Boat festival celebrates Chinese tradition

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Mai Tran trains with her team, the Austin Coolers, for the 13th annual Dragon Boat Festival and Race this weekend. Each boat is about 40 feet long and holds 20 paddlers, one drummer and one steer-person.

Photo Credit: Ryan Edwards | Daily Texan Staff

Austinites can expect the thunder of drums Saturday as a small fleet of whimsically-painted, authentic dragon-faced boats cut across the water on Lady Bird Lake and people come together to celebrate a deeply rooted Chinese tradition.

The Austin Dragon Boat Festival and Race, sometimes known as the Duanwu Festival, is said to have originated thousands of years ago in ancient China. It has spread to cities across America, and this year’s event will mark its 13th celebration in Austin.

While its origins are somewhat unclear, one particular telling of the history behind the festival speaks of a famous Chinese poet and patriot, Qu Yuan. He dedicated much of his life to trying to speak out about government corruption but met much resistance from authorities. Hoping to bring attention to his cause, he drowned himself in a river.

“The people loved him so much and didn’t want his body to be disturbed, so they used a boat to chase away the other creatures,” said Amy Wong Mok, the founder and CEO of the Asian American Cultural Center, the main organization hosting the event.

According to Mok, the festival has come far from its more somber beginnings with two boats and is now a celebration centered on community.

Now the festival’s six 40-foot-long dragon boats are a testament to this, as it takes 44 people rowing in unison to move across the water.

“The spirit behind the festival is teamwork,” Mok said. “If the whole team moves forward, the boat flies on the water.”

Teams, including UT’s Chinese Student Association and Chinese Students and Scholars Association, will kick off the race in a march and ceremony called “dotting the eyes of the dragon.”

Participants will paint a red dot onto the eye of each dragon, symbolically awakening the dragons from slumber so that they can look protectively out over the water and help guide the boats as they race.

For one of the participating teams, the Chinese Student Association, a five-week training process brought new experiences — and new challenges.

Though the organization has participated in the races for more than eight years, this year’s team consists mostly of first-time rowers.

“The first [practice], we actually capsized,” said Jonathan Wong, the association’s sports director. “But we practiced and have gotten a lot better ... [The race] is going to be intense, but I think it’s going to be really fun.”

Teams from Samsung to Dell to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office will join together in friendly competition for awards to be given out at the close of the event.

“The thing I look forward to the most about dragon boat races, as a paddler, is the high energy on race day,” said UT alumna Sheena Chang, who coaches all of the teams that participate in the event as well as a year-round rowing team, the Austin Coolers. “The adrenaline rush is absolutely incredible and very, very addicting. My team and I often joke right after a race that we’re all suffering from race withdrawal.”

Performances, food and a silent auction benefitting the Cancer Connection will keep up the lively spirit on shore as the races occur.

Along with the traditional ceremonies and Chinese dance and martial arts, there will be performances inspired by cultures from across the globe, including an opening by the Hawaiian Kona Isle dance troupe and other showcases featuring Filipino, Vietnamese, Indian, Korean and Japanese organizations.

The customary festival fare of zongzi, filled sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, will be sold along with other authentic fare, including dumplings and pan-fried onion buns.

Proceeds will go to aiding the relief efforts in northern Japan following the devastating tsunami and earthquake. Past festival attendees such as Jay Xiao, president of the Chinese Student Association, said that the Dragon Boat Festival has grown from a celebration of Chinese history into a multicultural and community event.

“It’s very diverse, and it’s definitely not just for people who are Chinese,” Xiao said.