How My Once-in-a-Lifetime Dragon Boat Chance Became a Yearly Commitment

Dragon boat races in Hong Kong
YuenWu / Getty Images

“Pull, snap!” The mantra of Hong Kong dragon boat racers has nothing to do with dragons.

I say this mantra in my mind as my paddle cuts through the water and pulls back. Gray brown ripples emanate from where the wood churns the harbor water. I watch the two teammates in front of me plough their paddles through the water, as out of my peripheral, I see Myra steadily paddling to the side of me. The goal is to sync with all three of my teammates. If each person on the team focuses on these three points—the two in front of them and one on the side—the team moves as one. The boat glides swiftly towards the buoyed starting lanes. All the while, our paddling keeps pace with the hollow beat of the lone drummer at the bow.

We reach the starting lanes and half the team backpaddles while the other front paddles to make the 180-degree turn, angling us towards the finish line and land. Before the airhorn sounds, I look up and see Stanley Main Beach, but the sand isn’t visible, only people. Hundreds of dragon boat racers and thousands of spectators cover the tiny harbor in a moving mass. Yachts and small boats anchor in a line between the finish line and the end of the starting lanes. Earth, Wind & Fire, blares from waterproof speakers. Bikini and board short-clad passengers hold up homemade race signs in one hand and beers in the other.

“Paddles up!” our coach, David, yells and our teams’ 20 oars hover over the water, the air still, thick with the humidity of the Hong Kong summer. “Ready!” David pipes, and we lean forward, take a collective breath. The airhorn sounds, and we plunge our paddles in the ocean. The boat lurches forward with each stroke, lifting up out of the water, then splashing down. For the 270 meters of the race, we pull the water with our paddles and snap back. Pull, snap! Pull, snap!—for a full minute this is all we think. Then David yells “Power!” We speed up double-time for 21 seconds until we lurch forward one last time across the finish line, elated, and sweaty, each time a homecoming to the navy-blue University of Michigan tent on shore.

You reach, you pull, you snap. You make it home. This was my life for years on and off the water.

Six dragon boats with different numbers
YuenWu / Getty Images

Prior to moving to Asia, I had never heard of dragon boat racing or the Dragon Boat Festival ("Duan Wu Jie" in Mandarin and "Tuen Ng Jit" in Cantonese). Each year, on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, families of Chinese heritage gather together to eat zongzi (sticky rice packets), perform rituals for ensuring good health, and watch or participate in dragon boat races. Race regulations can vary, but generally consist of a team of 20 paddlers, one steersperson in the back, and a drummer, all aboard a wooden or carbon fiber boat with a dragon’s head affixed to the front. Paddlers row in a straight line from distances of several hundred meters to several kilometers. Whoever crosses the finish line first wins.

In Hong Kong, races take place around the city, and the amateur sprint races held at Stanley Main Beach are some of the most popular in the HK Special Autonomous Region. Teams are guaranteed to race two heats (more if they’re good), with prizes awarded for best costumes as well as speed. Finance companies, school groups, and Hong Kong Disney all have teams. Anyone can race as long as they register with the Stanley Dragon Boat Association and pay the proper fees. You don’t even have to be a company or school. Every year a group of Brazilians race; their only connection seems to be that they are all from Brazil.

If you want to race, you either create your own team or know the right people to get on one. My case was the later. I’d moved to Shenzhen with two friends from college after graduating. We worked at different schools teaching English, and one day early in the second semester, Ashley told us her co-worker had asked if she wanted to be on the University of Michigan alumni dragon boat team in Hong Kong.

“Sounds cool,” I said.

“Yeah, but I’d have to cross the border every week for practice until June,” said Ashley. “So, I’m not going to do it.”

“What? This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!”

“Yeah, I don’t want to cross the border all the time.” She meant the border between Shenzhen, China, and Hong Kong.

After moving to China, I decided that this would be my year of learning new skills. Although not skills that were native to my new home, I’d already taken up salsa dancing and begun teaching myself to play the ukulele. And now, attempting a new sport that would connect me with Chinese traditions and customs aligned perfectly with my vision for the year.

“Well, I want to do it. Can I get on the team?” I asked.

“Uh, probably. I’ll give you Sandro’s WeChat.”

I messaged Sandro. As long as I could be at practice at 2 p.m. on Sundays for the next month and pay a small fee for uniforms and gear rental, he said I could be on the team. I crossed the border the following week and met the team during practice outside of Stanley’s Water Sports Training Centre.

