The first and oldest of its kind in North America, Boston’s Hong Kong Dragon Boat festival will be held for the 37th year from June 11-12. Now the largest Asian-American cultural event in New England, over 30,000 people of diverse backgrounds are expected to attend, according to Gail Wang, the festival’s public relations coordinator.
The festival will feature the traditional dragon boat races down the Charles River, with teams from all over the country competing. This year, Wang said a record-breaking 69 teams will come out for the event, a huge increase from just 10 years ago, when only about 40 teams participated.
In addition to the races, festival-goers can enjoy traditional Asian food vendors, arts and crafts and musical and dance performances from many different countries, including Korea, Cambodia and India. This year, the festival has also expand to include workshop in tai chi and lion dancing.
“Dragon boat racing originated in ancient China, but we want to include all Asian cultures,” Wang said. The festival, with free admission, provides people with a rare occasion to enjoy first-class cultural performances and food all day.
Traditionally held on the fifth day of the fifth moon on the lunar calendar, dragon boat racing began in 200 B.C. to commemorate the death of Chinese poet and minister Qu Yuan who was banished by the king after advocating for reforms in his home state of Chu. As the legend says, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Mi Lo River when he heard his home had been invaded. The people rushed to rescue him and threw steamed rice wrapped in reed leaves as a sacrifice. Ever since then, dragon boats have raced down the rivers of China in his memory.
The Boston festival is the first dragon boat festival outside of Chinese-speaking regions, according to Wang. Started in 1979 as part of a program with the Boston Children’s Museum, it has since grown into its own nonprofit and has kickstarted a phenomenon in North America, with similar races now being held in Miami, Houston, Denver, Vancouver and more.
“It’s becoming very mainstream, and I am proud to be working for the festival that started such a popular sport and cultural festivity,” Wang said.
However, Wang noted that the festival is not just for the Asian-American community.
“It is for everybody to enjoy,” she said. “The racing, the foods, they are all universal.”