Hong Kong has taken an ancient ceremony in China and turned it into one of the world’s fastest growing sports. Modern dragonboat racing, with its mesmerising blend of sport and tradition, is practised in more than 60 countries. But it is best experienced in Hong Kong where you can still feel the passion that once drove this city to share its culture with the world.
What are dragonboats?
Dragonboats are long slim boats with a dragon's head protruding from the bow and a dragon's tail affixed to the stern. They are powered by two rows of paddlers, with a helmsman in the back, and a drummer in the front or middle. Traditionally they are made of wood - and wooden boats are still used in 90% of Hong Kong's races - but the fibre-glass vessels used in the West are becoming common. They come in three sizes: 22-crew vessels used in international races; small boats accommodating 12 riders; and "big dragons", that interesting species.
Traditionally, dragonboating is an all-male activity. Women, especially when pregnant or menstruating, were forbidden to touch a dragon, the symbol of male vigour. But now with more than 50 million people worldwide involved in the game, mindsets have been changing. Since 1985, races in Hong Kong have included women's and mixed events. That said, machismo is not dead. Try patting the dragon's head on a big boat, and you will see. "Big dragons" carry 50 strapping fellows and can fit up to 120. They are proudly paraded at races, jealously guarded off-season, and oiled, repaired and fussed over - exclusively by men - before the racing season.
Dragonboat racing originated more than 2,000 years ago in China as a ceremony for worshipping deities of the sea. It is associated with the Tuen Ng Festival which is celebrated in late spring when disease and flooding were once rampant. Dragonboating was meant to dispel the "fog and filthy air" and to keep the gods happy. But that is the researcher's version.
Ask any Chinese about the origin of dragonboat and they will mention Qu Yuan, a loyal statesman who drowned himself in the river. Worried that fish would consume their hero, the people unleashed their boats and threw rice dumplings (now a festive delicacy) into the water to distract them. Since then races have been held every year to honour the day of Qu's passing - on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Lunar calendar (late-May to June). Though other figures have been commemorated by the festival, Qu's patriotic story has prevailed.
Dragonboat spread all over China, in particular to the south, where it remained a fisherman's game and ceremony for many years.
The modern era
Then in 1976, it all changed. Hong Kong held the world's first international dragonboat races, and propelled the game into a new era. In the first year, boaters from Japan competed with nine local fishermen's teams. In the next two, representatives from Malaysia and Singapore joined the event. Soon competitions were being organized in these countries as well as in Australia and Canada. In 1980, three dragonboats from Hong Kong made their debut on the River Thames. Today dragonboat is a mainstream sport in Hong Kong. The city has the greatest number of teams (about 400), all non-paid and voluntary, and the most races (more than 20 a year) in the world per square metre. And the 10-boat wonder that started it all in 1976 is now a mega-event featuring 200 teams.
What is so fascinating about dragonboats? It is their pure heritage. Never used for transport or war, unlike canoes and sailboats, they have hardly changed over the centuries. Imagine then such a boat, blades plunging fast and furious, hundreds of times over to the throb of a drum. It is the lure of the primordial, something rare in modern-day sports.
The most spectacular events during Hong Kong's racing season (March to October) are the fishermen's races from late-April to May, especially the Tin Hau regatta held on sleepy Po Toi Island. You will see fishing junks moored in the harbour, decked out with flags, and people cheering, drinking and casting paper offerings into the water. Overlooking this on a cliff is a bamboo theatre where Cantonese opera is performed for the gods, and nearby is a temple where fishermen go to pay their respects. At sundown, all is quiet again as the junks leave with their dragons secured to their sides, the way they had for years before the world knew about dragonboat racing.
The article 'Hong Kong: the birthplace of modern dragons' was published in partnership with www.lonelyplanet.com.