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During Hong Kong's annual Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on 23 June this year, the city is split into two camps: the competitors and the spectators.

The former wield paddles and propel elaborately-decorated vessels through churning water toward the finish line -- all to the beat of a drum at the boat’s bow. The latter, meanwhile, simply crack open a few beers, eat glutinous rice dumplings and rowdily cheer on those racing in the oppressive summer heat.

The modern-day tradition of racing dragon boats during the Tuen Ng Festival (as it is known in Chinese) revolves around the myth of ancient poet Qu Yuan, who was on the outs with the royals in the 4th Century. After being banished from the kingdom, he committed suicide in a nearby river. Devotees are said to have rowed boats along that river, banging drums to keep spirits and fish from defiling his body. They also dropped packets of rice tightly wrapped in leaves for nourishment in the afterlife (or, some versions claim, to distract the fish), which is why Hongkongers' consumption of these rice dumplings, called zong, peaks this time of year.

Festivities take place in waterways across the territory, with each taking on its own distinct character. The ones in Stanley, on the south side of Hong Kong Island, are where corporate teams chock-full of expats scull against a backdrop of yachts and junk boats loaded with onlookers. Just to the west, in Aberdeen's small harbour, 65 local teams compete. Out in the far-flung seaside town of Tai O, fishermen engage in an elaborate religious ritual before the races even begin. They manoeuvre their boats to four village temples to pick up statues of deities, which are paraded through the area to placate the spirits that inhabit the waters.

Though many consider the Tuen Ng Festival the pinnacle of dragon boat competitions, there are other events throughout the year. Notably, the annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Carnival in July in iconic Victoria Harbour, combines races of professional international teams and local paddlers with a San Miguel beer festival and other entertainment.

Hana R Alberts is the Hong Kong Localite for BBC Travel  

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