Thursday, June 21, 2007

Stanley Dragon Boat Races as seen from afar

This week, Stanley, our little part of Hong Kong, was front and center in the annual dragon boat races. Every year on the Tuen Ng Festival (Tuen Yang in Mandarin) dragon boat races are held with locals and expatriates squaring off in friendly competition. The Stanley races, enjoying their 40th anniversary, are a huge event, with over 2,000 paddling participants and all their friends and family cheering them on. The US Consulate has a dragon boat team and Tori’s school fields a couple teams. It all sounded very exciting and crowded and we stayed far far away.

However, on the day before the races, we wandered around and tried to get a feeling for what was going on. We have been watching the dragon boat teams practice for months now. The teams have been out there in the rain and in shine. As we watch them, they row great distances, across the entire harbor in front of us. When we walked around Stanley Main Beach, where the races start from, we were surprised to see the shorter courses marked off in the water. I had been thinking of the dragon boats races as an endurance event but really they are a sprint race.

The boats themselves have dragon heads on the front and tails on the back and have a drummer who beats out the rhythm for the oars. The boats hold 22, including the paddlers, steersman and drummer. Some dragon boats are much larger, with up to 80 paddlers, but this 22 person boat is the competition size. The Stanley residents association owns the actual boats, and with a recent addition now has a regatta of 22 boats.

Smaller races have been going on all month but the Stanley race occurs on the actual holiday, the Tuen Ng Festival, which falls on the 5th day of the 5th month (early June). It is a national holiday and most everyone is off work (again we were got flat footed on this holiday!). The holiday itself is fascinating, basically a fesitval for my old anti-corruption work. As far as I know, in the Ancient Kingdom of Ch’u, a honest statesman named Chu Yan served the Emperor. He advised the Emperor on all matters and was well thought of by the people. Chu Yan grew frustrated with corruption in government and wrote a poem entitled Li Sao about his frustrations with bureaucracy. In 288 B.C, Chu Yan drowned himself in the Mi-Lo River in what is now Hunan Province. His friends and followers leapt into dragon boats and raced out into the river to save him but arrived too late. The entourage in boats then beat drums to scare away the fish and stop the fish from eating Chu Yan’s body.

Because of all this, and perhaps because June is the middle of the typhoon season, the fifth month is considered an unlucky and unhealthy month. Locals collect various herbs and put them up in the home to promote health. Needless to say, I did not know any of this and we are all nursing bad colds and a case of pink eye. Perhaps next June we will stock up on the appropriate herbs in addition to chloramphenicol eye ointment. We definitely need all the help we can out here, especially now that we know it is the unhealthy month!


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