Dragon boats open their eyes

With the eye dotting ceremony this afternoon, the dragon boats taking part in the Taipei International Dragon Boat Race Championships will be ready for the big race

By Lynn Lee  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Sun, Jun 10, 2001 - Page 17

There are few sports that are more essentially Chinese than dragon boat racing, and with the Tuanwu Festival (端午節, commonly called the Dragon Boat Festival in English) falling on June 25, teams are getting ready for races all over Taiwan. While most of the competition will be local, the Taipei International Dragon Boat Race Championships (台北國際龍舟錦標賽) includes an international division which attracts teams from around the world to battle it out for the presidential cup.

The eye-dotting ceremony for the boats taking part in this race will be held this afternoon between 1pm and 3 pm, at the Tachia section of the Keelung River beneath the Tachih Bridge.

Chang Chin-jen (張進仁), a member of the Hsintien City Administrative Office (新店市公所) team that captured the presidential cup in 2000, spoke with confidence of his team's ability to take the title again this year: "We've been practicing every day at the crack of dawn, and we begin training long before any of the other teams."

The Hsintien team has an advantage over other local teams, for as the managing body for a dragon boat racing area at Bitan (碧潭) in Taipei County, they can start training long before the Taipei City race organizers allow teams to train on the Keelung River (基隆河), where the Taipei City races are held.

Bitan is the venue of the Taipei County Congressional Cup Dragon Boat Races (台北縣議長盃龍舟錦標賽), which are held a week before the Taipei City event. The boats used in the Taipei County races are much more modern, being made of fiberglass. The Taipei City race uses traditional wooden boats that are heavier and wider.

Joining the lineup

The Taipei International Dragon Boat Race Championships have only been held on the Keelung River -- specifically, the Tachia section (大佳段) beneath the Tachih Bridge (大直橋) -- since 1995, when the Taipei City Government began co-sponsoring the races with the Taipei Municipal Sports Federation. That year, the city government completed a major reconstruction project to straighten out the Keelung River and establish a park on its banks.

So far, the international division in the 2001 competition has nine registered men's teams and three women's teams, including teams from Hawaii, the Philippines, Canada, Thailand, and Japan. A few teams, however, are guaranteed participants in the event.

One such team is the Aqua Fortis Dragon Boat Rowing Team from the Philippines. "We have been participating in the Taipei dragon boat races since 1993," states Earnest S. Versoza, the drummer and over-all leader of the Philippine delegation. "We were overwhelmed by the warm acceptance of the Taiwanese when we came the first time, and we have participated ever since."

Two other teams with assured positions in the lineup are locally-based teams consisting of foreign students studying at Chinese language schools: the Taipei Language Institute (TLI) and the Center for Chinese Language and Culture (CCLC), formerly the Mandarin Training Center. Both schools have fielded teams in the Taipei City races for at least twenty years.

Janie Moor from England, who is serving as captain of the TLI team for her second year and participating for her third, attributes her continued participation to the wonderful feeling that she gets when building up the team.

"It's a great feeling when you have a group of people who do not really know each other that well, but who must work together to get the boat moving; and once everyone begins to fall in sync with one another, it's especially exciting, because the boat surges forward almost like a rollercoaster ride. It's very exhilarating!"

Tsuyoshi Kano from Japan, a member of the CCLC team who has been participating for three years now, gives three reasons for rejoining: "First, it's a great place to meet a lot of new friends. Second, the cultural aspects and traditions behind the races are so deep and meaningful, and it's great to be a small part of that. Finally, the overall experience and the feeling of accomplishment when it's done -- it's a great memory to take back to Japan of my stay here in Taiwan."

Ancient traditions

The Dragon Boat Festival occurs on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month -- which falls on June 25 this year -- and is filled with many ancient customs and rituals.

Dragon boats are a very important feature of the festival and were originally used as part of an elaborate ceremony for supplicating the water gods to prevent floods and other natural disasters. Later, they also became associated with the death of the poet Chu Yuan (屈原) in 290BC, who drowned himself in the Milo River of Hunan Province (湖南省). The beating of drums and splashing of oars which are so much part of dragon boat racing were originally intended to scare away fish who might desecrate the poet's body.

Tradition dictates that before a dragon boat can be used in a race, the eyes on the dragon's head adorning the prow of every boat must first be opened. This is done several weeks before the race itself in a special ceremony.

The ceremony to open the eyes of the dragon is presided over by a Taoist priest. Ringing a bell and burning incense, he first blesses the boats, and then race officials daub a bit of red paint onto each dragon's eyes to "open" them. This is followed by lion dances and other performances as the dragon boats are carried to the river by the various teams. The boats are paddled up and down the racecourse as fire crackers, sticky rice cakes and ghost money are thrown into the water, in part as offerings to the River God, in part to commemorate the spirit of Chu Yuan.

The eye-dotting ceremony for the Taipei International Dragon Boat Race Championships will be held today between 1pm and 3 pm, at the Tachia section of the Keelung River beneath the Tachih Bridge. Traditionally, the mayor of Taipei presides over the ceremony, and everyone is invited to come down and join the fun.

The Taipei International Dragon Boat Race Championships will be held on the three-day weekend of the festival itself, June 23-25. During the festival, aside from the races, which will take place between 8am and 5pm every day, the Taipei City Government will be organizing numerous other activities for spectators, such as kungfu and taichi performances, lion dances and folk art and handicraft exhibitions.

Dragon boat races in major cities and counties

For more information about the Taipei City races, check the offical bilingual Chinese-English Web site for this year's competition at http://dragon2001.nihs.tp.edu.tw

Chiayi County 嘉義縣

Date: June 25

Contact: (05) 362-0123

Changhua County 彰化縣

Date: June 23-25

Contact: (04) 722-2151 ext. 1051

or (04) 777-2668

Hsinchu City 新竹市

Date: June 25

Contact: (03) 521-6121

Ilan County 宜蘭縣

Date (local): June 24-25

Date (national*): June 30, July

Contact: (03) 936-4567 ext. 1440/1

*Note: Ilan County will be hosting the island-wide provincial dragon boat races this year.

Kaohsiung City 高雄市

Date: June 23-25

Contact: (07) 723-2751 ext. 83

Kaohsiung County 高雄縣

Date: June 23-25

Contact: (07) 747-7611

Keelung City 基隆市

Date: June 24-25

Contact: (02) 2420-1122 ext. 360

Miaoli County 苗栗縣

Date:June 24-25

Contact: (037) 322-150

Pingtung County 屏東縣

Date: June 24-25

Contact: (08) 732-0415

Taoyuan County 桃園縣

Date: June 24-25

Contact: (03) 479-3070

Tainan City 台南市

Date: June 24-25

Contact: (06) 299-1111 ext. 1705

Tainan County 台南縣

Date: June 16-17

Contact: (06) 632-2231

Taipei City 台北市

Date: June 23-25

Contact: (02) 2570-2330 ext. 120

Taipei County 台北縣

Date: June 16-17

Contact: (02) 2960-3456

Taitung County 台東縣

Date: June 22-23

Contact: (089) 326-141