Away from the skyscrapers, come and watch the dragon boat races that thrill Hong Kong’s peninsula every summer.
In Hong Kong in June, it’s impossible to miss the Dragon Boat Festival. This cosmopolitan yet traditional event colors Hong Kong’s cultural life for several days each year, filling the city with a festive air. At race time, the paddlers set off on long pirogues decorated with carved dragon heads and painted scales, driven by drumbeats and cheering crowds.
These international competitions coincide with an equally spectacular ancestral custom: the dragon boat parade at Tai O, on the outskirts of Hong Kong.
A centuries-old ritual
Located at the tip of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island, the small fishing village of Tai O has all the makings of a haven of peace. Its stilts, pontoons and wooden dwellings surrounded by mountains contrast with the incessant hustle and bustle and dizzying skyscrapers of the megalopolis. In the tropical humidity of June, the stench of seafood and dried fish – the local specialty – wafts through the narrow streets, filled with stalls. Not a single foreign tourist is to be seen here; even Hong Kongers are few and far between, making the journey to the village (a good hour from the city center).
Every year, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month marking the start of the warm season, Tai O comes alive for a ritual unique in Asia: the Dragon Boat Parade, or Double Five Festival (Tuen Ng in Cantonese). The idols are brought out of the village’s four temples to be prayed over in the Tai O fishermen’s associations. Thus, Yeung Hau (dedicated to Hau Wong, the “sacred marquis”), San Tsuen Tin Hau (the goddess of heaven), Kwan Tai (the god of war) and Hung Shing (the god of the sea) are taken out of their permanent residences on the eve of the ceremony. On the day of the parade, they are placed on sacred sampans towed by dragon boats before being returned to their respective temples, forming a spectacular procession of bright colors.
This centuries-old Taoist tradition, designed to appease the water spirits, dates back to the 19th century, during a plague epidemic. Local fishermen would have sailed up the canals in dragon boats to fetch statues of deities located in temples around the village and vanquish the disease.
Aboard their boats – red, white or yellow – some 30 men row along the canals lined with stilt houses, while the dragon’s head splits the peaceful water, its mouth filled with freshly cut grass. Their arrival is heralded each time by the roar of drums placed in the center of the boats. Loyal to their posts, the villagers take advantage of their day off to watch the parade. They shout enthusiastically as they pass, and throw small pieces of burnt paper into the water. These, in the form of banknotes, food, various objects and even iPhones, are intended to ensure a prosperous life for the deceased in the afterlife.
Loyal to their posts, the villagers take advantage of this day off to watch the parade of dragon boats. They shout enthusiastically as they pass, and throw small pieces of burnt paper into the water.
From tradition to competition
Every year, the dragon boat races take place during the week of the Tai O ritual, but their electric atmosphere is far removed from the solemnity of the ceremony. A day before the Tai O parade, race fans flock to the sandy beach of Discovery Bay, a residential area of Hong Kong on the eastern side of Lantau Island.
From the bay, the city’s metallic landscape can be seen in the mist in the distance, while the air vibrates to the bass of hits from the West.
Paddlers wait to take to the water beneath the team-branded stands. Some – including the public – take the opportunity to cool off and sunbathe under the scorching sun. The competition is organized in several rounds, during which they must cover 500 meters (for standard races) aboard boats similar to those used by Tai O fishermen.
Each team is equipped with a percussionist positioned at the front of the boat, whose job it is to give rhythm to the race and encourage his team-mates.
Of the 40 or so Hong Kong-based teams (men’s, women’s and mixed), most are made up of expatriates from all over the world who have settled in the megalopolis, united by their passion for dragon boat racing. And often, motivation is enough: at least, that’s the credo of the Yes She Can women’s team, described by its captain as a “women’s movement based on mutual aid and solidarity”. Most of its members are beginners, but it doesn’t matter, their hearts are in it. They do, however, have to contend with better-trained teams, such as Team Mushu (a reference to the dragon in the animated film Mulan), reputed to be one of the best in town. Led by an Australian captain, the team has been training three or four times a week for several months, and this year won the men’s final.
The Dragon Boat Carnival attracts no fewer than 4,500 athletes from national teams all over the world. This event attracts a larger audience than Discovery Bay, where the atmosphere was more family-oriented and the level more amateur. For the second time, the Club Canoë Kayak de Belbeuf (Seine-Maritime) represented France, reaching the semi-finals of the mixed race. Held in the heart of the city at Victoria Bay, between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Island, the carnival is all about celebration: concerts, DJ sessions, food trucks, beer competitions and water games on the beach complement the races. The latter are not devoid of fantasy: one of the categories (“Fancy Dress”) rewards the paddlers with the most creative outfits. The Normandy team took part in this year’s event wearing a sailor’s jersey and a horned helmet in the colors of France.
A tradition transformed
Born in 1976 from the collaboration of John Pain, ex-director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, and Philip Lai, then head of the city’s fishermen’s associations, Hong Kong’s international dragon boat competitions were originally intended to boost the tourism sector, reveals Mason Hung, director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
This type of racing, he points out, was already being practiced by fishermen all over China at the time of the festival. The gamble paid off: in just a few decades, they became popular in Asia and then the world over. As early as 1983, teams from the United States and the United Kingdom joined the competition in Hong Kong, then still under British colonial rule. The races quickly spread beyond China’s borders.
Today, no fewer than a hundred countries organize local and regional races, mainly in Asia (Vietnam, Japan, Korea…), but also in the West. On July 1, for example, a dragon boat competition was held at the Saint-Cloud nautical park, near Paris. Could the century-old ritual of Tai O be threatened by the success of its international sporting counterpart? Impossible, assures Mason Hung: the local ceremony is actively promoted by the government. “The younger generation may not be very interested in the tradition now, but they will be when they get older,” he assures us. He sees the popularity of Hong Kong competitions as a sign of the tradition’s vitality: there are said to be between 60,000 and 80,000 enthusiasts of such races in the megalopolis. A sport that is becoming increasingly popular, if Mason Hung is to be believed: “Before, many people thought that these races were a bit old-fashioned, and rowers didn’t dare admit to practicing the sport. Today, they wear their oars with pride!