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Hong Kong Dragon Boat Race Draws International Crowd - 2004-06-22


More than 150 boat-racing teams descended on the south side of Hong Kong Island to compete in the Dragon Boat Festival, a Chinese holiday with origins dating back more than 2,000 years. Benjamin Sand has the report.

Boat races are the highlight of the annual holiday, best known by its English name, "The Dragon Boat Festival". Although the sporting event attracts competitors from all over the world these days, the festival's significance dates to a Chinese legend from the Third Century B.C.

The modern traditions of the festival, the eating of rice-and-meat dumplings, drum-beating during the races, and the boat races themselves, are all rooted in the story of Qu Yuan.

He was a well-loved poet who lived in the Chinese kingdom of Chu. Around 278 B.C., after his rivals had falsely accused him of treason and had him banished, he threw himself into the river to kill himself.

When Qu Yuan jumped into the river, fishermen frantically rowed out to save him. They beat drums to scare away any water creatures who might eat him, and threw rice dumplings into the water, hoping to lure the creatures with something else to eat.

Their efforts were in vain and Qu Yuan drowned. Today, the same beating drums are heard while spectators enjoy rice dumplings and cheer on the racers in their long, elaborately-decorated boats.

Another traditional sight at Dragon Boat races is children splashing in the water. Cathy Ma, a Hong Kong resident who has enjoyed the festival for years, explains the symbolism.

"Very often the parents just dump the kids in the water because they think that water that has touched dragon boats will bring them fortune and luck," she said. "So in the afternoon of the Dragon Boat Festival, you will see a lot of kids soaking in the water."

Boat races take part in several parts of the former British Colony. One of the major regattas is held each year in Stanley, a residential area on Hong Kong Island that is especially popular with expatriates, and the place where Dragon Boat racing first turned from a local to an international event.

In the late 1960s, only Chinese men could form paddle teams. But the races attracted the notice of expatriates living in the Stanley area, who decided they wanted to participate.

Alson Wong, chairman of the Stanley Residents Association, said that race participants now come from around the globe to take part.

"They come from everywhere. Some big companies will come from America. Or [they] come back from Beijing for this race. It is a very exciting event for the people," Alson Wong said.

Today, Dragon Boat teams are composed of men and women, local people and expatriates.

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