed to Asian music throughout her musical career, knew she wanted a sort of lyrical solo (with the double bass and the viola), to produce a voice that “sounded a bit trapped”, to represent Qu Yuan.

The Dragon King, Alrich said, had to be represented by a suona – a double-reeded horn from northern China.

“[A suona] used to be used in battles to frighten off the enemy, because it has such a powerful sound,” she said, before adding that wild, booming sound was exactly what she needed for the Dragon King.

Alrich added that music makes a story come to life, and in The Beat of the Dragon Boat its presence meant the audience could feel how Qu Yuan’s sadness affected him.

Kris Wong, an 11-year-old in the audience, said the performance was cleverly presented.

“I haven’t seen anything like it before – the story was divided into sections, followed by a piece of music. Normally, a whole story is told before the musical bit begins, or you have the music first before the story,” Kris said.

The Beat of the Dragon Boat is the second collaboration between Alrich and Matula-Häkli. The pair have previously worked on The Shadow in the Moon, an reinterpretation of the traditional Chinese story of Chang E, the Chinese goddess of the moon.

The musical performance took place two days before the Dragon Boat Festival itself.
Photo: Cheung Chi Wai

Andrea Fessler, the executive director of Premiere Performances, said she hoped to introduce The Beat of the Dragon Boat to organisations on the mainland or the US that have a “sizable Chinese community and musicians”, as she thinks the tale has universal appeal.

Matula-Häkli said this would have been a great way for her to get in touch with a part of her culture that she didn’t know much about when she was growing up.

”Learning about festivals and cultures is a great way to keep in touch with your heritage,” she said.

Edited by Ginny Wong