Iconic Hong Kong Dragon Boat Races Are Back in Full Force as Thousands of Spectators Gather

Iconic Hong Kong Dragon Boat Races Are Back in Full Force as Thousands of Spectators Gather
Competitors take part in the annual dragon boat race to celebrate the Dragon Boat festival in Hong Kong on June 22, 2023. (Louise Delmotte/AP Photo)

HONG KONG—Thousands gathered Thursday in southern Hong Kong to watch the iconic dragon boat races, a highlight of the annual Chinese Dragon Boat festival.

The dragon boat races were back in full force after years of cancellations, postponements, and social-distancing restrictions during the pandemic.

Dragon boat teams in Hong Kong range from 8 to 50 people, depending on the size of the boat. A standard boat in Hong Kong typically has a crew of 20 people who race between about 250–500 meters (820–1640 feet).

The Dragon Boat festival, also known as “Tuen Ng” in Cantonese, is associated with a story of a righteous official in ancient times who drowned himself after falling out of favor with his leader.

According to the lore, villagers rushed out to the river with boats to try and save him, and threw rice dumplings into the water to prevent fish from eating his body and to ward away evil spirits. Thus the tradition of dragon boating and eating rice dumplings, which are called zongzi in Chinese, was born.

The holiday is celebrated in mainland China and regions like Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, as well as in countries like Singapore that have a large Chinese diaspora.

The dragon boat race at Hong Kong’s southern fishing port of Aberdeen is famous for having local fishermen join the race with traditional dragon boats they make themselves.

“Wherever there’s fishermen, there’s dragon boats,” said Cheng Man-Tat, a second-generation fisherman from a local fishing family. “There have been dragon boat competitions in every fishing port during the Tuen Ng Festival every year.”

Some 45 teams—made up of fishermen, secondary school students, mixed-gender, and all-men and all-women teams—joined 28 races this year at Aberdeen.

Participants compete in either traditional wooden boats or standard glass-fiber dragon boats.

Shelly Chan, a paddler who joined the race for the 10th year, said the hardest part of the races is how tiring it gets. Races often last two to three minutes, but can go to 10 minutes or longer depending on the course.

“You can’t stop, once the competition starts, you will need to keep it going,” she said. “If it’s a long-distance race, it relies on your stamina.”

Races were also held at five other areas across Hong Kong’s shores.

By Katie Tam

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