The Dragon Boat Festival (or Tuen Ng in Cantonese) occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar and is a public holiday in Hong Kong. It commemorates Qu Yuan, a statesman in Chu (present-day Hunan and Hubei provinces) during the late Zhou Dynasty (475-221 BC). Qu opposed the king’s decision to ally Chu with the state of Qin and was accused of treason and banished. During 28 years in exile, Qu wrote the poetry for which he is now known. Upon hearing that Qin had captured Ying, the capital of Chu, Qu committed suicide to protest the corruption of the Qin government, by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Local fisherman raced out in their boats to save him but they were too late and could only try to preserve his body by dropping sticky rice triangles wrapped in bamboo into the water, so the fish would feed on the rice instead of Qu’s body. While the body was retrieved, the fishermen beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles to ward off evil spirits. Qu is commemorated by eating sticky rice dumplings (zongzi) and racing dragon boats on the anniversary of his death.
The 12m long dragon boats sport a dragons head and tail and carry a team of 20 paddlers, a drummer at the head and a cox steering at the tail. The first three rows of paddlers are the pacemakers, the middle four rows the strongest paddlers, and the last three rows provide support. The drummer helps keep pace while the cox steers, acts as safety officer and instructs the crew.
Races are held at a variety of locations around Hong Kong; Aberdeen, Cheung Chau, Discovery Bay, Sai Kung, Sha Tin, Stanley, Tai O on Lantau Island, Tai Po and Tuen Mun (Castle Peak Bay). We joined the crowd at the Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships. Stanley’s Main Beach was crammed with tents, 5000 competitors and 30,000 spectators. We struggled through the crowd to the shuttle pier to catch a sampan to our junk, moored near the starting line for a fantastic view. As the boats manoeuvred into starting position we took in the costumes which included Venetian gondoliers, pirates, superheros, pandas and dragons. The starting pistol fired and the boats burst into life, flying water blurred the riot of colour as the cheers of spectators joined the flurry of drumbeats ringing out across the sea. It was a little hard to tell who won each race from our angle, but relaxing on the boat with cold drinks and plentiful food we didn’t really mind.
Dragon boat racing
Another place to spend the dragon boat festival is the fishing village of Tai O which hosts the Dragon Boat Water Parade or Gods’ Parade. Centuries ago the area was in the throes of a terrible plague, in desperation local fishermen retrieved statues of deities from temples and paraded them through the village waterways on dragon boats. The plague ended, and the annual ritual commenced.
Three fishermen’s associations collect the deity statues the day before the festival from the four temples of Hung Shing, Kwan Tei, Tin Hou and Yeung Hau. Before leaving the temples, they perform the ‘Picking the Greens’ ritual, where they tear grass and place it inside the dragon’s mouth. The dragon boats tow sampans laden with the deity statues through the waters of Tai O. As they pass, stilt house residents burn gold and silver paper offerings representing the dead to pacify wandering water ghosts. This is followed by races, rituals and feasting.
Zongzi – sticky rice dumplings
Speaking of feasting, dragon boat festival is the perfect time to chow down on zongzi (also zong or jung ji/jung in Cantonese). A parcel of bamboo, reed, or other large flat leaves stuffed with glutinous rice and fillings such as salted egg, mushroom, chestnut, scallops, barbeque pork and pork fat. As always, we turned to Fuck Yeah Noms for Hong Kong food advice and noted the ‘fuck yeah rice dumplings’ Congee King verdict. We secured a selection of dumplings with a little help from our friends, steamed them up and gobbled them down. Commemorating a poet has never tasted so good.