Here be dragons: Dragon boating in South Lantau

Spring is in full swing and for those with a sense of ancient tradition who crave the competition and adrenalin of sprint paddling, that means only one thing. Jason Pagliari reports.

The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, aka Tuen Ng Festival, is a 2,000-year-old tradition that falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in the Chinese calendar. This year that’s May 30, with races all over Hong Kong in the weeks before and after. The local waterways come to life as massive canoe-shaped long boats, with dragons at their prows, vie for that winning place on the finish line in sprints of typically 300 to 500 metres per race. 

Tuen Ng Festival is steeped in religious tradition, and a time to celebrate the Goddess of the Sea, Tin Hau, who takes care of fishermen. At season start (back in March this year) all dragon boats are blessed. This involves local dignitaries dotting the eyes of the dragons with red paint and making ritual offerings of leafy greens and chung (rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves). On May 30, the public holiday, you can head to Tai O to see an ancient celebration re-enacted by local fishermen. In the lead up to the races, deity statues are put on sampans and towed by dragon boats through the stilted waterways. 

Getting on board 

Dragon boat teams compete across Lantau, from Mui Wo to Tai O, all season long, with Mavericks on Pui O Beach the de-facto home of the sport in South Lantau. The South Lantau Buffaloes Dragon Boat team trains here and trophies galore adorn the restaurant’s walls, in testament to their achievements. 

Set up in 2010, the Buffaloes are the elite unit of the South Lantau Paddling Club. “We currently have a membership of around 40 people which includes our Outrigger Canoe(OC) teams, which also compete outside of dragon boat season,” explains chairman Ben Sargent. “We train two to three times per week in the run up to the races and get invited to all the main dragon boat events, including Lamma and Cheung Chau, races on Hong Kong Island and even in Zhuhai.” 

According to head coach Darrin Dalton, the Buffaloes have six races scheduled so far this season, with the possibility of more. “The first is on April 23 in Deep Water Bay, Mui Wo is on May 21 and the last will hopefully be in Tai O on June 18,” he says. “In our boat there are two rows of 10 rowers and a steerer, with a drummer for the actual race; that’s 22 people in the boat. Typically, there are four to eight boats in any given race.” 

The Buffaloes are currently looking for “newbies” to join their team, and as regards athletic ability, Darrin assures that dragon boating is not only for supermen and superwomen. “We have no specific fitness requirements; our only criteria are that you must be over 18 and have basic swimming skills.” Good news for anyone wanting to test the waters and try out a new pastime.


FIND IT:

• South Lantau Buffaloes, www.slpc.hk

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