Vancouver’s Dragon Boat Festival Honours Tradition While Showcasing Local Diversity

Photo: Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival

The Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival, taking place June 24-26, 2022, exuberantly brings together athleticism, cultural heritage, art, and music.

The origins of the Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival go back 4000 to 5000 years in China. “The Dragon Boat Festival is an interpretation of an ancient Chinese festival called the Double Fifth Festival,” says Dominic Lai, Development, Marketing, and Operations Director of Dragon Boat BC. The name comes from the fact that it was held on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Chinese lunar calendar. According to Lai, the Double Fifth Festival occurred at the start of the harvest season and involved praying to the gods to avert misfortune, as well as to combat illness brought on by encountering creatures, like poisonous snakes, and diseases during the warmer weather.

Since then, this ancient festival has evolved considerably into its modern form. It is celebrated as a public holiday in China, and interpretations of it are held around the world. “Common to all of this is bringing people together and having them showcase their stories and athletic prowess to each other. And it’s always been about telling the stories of the place you’re in,” Lai says.

Vancouver’s own history with the Dragon Boat Festival began over thirty years ago during Expo 86. Due to transpacific migration to the city, particularly from Hong Kong, there was considerable cultural and racial tension, similar to the anti-Asian hate that has circulated during the pandemic. “The Chinese community wanted to reach out to the broader community and welcome people in, and bring them into the ‘boat’ so that they could use the shared language of sport, music, and festivities to bring people together,” Lai says. Since Expo 86’s theme was transportation, dragon boats were a perfect fit for symbolically and figuratively uniting people. Six teak dragon boats were donated from Hong Kong and used for exhibition races at Expo 86.

Photo: Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival

“It took off from there,” Lai says. From 1986 to 1988, the Chinese community continued to run races and hold the festival. Then, in 1989, the Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival Society was formed, aiming to celebrate Vancouver’s multicultural diversity and expand the festivities to include even more cultural celebration and entertainment. As well, dragon boating burgeoned in popularity across the city, with teams formed among colleagues, friends, and soon-to-be friends—all joining together in a common interest in the sport and its cultural significance.

Photo: Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival

Lai sees a dragon boat as a microcosm of Vancouver. “A dragon boat fits 22 people. Among those 22 people, everyone has their own identity, story, and lived experience. And everyone has to work perfectly in sync with each other and build up a sense of rapport and team work,” he says. Lai adds that trust comes from sharing stories with one another.

The activities on land during the Dragon Boat Festival mirror the sharing and synergies that occur in the boat. Lai explains: “Dragon boat exists at the intersection of culture and sport. Without culture, dragon boat becomes a really big boat race. Without sport, it becomes a cultural festival. It’s because of the two in balance with each other that dragon boat can become something greater than its pieces.”

2019 Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival Women 2K Start; Photo by Clint Trahan

The Festival will feature cultural pavilions not only to highlight Chinese cultural heritage, but also to represent the cultural vibrancy of Vancouver. In the Chinese Cultural Pavilion, various cultural organizations will display elements of traditional Chinese culture as well as their work in the community.

Photo: Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival – Beijing Opera

The Festival also respects and acknowledges that they are on the traditional and unceded territory of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) nations. Indigenous elders, artists, and representatives are working with the Festival to curate an Indigenous Cultural Pavilion. As well, Indigenous artists will appear on the Cultural Pavilion Stage. “We want people who are visitors to this area understand that this is part of the story of this area,” Lai says.

For their 102.7 The Peak Main Stage, the organizers prioritize showcasing the diversity of the city in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. The line-up will be announced on May 24. Lai says, “We’re working towards ensuring that every type of voice that brings people together is heard at our festival. They come from different genres and backgrounds, and it’s because of that diversity that the Dragon Boat Festival exists. It is a reflection of what Vancouver is.”

Lai is extremely excited about the largest ever purchase of dragon boats, funded in part by Concord Pacific and the Province of BC. These 18 new dragon boats, made of fiberglass, are of the best quality and represent the latest technology in dragon boat design. “It ensures the quality of a race. It makes sure a race is fair. It ensures that it’s run at the highest level possible,” Lai says. And to highlight the cultural aspect of these dragon boats, nine diverse artists have been commissioned to create designs for these new state-of-the-art boats.

These boats evidence how Vancouver’s Dragon Boat Festival is able seamlessly to meld the ancient with the new, as well as Chinese tradition with Vancouver multiculturalism. Every year, they still invite the same Taoist priests to offer prayers to the gods to bless the festival, one that looks very different from its form thousands of years ago. “It’s finding a way to reinterpret but reinterpret in the same spirit as the original,” Lai says.

Photo: Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival Taoist Blessing Ceremony

This year’s festival promises to be incredibly lively and exciting, especially with the return of many teams from across Canada and the United States to the largest dragon boat festival in North America. The Festival is inviting breast cancer teams from across Canada to race as a tribute to Vancouver as the birthplace of breast cancer dragon boating in 1996. At the time, Dr. Don Mackenzie, a researcher in sports medicine at UBC, championed dragon boating for breast cancer survivors as a way of engaging in beneficial exercise and improving wellbeing through camaraderie. Since then, it’s become a global phenomenon—and it all started in Vancouver.

Photo: 2019 Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival Breast Cancer Cup

Other festival highlights will include a Public Art Program, food and beverage vendors, a marketplace, and community and partner exhibitors. There will certainly be no shortage of things to do, see, and cheer on at this year’s Dragon Boat Festival. Further info can be found online.

Tagged: , ,

Comments are closed for this post

Comments are closed.