The Tuen Ng or Dragon Boat Festival is held on the fifth day of the fifth Lunar month, reflecting its Chinese name 端午 – which means “opening the fifth” and is celebrated Asia wide.
With Hong Kong declaring a public holiday for the festival, this would normally be a highly anticipated date on the calendar, with up to 30,000 paddlers and supporters flocking to the territory from around the world, to compete in the summer Dragon Boat festivals and international championship races.
Sadly, this year its all a little bit quiet on the water, with most races having to be cancelled, as the pandemic continues to confound international events and travel.
However, fortunately for us here on Lantau Island, the Tai O Dragon Boat Parade still had a green light to go ahead and would be the target for anyone missing out on seeing the dragons in action.
The Tai O Dragon Boat Parade combines both spiritual tradition and competitive racing and as such is up there amongst the more unique Dragon Boat experiences you could attend in any year.
The parade has a long-standing tradition that dates back over a hundred years and as legend has it, evolved due to a plague that hit Tai O and claimed many lives – somewhat appropriate then considering the current state of affairs
Back then though, without the advent of vaccines, the local residents took a more divine approach, inviting the gods to their town by parading their statues on the dragon boats, to hopefully drive out the evil spirits causing the plague.
As such today, the 3 local fishermen’s associations Pa Teng Hong, Sin Yu Hong and Hop Sum Tong visit the four main village temples, taking the traveling deities from each to join the water parade.
The belief is that the parade will pacify the water ghosts and create a safer environment for the local community.
During the parade, the residents of the stilt houses built along the waterfront, sprinkle the water with ‘auspicious joss paper’ and give other offerings to the deities as they pass by to ask for blessings from the deities to protect them in the coming year.
The dragon boat races themselves take place after the water parade, with the three dragon boats that pull the deity sampans holding a friendly race to kick things off.
Only after this will the other dragon boat teams compete accompanied, as you would expect, by the typical fanfare of drumming, shouting and excitement that marks all dragon boat races.
Dragon Boats themselves are thought to date back some 2,000 years linking to the legend of Qu Yuan, who lived in Chu province during the ‘Warring States’ period of China.
Yuan served as a high-ranking official in the royal household of Chu, but when his king decided to join forces with the state of Qin, Yuan was against the alliance.
When the Qin state eventually turned-on Chu and captured its capital, Qu Yuan committed suicide by throwing himself into the Miluo River, instead of living under the rule of the conquerors.
Because he was a much-admired figure in society, the people rowed out onto the river to retrieve his body, but they were unable to find it. Instead, they dropped balls of rice into the river so the fish would not eat Yuan’s body, accompanied by the banging of gongs and drums on their boats to further scare the fish away.
This was said to have sparked the tradition of dragon boating on the river, as well as the eating of rice dumplings!
Today’s Dragon Boats are primarily used for competition with each boat carrying a crew of 22 people: 20 paddlers sitting in rows of two, one drummer, and one sweep.
Races are typically sprint events with distances such as 200, 500, 1,000 and 2,000 metre races, though the mid-ground 500 metre race is the most common.
For Hong Kong, competitive international racing began in 1976, as part of the International Dragon Boat Federation, which now boasts a 72-country membership.
For this year’s Tuen Ng festival we were just grateful that the Tai O Dragon Boat Parade was able to go ahead as planned. It was a welcome respite for the villagers and festival visitors alike, who enjoyed the fun filled atmosphere of the event, that could not even be dampened by the occasional thunderstorm style downpour.
Who knows – perhaps the gods were truly in attendance and cheering the racers on in their own celestial way?
Certainly it was a day to remember and, as the Dragon Boats where laid to rest for another year, the fishermens’ associations retired to their stilted base-camps to celebrate and the spectators slowly drifted away, leaving Tai O to peacefully reflect on the year ahead.
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