Dragon Boat Racing Tuen Ng Festival

Photo credit: Rachel Au

Dragon Boat Racing

There is no sport more colorful, more exciting, more laden with culture and tradition than dragon boat racing. Imagine thumping drums, deafening chants, and billowing flags – these all accompany this adrenaline-packed sport at every race.

Contrary to popular belief, dragon boat races aren’t only held on Tuen Ng Festival. The racing season in Hong Kong actually lasts from early April to late November, until the weather gets a little too cold for an entire day out in open water. Don’t assume that teams get to rest over the chillier months. The city’s dragon boaters take advantage of the winter months to gain the upper hand over their competitors. There’s no other way to win than continue training in 12°C weather amidst bone-chilling winds while rivals sleep away under their down comforters.

There are two main types of races in Hong Kong: public races and fishermen races. Public races include the famous Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships held every Tuen Ng Festival, and the Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Races in mid-June. These races are open to the public. Anyone could form a team and sign up.

On the other hand, fishermen races, also known as private boat races, are by invitation only. These events were originally held amongst fishermen clans, and exclusive to family and friends of fishermen. Today, these teams are still led by fisherfolk, but are more open to having the public join their teams.

Ask any dragon boater and they will tell you that fishermen races are way more exciting compared to public races, despite being lesser-known. These races resemble boat parties more than anything else. Along the shores of Po Toi Island or Aberdeen or Cheung Chau, fleets of fishing boats hold teams and their families. Everyone is invited, from toddlers to grandparents to pregnant ladies. Teams go through endless crates of beer and feast on nibbles cooked on the boat by the ladies of the clans. Dishing out curry fish balls, Thai squid salad and grass jelly, these ladies only hope that their athletes will be energized and prepared to win every race.

Right before a race, athletes clamber down the side of their fishing boat onto their dragon boat. Unlike carbon fiber boats used in public races, these dragon boats are all tailor-made, wooden beauties. Want a smoother glide? Your boat can be made narrower. Prefer plunging paddles deeper into the water? Your boat will be equipped with lower sides. It is not uncommon for a team to spend over a hundred thousand Hong Kong dollars on a dragon boat.

Superstition once dictated that women were forbidden to touch dragon boats, let alone compete in them. Times have since changed. Women’s and mixed races are now almost as common as men’s races. Another interesting superstition is that one must not touch the dragon’s head of a competitor’s boat, lest it bring bad luck to both teams.

Dragon boat racing is an incredibly demanding sport itself. Learn about paddling in SCMP’s illustrated article, or read about the sport’s history in our piece about the Tuen Ng Festival. Be sure to check out the Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships on 7th July 2019 and the Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Races from 14-16 June 2019!