- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2002

Staff writer Denise Barnes interviewed Yolanda Chen, chairman of the Chinese Women's League Metropolitan Washington Chapter.

Question: What is a Dragon Boat Festival?
Answer: The Dragon Boat festival is the second-most-important cultural event in Chinese life, after the Chinese New Year. It's more than an exciting water sport. It's a very dynamic part of Chinese folklore and culture. The dragon, of course, represents strength and energy in Chinese culture. With drums and colors rumbling the ears and eyes, dragon boat races create a festive atmosphere that is unsurpassed.
For more than 2,000 years, the Dragon Boat Festival has taken place on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Teams with 20 paddlers sitting two each, side by side, propel the dragon-shaped boat; a drummer keeps the cadence; a rudder keeps the boat on course; and a flag-catcher catches the flag at the finishing line. Teams compete on rivers in different parts of the country. And, the first team that catches the flag wins.
This first-ever 2002 Washington D.C. Dragon Boat Festival will be held during the Memorial Day weekend. Four boats per heat will race on a 500-meter course between Key Bridge and Thompson Boat Center from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 25, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 26. Folk crafts also will be a part of the two-day festival.
The race fosters team spirit and sportsmanship, and this is the part people most enjoy about the event. We welcome experienced dragon boat race competitors and first-timers as well. Spectators can be assured of a fun day on the water. The Dragon Boat Festival opens with a drum-and-gong troupe to announce the commencement of the festival. It's followed by the eye-dotting ceremony. This ceremony is intended to bring good luck and ensure that the event goes smoothly. Rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves are eaten during the celebrations.
Q: What is the legend of the Dragon Boat Festival?
A: The tradition started more than 2,000 years ago when Chu Yuan, a revered statesman and poet, drowned himself in the Mi-Lo River to protest the corrupt regime of a Chu emperor. Local fishermen rushed out in boats to rescue him, but failed. To prevent his body from being eaten by fish, the fishermen beat drums, thrashed the water with paddles and threw rice dumplings in the river to appease the fish.
To commemorate the life and death of Chu Yuan, the scene of the fishermen racing in their boats is re-enacted and thus became the Dragon Boat Festival.
Q: Why are you sponsoring dragon-boat racing on the Potomac?
A:One of the missions of Chinese Women's League Washington, D.C. Chapter the organizers of this Dragon Boat Festival is to facilitate cultural exchanges. The Chinese Women's League is delighted to introduce this rich and colorful Taiwanese sporting event to the Washington, D.C., area in order to further enrich this multicultural society, as well as to attract tourists and businesses across the region to our nation's capital.
We're also celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Chinese Women's League, as well as Taiwanese American Heritage Week in May. The Dragon Boat Festival will be the warm gesture from the Taiwanese-American societies to the people of Washington, D.C. We want to say thank you and show our appreciation and good will towards the residents of the metropolitan area.
Q: Please describe the dragon boats and how the race differs from a crew race.
A: Well, eight Taiwanese-style dragon boats, which were donated by Taiwan businesses, will be used in the races. Each fiberglass boat is 45 feet long and 45 inches wide and weighs about 1,500 pounds. It is painted along the sides to resemble the scales of a dragon and has a very colorful dragon head and a dragon tail.
Twenty paddlers sitting side by side propel the boat. A drummer sits at the bow keeping the cadence, and a rudder with a 6-foot-long steering oar keeps the boat on course. The key to dragon-boat racing is not just strength it requires synchronization and taking the victory flag at the end of the course.
The difference between a dragon boat race and a crew race is that the paddlers in a dragon boat paddle forward, whereas rowers in a crew race row backward. The unique feature of the flag catching makes the dragon boat race much more challenging and exciting because the flag is stuck in a buoy that moves with the waves as the boat approaches. The coordination between the rudder and the flag catcher is vitally important. Should a team fail to catch the flag even though they cross the finishing line first they don't win the race.
Q: Is dragon boat racing popular in other places?
A: It has become very popular around the world, especially in Asia and North America. Last August, Philadelphia hosted the Fourth World Dragon Boat Racing Championships where 136 teams from 21 countries competed. Twenty of the 136 teams were regional champions from the United States. And the 2001 Toronto International Dragon Boat Festival in June attracted more than 100 teams from around the world to participate.
I am very proud to announce that our Dragon Boat Festival [on the Potomac] has just been selected by the Eastern Region Dragon Boat Federation as the site for the 2002 Eastern Region Dragon Boat Championships. Teams who want to compete in the national championships are required to qualify at the Dragon Boat Festival in May. We expect to have at least 25 teams from out of town, some as far away as California and Toronto.
Many experts agree that the Potomac River watercourse, maintained by George Washington University Rowing Club and used by college rowing associations, is one of the best in the country.
Dragon boat enthusiasts across the country are eager to race on this beautiful waterway in our brand new dragon boats.
Q: How has the response been from the Washington community?
A: We're very fortunate to have the support of the business community and the D.C. government has been tremendous, considering this is a first-ever event. The National Park Service, the Harbor Patrol Office and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department have been very helpful and supportive.
The police department and the officers of the Harbor Patrol will be competing in the races as well. Dragon-boat racing is also very popular among breast cancer survivors. And, we have designated a category for breast cancer survivors in the race.
So far, two teams that represent breast cancer survivors have signed up and two others are considering racing here as well. It is hard to predict how many [total] teams will participate, but we want to host a fair game and make it a keen competition. We expect to attract between 2,000 and 4,000 participants and spectators to D.C. and Georgetown during the two-day event.
Next year, the Dragon Boat Festival will be organized by the newly established Dragon Boat Association of Washington, D.C. We believe the event will help bring visitors from across the country, even around the world, to our nation's capital.

For additional information and team registration forms, visit the Web site www.dragonboatdc.com.

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