- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

Almost 3,000 people gathered at the Washington Harbour in Northwest yesterday under mostly sunny skies to take part in a centuries-old Chinese sport dragon boat racing which owes its existence to a Chinese statesman and poet who died far from the shores of the Potomac River.
The Dragon Boat Festival began more than 2,000 years ago when the venerable Chu Yuan 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. Each year, in various parts of the world, the race of the ancient fishermen is re-enacted in the Dragon Boat Festival.
Yesterday, 45 amateur and professional teams from around the country paddled up the Potomac in oriental-style boats at breakneck speeds during preliminary qualifying heats. Sixteen teams will compete in the finals, which begin at 11:00 a.m today.
The two-day festival is new to the District. It is sponsored by the local Chinese Women's League and the D.C. Dragon Boat Association.
"We are delighted to introduce this colorful and exciting sport to Washington. It will not only enrich further the cultural diversity of the city, but also enhance D.C.'s attraction to tourists. [The event] is popular today in many parts of the world, particularly Taiwan. It represents history, tradition, culture and, more importantly, the teamwork and sportsmanship spirit," said Yolanda Chen, the league's chairwoman.
Each dragon boat is 45 feet long and 45 inches wide and weighs 1,550 pounds. The boats are painted along the sides to resemble the scales of a dragon and have a dragon's head at the bow and a dragon tail at the stern.
There are 23 crew members aboard each vessel, including 20 paddlers, one drummer to beat out a rhythm for the paddlers to follow, a helmsman grasping a 12-foot steering oar to keep the boat on course and one person to lean out and grab a flag from a buoy at the finish line.
The boats raced a 250-meter course and a 500-meter course in qualifying heats of four boats each, while spectators cheered and those waiting their turn sized up the competition.
Cindy Lee, a cardiologist who lives in Rockville, rowed for Clyde's Restaurant Group. Ms. Lee said many of her teammates were lunchtime regulars at the restaurant and decided to come out and join in the fun. They're a nice group of people and it's a great event, she said.
"I rowed in college, but I haven't done it in a while, and I just thought it would be fun. I hope the event drums up interest in the sport, which is extremely popular in other places," Ms. Lee said.
Charlie Hung agreed.
Mr. Hung, a real estate investor, raced with the Washington School of Chinese Language and Culture team based in Rockville. Mr. Hung, 23, had no doubt that his team would be back today for the finals because the team won its first 250-meter heat.
"Dragon boat racing is big all over the world. After this event, I believe it will gain popularity in this area," he said.
Teammate Austin Huang, 23, wearing the team's burgundy and yellow T-shirt, stretched himself out in a portable chair after his team won its qualifying heat, which earns it the right to race today. He showed no signs of fatigue.
"This is exciting, and it's really new to me. We rowed the 250-meter course I'm not tired but the 500-meter course would have been exhausting," he said with a smile.
"This is fantastic," said Grace Yang, the drummer for her team, the Shiny Emperor Dragons, with a crew from from the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
"Mrs. Chen wants to make this an annual event," she said. "She traveled to Taiwan and was able to get eight boats donated for the races. Hopefully, the dragon boat races will become a part of the District's Memorial Day celebrations."


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