Hong Kong celebrates more than a dozen festivals annually, but one festival that evokes strong feelings of camaraderie, in addition to the usual revelries that characterize most festivals, is the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival.
The Dragon Boat festival is also known as the Tueng Ng Festival. The event is a hot favorite for the title of the most loved festival in Hong Kong. The Dragon Boat Festival typically marks the advent of summer in the HKSAR and is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth Lunar month. This day usually occurs in late May or early June.
The festival is associated with raucous dragon boat races wherein enthusiastic teams of paddlers race in long, narrow boats to the accompaniment of drum beats as they charge towards the finish line. In the fashion of most festivals, the Dragon Boat Festival also inspires much merriment and features various allied celebrations.
The celebration of the Dragon Boat Festival originated in Mainland China in the 3rd century BC. Originally called the Upright Sun Festival, the name of the festival was changed due to the dragon boat races, which came to be held during the festivities in the southern provinces of China.
The festival is celebrated to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, a well-loved poet and minister in the kingdom of Chu. History states that Qu Yuan was much revered by the court and people alike. Unfortunately, Qu Yuan evoked much jealousy in people around him and he was soon falsely accused of wrongdoing by a corrupt prince at the court. He was summarily disgraced and dismissed.
Distraught at his dismissal, Qu Yuan jumped into the Milou River to end his life. He committed this act on the 5th day of the fifth lunar month in 277 B.C. Several fishermen and villagers tried to save his life by splashing water an, dashing out in their boats, but it was to no avail. They couldn’t even locate Qu Yuan’s body. The dragon boat races associated with the Dragon Boat Festival have now come to symbolize this frantic rescue effort.
Desperate, they then proceeded to throw cooked rice in the river, with the hope that the fish would eat the rice rather than their hero’s remains. At this time, it is believed that an apparition of Qu Yuan appeared to the villagers and instructed them to wrap the rice in silk and bind it, as all the rice that they had thrown had been eaten by a reptile.
Thus, came about the custom of eating ‘Zong Zi’ or rice dumpling during the festival. These little parcels of glutinous rice and vegetables are wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed. The ‘Zong Zi’ features fillings like mung beans, Chinese dried mushrooms, salted duck egg yolk, barbecue pork (char siu) and dried scallops. During the Dragon Boat Festival, these dumplings are visible all over Hong Kong, in markets and local Hong Kong-style cafes.
God’s water parade
Tai O is quaint fishing town on the island of Lantau, one of the many outer-lying islands that make up Hong Kong. The town in addition to dragon boat races also hosts a ceremony called the ‘Gods Parade’ during the festival. This parade originated in the early twentieth century when a plague epidemic overran the village. The local fishermen in desperation paraded the statues of local deities on dragon boats as they traversed the local waterways. In no time, the plague had abated but the tradition continues until today. Nowadays, this ‘Gods Parade’ is an important feature of the Dragon Boat festival. The dragon boats usually tow a small boat loaded with statues of Chinese gods as they ply using waterways. The town’s inhabitants who live on stilt homes burn gold and silver paper offerings and joss sticks as they pay their respects to departed souls when the dragon boats pass.
Viewing the Dragon Boat Races in Hong Kong
The Dragon Boat Races are held at various locales around Hong Kong. The most high profile races are hosted at Stanley Beach (on the southernmost tip of the island) - the Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships and the Dragon Boat Carnival in Victoria Harbor.
Race events are also held at the Aberdeen Harbor (south side of Hong Kong island) and the Sai Kung Pier (in the New Territories) as well as on outer lying islands of Hong Kong like Cheung Chau and Discovery Bay (a popular residential enclave).
Carnivals and fests usually follow the races and provide much enjoyment for all the family.
So if you happen to be in Hong Kong in late May or early June, do look out for the raucous dragon boat races as you join Hong Kongers in the festivities of summer.