Dragon Boat racing is only in its 17th year in New York, but in China, the land of its origins, the tradition goes back more than 1,500 years.
Dragon Boat racing stems from the death of poet and reformer Qu Yuan, who served the emperor in the kingdom of Chu (present-day Hunan and Hubei provinces) and was regarded as wise, loyal and honest. An idealist who was loved by the common people, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the third century B.C. to protest governmental dishonesty and corruption.
One of his poems says:
In sadness plunged and sunk in deepest gloom,
Alone I drove on to my dreary doom.
In exile rather would I meet my end,
Than to the baseness of their ways descend.
Remote the eagle spurns the common range,
Nor deigns since time began its way to change;
A circle fits not with a square design;
Their different ways could not be merged with mine.
Yet still my heart I checked and curbed my pride,
Their blame endured and their reproach beside.
To die for righteousness alone I sought,
For this was what the ancient sages taught.
Heartbroken, Qu Yuan grasped a large stone and plunged into the Mi Lo river. Nearby fishermen raced to save the beloved poet. As they went, they tried to frighten away harmful fish and “water dragons” by beating drums and splashing their oars on the surface of the water. Sadly, they failed in their mission and Qu Yuan’s body was never found. Ever since, dragon boat races have commemorated his death and the efforts to rescue him.
The people of Chu believed that Qu Yuan’s hungry ghost came back to the river every year on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, and tried to help him by throwing rice in the water. Today during the Dragon Boat Festival, people eat a dish of rice steamed in bamboo leaves called Joong or Zonzi (also known as Chinese Tamales) to symbolize the offerings of rice.
In China, Dragon Boat Races are a major holiday and the tradition has spread to communities with large Chinese populations around the world. In New York City, the Races are celebrated at Meadow Lake at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, not too far from Chinatown.
This year more than 150 teams competed, most of them sponsored by corporations and community groups. Each team had its own tent near the lake, where crew members and their supporters could relax, prepare and celebrate. Some teams even had their own portable restrooms.
They raced in boats made of solid teak, 40 feet long and weighing more than 2,000 pounds. Each craft is decorated with a wooden dragon head at the bow, a dragon tail at the stern and painted with dragon-like scales. A drummer sits in the bow and beats a drum while crew members row furiously.
In addition to the races, the crowd was treated to musical entertainment, martial arts demonstrations, modern and traditional Chinese crafts and sponsor-supplied games and giveaways.
If you decide to go next year, one warning: because the teams supply their own rest areas and cater their own meals, there is very little seating, shade, food and drink available for spectators.
Festival newbies squinted in the bright sunlight, repeatedly trekked to the boat house for water, filled their rumbling tummies with dumplings and noodles (the only foods available throughout the day), and squatted on the scorchingly hot grass. Experienced festival attendees arrived laden with umbrellas, parasols, lounge chairs, picnic baskets and barbeque grills, sat back and enjoyed the spectacle.