We grabbed our oars, stretched on the sand and then hopped in boat to practice paddling around the harbor. We went over stroke technique, timing, and how to brace our bodies against the boat for maximum stroke power potential. Windsurfers dotted the harbor as well as other dragon boat teams attempting to coordinate with their individual boats’ drummers.

After practice, Sandro, and a few others invited me to go swim. Sweaty from rowing, we dove into the water in our practice clothes and waded in the ocean, the peaks of Hong Kong in the distance, as we talked about practice, politics, and music. Everyone started sharing why they had decided to join the team. Seb, the German, was interested in water sports. Myra, a native Hong Konger had grown up celebrating the holiday and enjoyed competing with fellow U of M alumni, while Ruth, from the Canary Islands wanted a way to exercise and socialize.

University of Michigan Alumni Dragon Boat Team
Christine Gilbert

Over time, I realized the reasons people dragon boat are as varied as the legends of Dragon Boat Festival itself. The most popular version of the Dragon Boat Festival origin story is that of Qu Yuan, a prolific poet and royal advisor that lived in the state of Chu during the Zhou Dynasty.

It goes as follows: Qu Yan suggests the emperor of Chu form an alliance with the state of Qi to protect against being conquered by the powerful state of Qin. However, instead of taking his advice, the emperor exiles him for disloyalty and actually joined forces with Qin. He writes some of China’s move beloved poetry in exile, then hears that the Qin leaders overpowered his former king and the state of Chu is now controlled by Qin. Distraught and in protest, he throws himself into Hunan’s Miluo River where he drowns. Widely respected by the locals, they take to the water in boats, attempting to find his body. As they paddle, they bang a drum and throw rice into the water to keep fish from eating his body. Hence the racing and the zongzi.

Another story attributes the holiday to a river god, Wu Zixu from Fujian who had his own stories of betrayal. Some historians point to the holiday having its origins in summer solstice and harvest festival celebrations that predate Qu Yan and Wu Zixu. Regardless, depending on where someone celebrates the Dragon Boat Festival, a different story and traditions will be emphasized.

My own reasons for celebrating Dragon Boat Festival became varied over the years as I went through major life shifts. Instead of moving out of China at the end of my year-long teaching contract, I signed another one. I began studying Chinese at the local university and started writing professionally. I invested in finding more of a community and became more involved at my church, but by the time the spring came, I felt burned out. Many times, I was only sleeping five hours a night. I knew I couldn’t go every weekend to dragon boat practice, especially since I would be joining for the full season this time, a three-month commitment. I emailed David my concerns, and we decided that I would practice only every other weekend.

Thus, dragon boat morphed into a bi-weekly retreat for me. A much-needed ritual of getting out of China. From my doorstep in Shenzhen to get to Stanley market in Hong Kong was a three-hour commute—if I was quick. Many times, it would be longer. Sometimes I would stop and get brunch or a coffee at a third wave café in Wanchai on the way. I appreciated being there, knowing I only had one responsibility here: to paddle a boat. I liked how even though my jobs and relationships had shifted in the last year, that there was this steady constant, a tiny haven in Stanley Harbor waiting for me. We would all be working towards the same simple goal—to race our best.

The following year, I moved out of China for eight months and spent time in the U.S., Indonesia, Kenya, and Uganda. After another job change, unsuccessful book project, and breakup, I ended up missing my community of friends and creatives in Shenzhen. I moved back in March and a few days later, contacted David about dragon boating that June. The following week, I was back on a bus to Hong Kong for the weekend, headed for Stanley, ready to paddle everything out. Even though I had been gone for a while, the old pattern of border crossing, drinking coffee, stretching on the sand, paddling, and singing the Michigan fight song at the end of practice felt normal. It felt like a homecoming after months of discovery and failure and healing.

It’s been four years since I last paddled in a dragon boat, but the races have continued. The races have been a constant, not only in my life but in that of Hong Kong’s, having never been cancelled or postponed since they began in Stanley in the 1960s. However, on June 25, the date of the Dragon Boat Festival in 2020, Stanley harbor didn't have dragon boats or racers. No one will be playing Earth, Wind & Fire. The pandemic will do what no typhoon was able to, despite the races always occurring at the height of typhoon season. The race was canceled.

Yet, I see a familiar pattern. In 2020, the world was pulled, we snapped back and braced ourselves for what was to come. We know things will get better, and solutions are on the horizon. They aren’t fully clear but we’re gaining on them.

You pull. You snap. You repeat. Eventually, you make it home.