Hong Kong’s Dragon Boat Festival

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 I mentioned yesterday that Monday was a public holiday here for the Dragon Boat festival. We had a great day, eating, drink and soaking up the sun, while other people sweated it out on the water for coveted racing cups.

The Dragon Boat festival is a spring festival held across China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. It always occurs on the 5th day, of the 5th month of the lunar year, so the actual date will bounce around a little in the year depending on when Chinese New Year falls.

There are several opposing theories for when and where the dragon boat festival tradition began, but one of the most popular suggests that it commemorates the death of the poet Qu Yuan. The poet was supposedly banished by the king, and charged with treason when the kings alliances shifted. Qu Yuan threw himself into the river to kill himself. He was, however, still popular amongst the local people, and they rushed out into the river to try and find his body, hence the start of the boat racing. Unable to find him, they threw sticky rice dumplings in the water so the fish would eat those instead of his body.

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These sticky rice dumplings, or zongzi, arrive in the shops during the days leading up to the festival. Large supermarkets will set up special cases just loaded with these glutenous rice parcels wrapped in bamboo leaves. Restaurants appear to compete with each other over who can fill their zongzi with the most exclusive (read, expensive!) ingredients. More commonly though, they’re filed with combinations of dried meats, like pork fat and char sui, preserved seafoods, mushrooms, nuts, beans and eggs. I tried one with persevered meat and XO sauce, another with dried oyster and mushrooms, and a sweet one with chestnut paste. The smell of the zongzi steaming in their bamboo leaves was quite off putting to my western nose, but I found that I actually quite liked the savoury dumplings. They’re rich and very, very sticky. The meat is salty and very savoury. The sweet dumpling was, if anything, even stickier! Touch them and they leave a sticky, gluey paste all over your fingers.

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In Hong Kong the dragon boat racing itself is now seen as a major sporting and party event. There are many very serious teams who train for months and months to compete, but equally there are several pub and social teams who look like they really shouldn’t be over exerting themselves on the water!

One of the big races is held in Stanley, our little seaside town on the south side of Hong Kong island. I was up early on the morning of the races, I love the atmosphere as the teams start to arrive. Dozens of little tents are set up, and the teams gather for pep talks, last minute tactics and dozens of croissants in tin foil catering trays. The queue at the local bakery goes out the door as rowers load up on fuel for the race.

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 The air buzzes with excitement and anticipation.

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 At 9am the sun is already beating down. Standing to watch the first boats head out i’m already squinting in the glare, already feeling sticky. The long boats, with their brightly painted dragon heads, paddle steadily towards the starting line. Behind the head sits a drummer. Each one perched on top of the huge drums, facing their team, ready to beat out the pace with a thick wooden drum stick. Each boat gets into position. A horn sounds and the water explodes with activity.

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The drums beat a frantic, heady rhythm. The paddles move in and out of the water at an almost incomprehensible  speed. In, out, in, out, in, out. Muscles working as hard as they can. Crossing the distance, which looks short to the spectator, but must feel so far to the competitors, and dashing towards the finish line. Cheers go up as they reach the end, paddles raised high above the victorious boat. Exhausted backs slumped over on the boats that didn’t quite make it in time.

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As the day goes on the heat rises and Stanley fills with people. Bus after bus arrives packed, emptying more and more people onto the streets and onto the beach. The atmosphere feels like a festival. Each year a prize is awarded for the best dressed team so, while many take it very seriously in the smartest racing gear, it’s not uncommon to wander down the street next to a team of bright blue smurfs, or a boat load of Super Mario Brothers.

The restaurants along the waterfront fire up barbecues and set up beer pumps. The final races happen in the late afternoon, and the teams drift toward the bars, cups being carried aloft. These will be filled up by the pubs, the teams drinking a dubious mix of drinks from them for the rest of the night. A local seafood restaurant sets up a DJ on their balcony and the crowds pile onto the street, dancing and celebrating into the night.

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We ended the evening sat on the seawall along with dozens of others, watching the sun go down.

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