Celebrate Ancient Asian Traditions at Dragon Boat Festivals Around the U.S.
Plus, they’re pretty cool to look at.
The Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu Jie in Mandarin and Tuen Ng in Cantonese) is a blending of history, folklore, and mythical beings, sprinkled with bamboo-wrapped sticky rice dumplings called zongzi and helmed by tournaments of fiery racing dragons—okay, long narrow boats shaped like dragons. A public holiday in China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, it’s also celebrated in countries like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia. But how exactly did these traditions get started?
Like many age-old practices, it boils down to a choose-your-own-origin-story adventure. The first tale harkens back to a poet, Qu Yuan, an advisor to the government who lived from 339 to 278 BC and drowned himself in a river to protest governmental policies. Citizens paddled furiously in long boats to save him, beating drums to scare away the water dragons, but to no avail. After his death fans continued to sprinkle the water with rice to feed Qu Yuan's spirit, but the grains were gobbled up by water dragons. (According to this article the “dragons” may have existed, but were actually catfish who gorged themselves on the rice and grew to massive sizes.)
But historians say the long dragon boats were sailing hundreds of years before Qu Yuan. And so the second origin story has to do with the date of the festival: the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (June 3, for those of you playing along). Picked to coincide with the solstice period on the lunar calendar, it perhaps worked against them, as the fifth lunar month in Chinese culture was an unlucky month, and the fifth day an unlucky day. During this time, it was said venomous animals like snakes and scorpions appeared, and people would fall ill, so it was an important time to ward off evil spirits.
These traditions then grew into the Dragon Boat Festival, with races happening this weekend in places like Guangzhou for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. Racing and on-display are decorated boats with heads of dragons that span from 40 to as long as 125 feet, with people throwing rice and zongzi into the river to feed the “dragons.” To keep healthy, participants take herbal baths, hang wormwood and calmus, and toast friends and family with Realgar wine or Xionghuang wine, painting children’s foreheads with the alcoholic slurry.
But you don’t have to travel abroad this weekend to get in on the cultural experience (though you might want to skip the Realgar, as it’s technically made with arsenic). This summer, you’ll find free Dragon Boat Festivals cruising into town everywhere from Portland to Nevada to Kansas City. Perhaps strategically, they’re also not limited to the fifth day of the fifth month but last through October. Here’s everything you need to know about hitting up a Dragon Boat Festival in the US.
Portland boasts not one, but two dragon boat festivals. While the September event is a straightforward two-days of racing, June’s festivities take place during the Rose Festival (Portland, if you didn’t know, is the City of Roses), with over 60 international teams taking to the Willamette River near the Hawthorne Bridge. Be sure to stay awhile—the summertime festival includes multiple parades, a country concert, and a NASCAR showdown.
Kansas City, Missouri
Held on Brush Creek—home to Sister Cities Bridge, which showcases the flags of Kansas City’s 13 (!) sister cities—this year’s Dragon Boat Festival is a pared-down affair, limited to boat races and a few food carts instead of a full-on cultural shindig. There’s still plenty to see and do, though, with 12 teams competing. And when they’re done, see if you can identify any of the flags on the pedestrian bridge, and take a picture with the two six-foot Chinese warrior statues. They were a gift from Xi’an, China, one of those proud sister cities.
Launched in 1979, Boston’s Dragon Boat Festival is the oldest in the US, and almost the first on this list. After a two-year hiatus, the races return to the Charles River, alongside a day of cultural activities including Taiko drumming, Kung Fu displays, lion dances, yo-yo demonstrations, live classical Chinese music, and Chinese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, and Indian dance performances.
Part of the Major League Dragon Boat circuit presented by GWN, Chicago’s paddlers take over Busse Lake in the Ned Brown Forest Preserve. Here, Canadian teams travel down to battle for supremacy with some of the best competitors in the country. On deck is a cultural village, performances, and a health and wellness village. And this is Chicago, so, yeah, there’s also a beer garden.
Along with two Asian food courts and AAPI cultural performances across five stages, the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival also includes the only all-Asian film festival in Colorado. Races on Sloane’s River go down via two divisions: the Hong Kong races and the Taiwan-style flag-catching races, where boats arrive stacked with paddlers, a drummer, and a flag-catcher who leans over the dragon head to snag a flag and stop the clock at the end of the race.
Queens, New York
Queens is the most ethnically diverse urban region in the world, so it’s a fitting setting for New York’s Dragon Boat Festival. Held on Meadow Lake in Flushing Meadow Park, the open-air bash hosts 120 boats from all across the US. Performances include lion dances, the Shaolin Temple Warrior Monks demonstrating Kung Fu, the Drum Spirit of China, and traditional music and dance representing everywhere from China to Mexico and Peru. An extensive food court tops off the offerings.
Another Major League Dragon Boat event presented by GWN (see the full list here), this one happens in Nevada’s Sparks Marina. And if you’re interested in participating in any of the scheduled races, no team is needed. Through the Experience Dragon Boat Program for solo paddlers or small groups, you can either train for five weeks to get a feel for the sport, or simply get one practice in and join a team that needs paddlers.
Rounding out the season is the Miami Dragon Boat Festival, staged in the only place where October is warm enough to be up to the task. Now in its third year at the Miami Marine Stadium in Key Biscayne, they’ve partnered with Save Our Sisters, South Florida's first-ever breast cancer survivor-led Dragon Boat Racing team. In addition to the races, there’s a wellness village, cultural entertainment and performances, and a beer garden. It gets hot in Miami—gotta stay quenched somehow.