|Race of the ancients
About 100 years ago, large
clans of sea-faring migrants from China settled along the foreshores of Penang
island, building pier houses on the fringes of George Town.
Many of these humble coastal
plank settlements, like the old Bang Liaw jetty in Weld Quay, still
exist till today, housing scores of fisher-folk families just as they did
many decades before.
1983: Western Australia the
jubilant team, trained on surf-boats.
During the early period,
every year on the fifth day of the fifth moon of the lunar calendar, the
settlers would push out to sea lengthy specially built boats for a passionate
day of racing. It was one of the great traditions they had proudly brought
along from China.
Little could these communities,
literally living on the margins of George Town, have known then that the
race they were so avidly celebrating among themselves would one day become
one of the biggest sea events of the region.
In fact, when the grand
Dragon Boat festival was formally organised in Penang, it was the first time
that the race had ever been held outside the shores of China.
Local authorities here
recognised the Dragon Boat race as a sporting activity sometime around 1934.
It proved to be so popular that the race was officially held for the first
time to commemorate the George Town Municipal Council's 100th anniversary
Ten years later, the race
was organised again and made a regular feature in the annual Pesta Pulau
1979: Singapore Dragon Boat Team's
coach receiving the Challange Trophy from Tun Datuk Haji Sardon Haji
Today, the race, held on
an international scale, is so prestigious that it draws hundreds of participants
from all over the world.
Teams from far-flung places
like China, Macau, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Indonesia, the US, Norway,
Germany and New Zealand converge in Penang as part of a year-long world race
circuit under the auspices of the International Dragon Boat Federation
headquartered in Beijing.
The great race is now held
in a lush setting unmatched the world over for its unique lake environment.
Surrounded by green hills
and ancient rainforests, the giant placid Teluk Bahang dam on the quiet
north-western corner of Penang island, shatters into a frenzy as tens of
thousands of athletes and spectators descend to partake in the colours and
drumbeats of the mighty contest.
The race has moved several
venues since 1979 when the international festival was launched it
has been held at the picturesque Gurney Drive and the Mengkuang Dam. But
the current landscape in Teluk Bahang, amid verdant tropical scenery, would
surely make the Chinese emperors of old proud.
In fact, the race carries
a legendary tradition that stretches back some 2,600 years.
According to historical
annals, Chu Yuan, a minister in the Imperial Courts famed for his righteousness,
was banished because he opposed the oppressive policies of the king.
In a tragic act of sorrow,
Chu Yuan drowned himself in a river. It is said that villagers and citizens
raced their boats to save the famous philosopher, but to no avail.
Another story has it that
teams of boats were sent to spread glutinous rice on the river for fish to
feed on so they would not devour the remains of the dead Chu Yuan.
The incident is said to
have happened in the 4th century BC. Since then, the Chinese have marked
the day by racing on boats, each bearing the masthead of a serpent-like dragon.
Chu Kok An, a veteran of
Penang's boating scene, explains that the image of the dragon is very
significant. Not only is it symbolic in bringing luck and prosperity as well
as in frightening evil spirits. The image bears historic testament of a
magnificent legacy that has endured thousands of years.
There are other symbolic
aspects as well. Each boat carries a drummer at the front whose reverberating
beats all the oarsmen follow while propelling the boat with a robust sense
of timing and synchrony.
"The beatings of the drums
are very symbolic," Chu says. "Traditionally the drum is placed in the centre
of the boat, while at the front are objects of offering like sugar cane and
It is an absolutely amazing
spectacle to behold, even from afar, rows of oars moving in perfect unison
to the thumping of drums, as the thin boats glide above giant ripples on
the lake, like silent darts.
"The appeal of the Dragon
Boat race is the teamwork. In football, we have only 11 players. In the Dragon
Boat, we can use 26!" Chu says. Training is crucial for the oarsmen. Chu
explains that there are different paddling techniques - short strokes and
"In the long strokes, there
is more power in rowing, while in the short there is more speed," he says.
"It now looks like there is a move to favour long-strokes. Some of the teams
that have lately won cups in Cape Town and Sydney had used the long-strokes."
There are seven categories
of races in the Penang festival, some featuring either men or women, others
with mixed players. Some require use of large boat measuring about 12m, others
requiring small boats of only about 6.5m in length.
Each fibreglass boat must
have a drummer and a steerer. Most categories cover a lap of 500m, but the
main race features an intriguing round of 1,000m.
Indeed, the race is verily
a brilliant exhibition of power, speed and endurance. "The Dragon Boat has
truly become a sport, especially in the western world. The best teams are
almost always from Canada, the US and Europe," Chu adds.
But in spite of the inevitable
global commercialisation, the Dragon Boat race is still, till today, held
with deep reverence in many parts of China in the spirit of its ancient origins.
Like the heroic integrity
of the legendary Chu Yuan, the spirit now lives on in Penang, to the beating
of the drums and the roaring of the throngs in the thrill and adulation of
sheer human prowess.
International Dragon Boat Festival Penang 2004 will be held on 19 & 20
July at the Teluk Bahang Dam. For information, visit