by Julia Pierrepont III
LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA, July 30 (Xinhua) -- "Win, win, win!" squealed a handful of athletes cheering on a phalanx of sleek, dragon-headed boats as they sliced effortlessly toward the finish line at the 2018 Long Beach Dragon Boat Festival on Saturday and Sunday.
A couple of thousand spectators turned out each day for the exciting racing event as dozens of teams from all over the US and Canada showed up to compete for the top prizes and bragging rights.
For the past 20 years, the Long Beach Dragon Boat Festival has continued to be one of the leading cultural sporting events on the West Coast of the United States. "If not for the Dragon Boat Festival, all these people here today wouldn't be visiting the fine city of Long Beach," asserts Dr. Howard Chen, the President of the International Cultural Exchange Association and co-founder and promoter of the Long Beach Dragon Boat races.
The Duan Wu festival began more than 2,000 years ago as a memorial to Qu Yuan, a loyal and highly respected poet who sacrificed his life to protest corruption in the Chinese court of Chu (present day Hunan and Hubei provinces). As the sport expands beyond its Chinese cultural roots, dragon boat races are popping up all over the US, Europe and Asia. Unlike the evil or demonic dragons in European mythology, Asian dragons traditionally bring good fortune and prosperity and avert misfortune.
Hundreds of racing participants, wearing different color jerseys, from all different races and cultures, showed up in Long Beach to celebrate the international phenomenon of dragon boat racing.
"This event is a celebration of diverse backgrounds and multicultural heritage that fosters camaraderie and good sportsmanship," Dr. Chen told Xinhua. "It's fantastic!" says Maria, a rower from Los Angeles, "I was not that into sports before, but this is just so much fun and you can do it with your friends."
Referring to Long Beach as the "Aquatic Capital of America," Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia issued a statement welcoming the "unparalleled talent, determination and sportsmanship" of the participants while promoting the festival as a great way to experience ancient Chinese cultural heritage, traditional dances and performances. And there were many great performances for families and friends to enjoy: frisky red, purple and gold Lion Dancers from the Shaolin Temple Kung Fu School, swaying Hawaiian dancers in flowing grass skirts, Asian-style drum corps and Chinese traditional musicians.
The audience participated in a rousing Pacific island-style chant to cheer on all the competing teams and start the races off with a bang. Good-natured rivalry between competing teams, a mainstay in sports, also added to proceedings.
"We're here for the gold, so get used to it!" crowed a Panda Express team leader to a competing corporate team nearby. The athletes wielding the oars ranged from once-a-year recreational paddlers to hard-core paddlers who practice every day.
Some attend training camps, while others opt for single-session classes to improve paddling techniques, steering, coaching and team-building. And this sport is not just for the young and fit. Participants ranged in age from eager young high school students of 16 to Great Grand Dragon Paddlers over 60.
As the teams assembled by the boat-loading beach, there was a lot of laughter, high spirits, and the cheerful, bone-deep camaraderie that comes of working together to achieve something.
The United States Dragon Boat Festival Federation is responsible for training, encouraging and promoting US teams at domestic and international races. Their mission is to promote fitness, recreation, and team-building at all levels of competition.
To ready the boats for racing, Dr. Chen and Frank Colonna, Commissioner Port of Long Beach, followed the ancient tradition of "Awakening the Dragons" by dipping a brush dipped in red paint and dotting the bulging eyes of the carved dragonheads attached to each boat.
This is traditionally believed to awaken the dragon from slumber and re-energize its chi (life energy) for the race. "This is a great tradition that everyone can enjoy. The races bring a lot of people to Long Beach each year and they always have a lot of fun, " Colonna told Xinhua.
The corporate sponsors included the City of Long Beach, Panda Express, American Airlines, HSBC Bank, the International Cultural Exchange Association and LA Country Recreation & Parks.
During the races, drummers pounded out rhythmic beats to keep their team's strokes synchronized, while the steerers barked out encouragement in stentorian voices that can be heard all the way across the inlet.
Each boat sported a golden dragonhead and tail as it glided cleanly through the water, its crew's paddles rising and falling in undulating waves like the coils of a dragon as they raced.
There was also a breast cancer survivor crew who competed in the event. Putting their heartfelt words into deeds, the cancer survivors shared a moment of silence to honor friends and family who had lost their battle with cancer. Then in fond memory, they threw a healing rain of pink carnations into the water from a gently arching bridge at the race site.