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How the dragon was born: The history behind the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival

Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival history
Photo by Dean Moses

Each year an ancient legend of a brave soul burns as bright as dragon fire in Queens.

The annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival is returning to Flushing Meadows Corona Park on July 30 and 31 for two free, fun-filled days on and off the water. The summer of 2022 marks the attraction’s 30th anniversary bringing traditional Chinese boat races to the big city.

Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival history
Photo by Dean Moses

But how was the dragon born? The event is bestowed with a rich history that stems from a linguistic master.

The myth finds its roots in poet and Court Minister Qu Yuan who served as a political advocate in the state of Chu. According to legend, Yuan was exiled from his home after drawing the king’s ire for pushing back against authority.

Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival history
Photo by Dean Moses

Banished, Yuan aimlessly meandered about the country and, through his poetry, showcased his intense worry for the people and how they were being treated. One day in 278 B.C.E., he received news that his once treasured Chu had been invaded. Overcome with grief at the monumental loss, Yuan dived into the Miluo River to be taken by the waves.

It is told that seeing his plight, a fisherman battled against the river and using his oars, raced to rescue the poet from succumbing to the current. Although the fisherman wasn’t able to save Yuan’s life, it is said that this heroic act of speeding across the river inspired what is now known as the dragon boat races.

Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival history
Photo by Dean Moses

The beating of a drum and paddle splashing also became a significant part of the races to symbolize the rescuer’s effort to stop the fish and water dragons from eating the poet’s body. Not only that, in honor of the poet’s life, dumplings were tossed into the Miluo, kick-starting a tradition that sees the consumption of dumplings at the start of the festivities.

Exactly four days prior to the races, dragon heads and tails are fixed to the boats and blessed by a Buddhist monk before having life imbued into them with the traditional dotting of their eyes with red paint. These boats were custom-made by coterie craftsmen in Hong Kong and weigh one ton each. Aboard each boat are 18 paddlers, a drummer and a steer person.

Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival history
Photo by Dean Moses

These rituals are specifically observed by fishermen in the islands of Lantau, Lamma and Cheung Chau. Once races have concluded, it is customary to watch street theater and dances, which is why the festival in Queens hosts a stage brimming with traditional performances.

The first Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival began at Battery Park in 1991 and has since become a staple event in Queens. This year’s celebrations will have more than 100 teams with over 1,000 competitors from across the United States and Canada.

Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival history
Photo by Dean Moses

When visiting the 30th annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, remember the life of Qu Yuan and the fisherman who raced to save his life.

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