The pomp and pageantry of the Singapore Dragon Boat Festival
By Kasey Clark
Dragon-boat crews from around the world gather to participate in the magic of the annual Singapore Dragon Boat Festival. From its rich history and colourful rituals to the excitement of both the races and the spectators, here’s what makes the Singapore Dragon Boat Festival a must-see event. Don’t miss this year’s festivities on Saturday, 11 July and Sunday, 12 July.
The Singapore Dragon Boat Festival takes place every year in the 88-hectare Bedok, about 20 minutes by car or taxi from downtown. Sports fans, history buffs or just those looking for a bit of culture and fun will love the festive atmosphere, the demonstrations of the crew members’ athleticism and the vibrant traditions that are the hallmark of this prestigious annual competition.
Rich History and Traditions
Legends vary in the telling, but dragon boat racing dates back to ancient China and two stories. The first story involves the Chinese people’s reverence for the River Dragon, a generous ‘spirit of the waters’ that the people believed controlled the rain. Consequently, they paid homage to him during the summer solstice, when they were hoping for enough rain to grow their crops but not so much rain as to cause flooding and loss. Today, the Singapore Dragon Boat Festival still takes place around the time of the summer solstice.
The second story involves the death of renowned Chinese poet and statesman, Qu Yuan, in the third century BC. As legend has it, the just and honourable Qu Yuan was desperately disheartened by the corruption he saw within his own government – so much so, in fact, that he killed himself by throwing himself into the Mei Lo River. Today, the rowing motions of the dragon boat teams are meant to recall the frantic actions of the townspeople as they beat the water with oars to scare off man-eating fish while trying – unsuccessfully – to save the ill-fated Qu Yuan.
Another festival tradition involves tossing silk-wrapped or banana-leaf-wrapped ba chang (cooked rice dumplings) into the water to placate the river spirits (and, possibly, those same man-eating fish!). Indulging in these triangular dumplings is still very much part of modern-day dragon boat races. Typically, ba chang consist of glutinous rice filled with meat, dates, egg yolks, beans, chestnuts and mushrooms; they’re then wrapped in banana leaf before being steamed to perfection. You can also find delicious plain, sugared dumplings at the festival.
Even before the races begin, the brightly coloured, beautifully decorated fibreglass dragon boats are stunning sights to see. In Chinese mythology, dragons are lucky creatures, so it’s certainly understandable that these crews paddle boats featuring a dragon head at the bow and a dragon tail at the stern as they go for the win. The magnificent beastly boats measure from 12 to 30 metres long.
A Day (or Two) at the Races
At the Singapore Dragon Boat Festival, teams of 22 crew members take their places in these spectacular boats and try to pull their way to victory amid the cries of screaming spectators lining the reservoir. In the bow of the boat, the crew’s drummer serves several important purposes. First, his or her rhythmic drumbeats aim to set the pace for the paddlers’ rowing and he or she must keep time with the strokes of the front two paddlers. Naturally, this rhythmic thumping adds to the anticipation and atmosphere of each action-packed race. Also, the drummer is like having an on-board cheerleader, serving to spur on his or her teammates from start to finish. Outside the boats, you can likewise expect Singaporeans, expats and visitors alike to join in the cheering and chanting for their countries and favourite teams during these intense, fast-paced races.
Racing categories for the 2015 Singapore Dragon Boat Festival include open, mixed, women’s and senior events. This year’s contest features 24 500-metre races and several 200-metre races. One of the yearly highlights of the festival is the Prime Minister’s Cup, a 1000-metre race that pits students from four of Singapore’s universities – Nanyang Technological University (NTU), National University of Singapore (NUS), Singapore Management University (SMU) and Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) – against each other. Think of it like the Oxford and Cambridge or the Harvard and Yale rivalry of the Far East. There’s a Prime Minister’s Cup race for both men and women and both take place on the Sunday of the festival.
Whether you’re a newbie to dragon boat racing or a seasoned spectator, the Singapore Dragon Boat Festival is sure to light a fire under you for other dragon boat events.
Image Credits: Getty Images