Thames Dragon Boat Club paddling in London Regatta (Photo: Anna Li)

Dragon Boat Festival overseas: how does this Chinese traditional culture become international?

The dragon boat race is an event of the London regatta. There are many dragon boat clubs across the UK. The paddlers ranging from teenagers to senior citizens, from corporate teams to amateur teams, compete on the Themes River.

Historically, many Chinese have made their home abroad and taken the Dragon Boat culture with them. As a result, Dragon Boat racing has become a popular sport all around the world. So, the Dragon Boat Festival in China attracts paddlers from many different countries.

The Dragon Boat Festival was introduced to countries neighbouring China thousands of years ago. Countries like Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam have their particular traditions to celebrate the festival. However, countries in Europe, America, Africa and Oceania remain Chinese customs as Chinese people moved there in the past hundreds of years.

Richard Wang moved from Hongkong to the UK in the 1980s, and he still celebrates the festival in the UK. “On the Dragon Boat Festival, we have a big event in London, which the London Chinese Lions Club sponsors. Some stalls sell street food, and there are also singing and dancing performances.”

Richard Wang was an athlete in sports shooting and Dragon Boat Racing. He won a silver medal in sports shooting in the 1986 Commonwealth Games and a bronze medal in the Senior 1000m at the 2009 IDBF Dragon Boat Racing World Championships.

Interestingly, he did not start dragon boating until he moved to the UK.

“I became a dragon boat paddler because of my son. His coach told me he joined their dragon boat team. Gun control is rigorous in the UK. So, in the 1990s, I became a dragon boat paddler,” said Richard.

“Before the 1980s, dragon boat racing was not very popular in the UK before we bought our dragon boat in Germany. Because the boats were very advanced at that time, there were speakers on every seat so that the paddlers could hear the steer person. But now we buy boats from Dalian China, and the boats are international standards.”

Overseas paddlers participated in the International Dragon Boat Race of Nantong, China in 2019

In his 70s, Richard still trains with the Typhoon Dragon Boat Club. Before Covid, Richard organized the UK paddlers to participate in the International Dragon Boat Invitational Tournament in China.

Compared with sport shooting, Richard enjoys paddling as a team very much. Currently, because of personal reasons and Covid, he may not train with his team, so he uses canoe every day.

“As a team sport, you cannot win the game without joint efforts of your team member.”

Dragon Boat Festival is not just thriving among Chinese communities in other countries. This sports event also attracts people from other cultural backgrounds.

Brian Roberts took part in dragon boat races in China in 2019. He entered a dragon boat race in 1994 after watching a video about a dragon boat race in Hong Kong. Before, he only used single kayaks and canoes.

“The excitement of the race. Being on the water in a boat with a diverse group of people. Lots of social interaction, which was great as I had just moved into the area. Good regular exercise.”

“Kayaking is also sociable, but you paddle your own boat. The type of kayaking I prefer is trips down fast water rivers. Unfortunately, there are few fast rivers near London. So racing dragon boats were completely different yet still exciting,” said Brian.

As a traditional Chinese sport, the dragon boat also introduces Chinese culture to the world. Although far away from the place of origin, the traditions and customs still continue in the UK.

Paddlers of the UK team are from different dragon boat clubs

“They must know the culture about the dragon boat if they want to become a dragon boat paddler. Without knowing these, they cannot throw themselves into it,” said Richard.

“Boats without dragon patterns are not allowed in the race. I also explain why there should be many people paddling together.”

Before launching the boat, people in the UK also follow the customs in China, like burning incense and firing firecrackers.

“In Hongkong, people use roasted pigs as sacrifices. But here, for the respect of other religions, we use chicken instead. We also invite the mayor to dot the eye of the dragon boats.”

“Although the ceremony is not grand as in Hongkong, we still follow the traditional customs,” said Richard.

Brian became interested in Chinese culture after he started dragon boating. However, he researched and wrote an essay about China when he was in school in 1980. He was fascinated by the enormous size and number of people in China. Still, he had little understanding of the culture at that stage.

“It was few years after I started dragon boat racing before I really took any interest into Chinese culture. When I started to go to the bigger events there were more Chinese ceremonies. Also one of the London races included many Chinese people so I slowly became more aware and interested,” said Brian.

The UK is a multicultural society where people with different cultural or religious backgrounds live in the same community. Customs of the Dragon Boat Festive has been passed on to British Born Chinese. It helps the Chinese ethnic group form their identity and enhance cultural diversity in the UK.

Anna Li was born and grew up in the UK. Her family keep the traditional customs of the dragon boat festival. She is a paddler of the Thames Dragon Boat Club.

“My celebrations are with my family, where my mother makes us ‘joong’ (zongzi),” said Anna.

She first tried dragon boating as a corporate team-building event in Singapore. Although the Dragon boat festival is not celebrated so much in the UK, and there is no race on the day, Anna thinks dragon boating is a brilliant way to share her culture with others.

“Our UK club has many nationalities from Spanish, Australian, Philippino, English, German, Hungarian, Indian, Welsh, Irish, Malaysians, HongKong’ers etc. For me being British Born Chinese I love that it connects me to my Chinese roots and I love to share my culture.”

Under globalization and digitalization, people around the world seems to lose their cultural uniqueness. On the other hand, the internet can also help to bring people who have the same hobby together. It is also a new way to preserve traditional culture.

“I do think it’s important to preserve ancient cultures, especially this one which brings communities together and promotes health and fitness in training together,” said Anna.

Richard Wang’s grandchildren were born in the UK. He took his granddaughter onto the dragon boat when she was six years old.

Overseas paddlers travel across China to take part in dragon boat races during the festive period.

“I think she will paddle when she grows up. My grandson is very excited when he sees dragon boats,” said Richard.

Before the pandemic, China hosted International Dragon Boat Competitions in many cities inviting international dragon boat teams to compete with local teams. Apart from racing, organizers also introduce the dragon boat cultures to foreign paddlers by taking them to historical places and museums.

As the Dragon Boat Festival has gained global popularity, it helps to boost international exchanges. Although paddlers may not understand each other’s languages, friendships can also be built by paddling as a team.