With the Penang International Dragon Boat Festival around the corner, we meet up with its vice chairman to learn how this ancient Chinese tradition is intertwined with the city’s history, and even become a global competitive sport.
We also join the Penang Island Paddlez Club, one of the city’s few dragon boat teams as they practise for the upcoming festival on the 28 and 29 May, at Teluk Bahang Dam. This group of working men and women share what got them into spending up to six hours a week under the blazing Penang sun for their love of this sport.
DRAGON BOATS TO THE RESCUE
Legend has it that the people raced out in their boats to save Qu Yuan, a loyal official of the state of Chu in ancient China, after he drowned himself in the river upon hearing the capture of his country’s capital. That rescue mission over two millennia ago has turned into the Dragon Boat Festival, a commemorative event that is also a state-supported spectacle in Penang today.
The Penang International Dragon Boat Festival is an annual sporting event, now into its 37th year. About 30 teams, half of them foreigners, will compete this May, at the placid Teluk Bahang Dam, surrounded by green hills and rain forests.
Fifty years ago, various fishing settlements in this island boat raced to celebrate the Duanwu Festival, or summer solstice, which coincides with Qu Yuan’s death anniversary. The participants were migrants who had brought along this tradition from China. They competed at the sea off Gurney Drive, in their wooden boats rigged with decorative dragon heads and tails, originally to ward off evil spirits in the water.
Dragon boat racing became less haphazard, and even emerged as a professional sport, after the International Dragon Boat Federation was instituted in 1991. Lightweight fibreglass boat became the standard racing gear, usually provided by festival organisers. “You don’t bring your badminton court with you, do you?” Mr Dick Lim, vice chairman of the Penang festival, explains in jest.
The races have also become more inclusive, as the sport gains popularity around the world. There are now more organised in Europe than in Asia, according to Dick. “Because the Westerners treat it like a sport,” he adds.
Within Malaysia, regional uniform units also compete in the Penang festival. Some of them are Malays. Out of respect to their religious obligations, the organisers avoid holding the festival during Hari Raya Puasa, when the Muslims abstain from eating between dawn and dusk. This means that the dragon boat race may not fall on Duanwu, the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar.
What happened to Qu Yuan? He did not survive. But his subjects’ devices to keep his dead body intact gave rise to another, more delicious tradition still practised today—the making and eating of glutinous rice dumplings.
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