It is the year of the boar - an animal as large and unpredictable as the waves of the ocean.
How appropriate, then, that this year's Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival will be the biggest in the 17-year history of the competition, with more than 150 teams and 1,500 competitors slated to participate.
The celebration, which takes place on Saturday, August 4 and Sunday, August 5, will transform Meadow Lake at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park into festival grounds with the lake as a majestic centerpiece. An estimated 50,000 people from around the country are expected to attend.
Cash prizes totaling $15,000 are at stake for the teams competing in the U.S. Dragon Boat Open Championship taking place at the festival. The celebration will also feature two new cup races: The Hong Kong 10th Anniversary Cup and the Municipal Cup, which will feature various local elected officials. The Corporate Invitational will feature teams competing on behalf of their companies. The festival will also include a variety of other performances and events to keep attendees entertained throughout the weekend.
HISTORY OF THE DRAGON BOAT
The sleek structures piloted by up to 20 crewmembers are custom made by artisans in Hong Kong. The crew - typically 18 paddlers, a drummer and a steerer for races - fiercely guide the boats during the competition. The drummer regulates the speed of the boat and acts as the heartbeat of the crew.
Although they weigh one ton each, teak Dragon boats appear to glide effortlessly on water and boast bright colors and intricate designs. The long and narrow boats have standard measurements - they are roughly 38 feet long and 3 feet wide - though their length can vary depending on how many crewmembers they are made to accommodate. For racing, they feature dragonheads at their front and rear. This year's festival will feature two new fiberglass boats.
Dragon boat racing dates to the third century B.C. It is part of a Chinese national holiday commemorating the death of the poet and reformer Qu Yuan.
Yuan drowned himself to protest the policies of his emperor. As he did this, locals raced their boats in an attempt to rescue him. They banged their drums and splashed their paddles to prevent fish and water dragons from eating his body. This marked the beginning of the tradition.
TRAINING FOR THE COMPETITION
Teams preparing for the competition begin their training regimen months in advance.
“We actually practice twice a week from the first week in May,” said Alvin McLean, a branch manager at HSBC bank and captain of their corporate team. “It's always physically grueling toward the beginning of the season because you're just getting back into it.”
McLean, 40, has been participating in competitions at the festival for 12 years. His team has won the Corporate Invitational twice. This year, they will participate in the invitational and the U.S. Dragon Boat competition.
“It's a great way to meet different people” he said, “especially on race day - the spirit is alive. It is very exciting. Over the years, I've met some really good friends.”
FUN AT THE FESTIVAL
The racing will start at 9 a.m. each day and festivities will last until 5 p.m., rain or shine. The festival is free.
Performances and events will also be held on stage at the festival site throughout the weekend. Highlights include performances by the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday and Shaolin Kung Fu performances at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday and 3:00 p.m. on Sunday. At noon on Sunday, a dumpling-eating contest will take place and the Chinese Cultural Center's Dance Company will perform at 1 p.m. There will also be an arts and crafts tent set up all weekend with more than 20 artists demonstrating calligraphy, bead stringing, rice doll making and kite making. For more information on the events, visit www.hkdbf-ny.org.
HOW TO GET THERE
DIRECTIONS BY CAR: Take the Long Island Expressway to the Van Wyck Expressway to Exit 11 South. Stay on the service road to the park. Parking will be limited. Attendees can also park at Shea Stadium and take an M.T.A. shuttle bus to the festival site.
DIRECTIONS BY SUBWAY: Take the No. 7 line to Shea Stadium and transfer to the M.T.A. shuttle bus to the festival site.