A Gweilo's Guide to Dragon Boat Festival, Big Chinese Fest
Hong Kong/ Ohana/ Family

A Gweilo's Guide to Dragon Boat Festival, China’s Boat Racing Holiday

A Gweilos Guide to Dragon Boat Festival Chinas Boat Racing Holiday 1

Whether you dropped down in the Victoria Harbour 25 years ago with eternal hope of your new home, or recently found yourself thriving in the Pearl of the Orient, you may still have not shaken that classic Gweilo identity and perspective of Hong Kong.

Are you not fully clued up on what our Chinese festivals mean or what to do for Hong Kong’s big calendar events? We’re here to help with our Gweilo’s Guide! 

A Gweilo's Guide to Dragon Boat Festival, China’s Boat Racing Holiday

What is Dragon Boat Festival?

The Dragon Boat Festival, also known as the Double Fifth Festival, is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar, which corresponds to late May or June in the Gregorian calendar. This holiday commemorates the ancient poet Qu Yuan and is marked by dragon boat races and eating sticky rice dumplings called zongzi.

The Dragon Boat Festival is also a public holiday in China, Hong Kong SAR, Macau SAR, and Taiwan. It is also unofficially observed by the Chinese communities of Southeast Asia, including in Singapore and Malaysia. In addition, equivalent and related official festivals include the Korean Dano, Japanese Tango no sekku, and Vietnamese Tết Đoan Ngọ.

A Gweilo's Guide to Dragon Boat Festival, China’s Boat Racing Holiday

Why do we celebrate Dragon Boat Festival, and what’s the meaning behind it?

The Dragon Boat Festival is a traditional Chinese holiday that celebrates the life and death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan. Qu Yuan lived during the Warring States period of ancient China and was a loyal servant of the Chu state.

However, he was exiled after his advice was rejected by the king, and the Chu state was conquered by the Qin state. In despair, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River. The people of Chu, who admired Qu Yuan for his integrity and patriotism, raced to the river to save him, but were unsuccessful. To prevent his body from being eaten by fish, they threw rice dumplings into the river and beat drums to scare away the fish.

How do we celebrate Qingming Festival?

By racing boats with long dragon faces on them! The dragon boat races on the festival weekend are the main highlight to catch in Hong Kong and beyond, where teams compete to see who can paddle the fastest. The boats are traditionally made of wood and decorated with dragon heads and tails. The races are accompanied by the sound of drums, which are beaten to help paddlers keep time.

Originated from the Lingnan region of China, where people believed the water that passed through the oars of dragon boats was auspicious. The modern version of the races began in Hong Kong four decades ago.

In 1976, the first international dragon boat race was held in Hong Kong, with nine local teams competing against a Japanese team. The competition defined the sport at an international level and laid the foundation for the dragon boat races we are so familiar with today.

A Gweilo's Guide to Dragon Boat Festival, China’s Boat Racing Holiday

Should we eat anything or wear something specific during the Dragon Boat Festival?

One of the significant parts of this festival is making and eating zongzi with family and friends. Zongzi is a traditional food made of glutinous rice and fillings wrapped in leaves of reed or bamboo, forming a pyramid shape.

The leaves provide a special aroma and flavour to the sticky rice and fillings. The fillings vary by region, with sweet or dessert-styled zongzi popular in the North, filled with bean paste, jujube, and nuts, while savoury zongzi with eggs and meat are preferred in the South.

The Chinese name of the Dragon Boat Festival, 'Duanwu', has a similar pronunciation to the number five in various dialects. Thus, many regions have a tradition of eating food related to the number five during the festival. For example, the Guangdong and Hong Kong regions have a tradition of making congee with five different beans.

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