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Off To The Races! Dragon Ladies

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It’s Helper Appreciation Month, so let’s take a moment to recognise some excellence in that most Hong Kong of extra-curricular activities: dragon boat racing. And can we get a sponsor up here?
Elizabeth Kerr reports
PHOTOS BY Beatrix Malan – www.atscollective.com

Maja Candiza, Divine Dela Rosa and Rhoda Manzano are gathered around a couple of tables at Pacific Coffee. All three are domestic workers as well as dragon boat team administrators and paddlers, so it’s no surprise each has a giant coffee cup in front of them.

The big ‘Alto’. You’d need a few shots of caffeine too if you had half on your plate of what they do on theirs. The point of the meet-up is to talk about Tado’s Dragon, the all-Filipino, all-domestic worker, all-female dragon boat team that’s been training and racing out of Discovery Bay since 2020.

That’s right. When the pandemic hit and you were making sourdough and spending consumption vouchers they’re not entitled to, Maja, Divine and Rhoda were putting together a competitive dragon boat squad.


“The first race we did as Tado’s Dragon was in October, 2021 in DB. We didn’t have enough paddlers; we’d only been training a year. We expected nothing,” recalls Divine. “We made it into the final round. We came in last but when we got to shore the cheering was just out of control.

We felt like champions.”Suffice to say, putting together a 40-person team during a public health crisis was challenging. Before actually coming around to Tado’s Dragon, the trio sounds off on illegal logging at home in the Philippines, climate change, the stress and frustration of the COVID pandemic (Maja and Rhoda only got home in December after four years), taboos and tattoos, and how important it is to budget properly and manage your money – but also to spend on yourself every so often.

With a combined 56 years in Hong Kong between them, 39 of those in DB, they knew how to get the word out about the budding team. The short version? Word of mouth and social media – but mostly word of mouth. That’s how Maja, 46, Divine, 45, and Rhoda, 49, met: through mutual friends. Maja and Rhoda were roommates when she was between jobs years ago, and met Divine on a kids’ playdate. They have the easy banter of old friends that includes gentle ribbing, and a lot in common, but couldn’t be more distinct. Maja, originally from a small town just outside Manila, is a youthful grandmother (!) who refers to herself as a sporty type. “I’ve been paddling since 2003. I played beach volleyball with friends in DB and was happy to finally get a job here,” she says. “I like it. It’s quiet and I like to train on the beach.”

The same goes for Divine, possibly the most obviously maternal and practical of the three. She was running, and playing basketball and softball at home in the northern Philippines long before she hit college in Manila. Water was quite another story, however. Once in DB, “I used to hike because I’m afraid of the water. I M used to hate it,” she says with a laugh. “When I started dragon boating, I used to freak out looking at the waves. But I’ve gotten over it because I’ve really found a passion for it.” Rhoda is a no-guff taking single (“I had a great life with my last employers and I forgot to find a husband”), who arrived in Hong Kong from her Sabella (now Cavite) home in 1994 and started paddling with the Mighty Dragoneers.

“I didn’t think I’d be able to do [dragon boating] because I have lower back pain,” she rasps. It’s April 3. “I was screaming my head off at the Sevens,” she adds apologetically. “A friend suggested I give it a try because you never know if the exercise might help. And I get seasick easily. But I had no problems, and I loved it so I joined the Sea Cucumbers,” she finishes.

It was the international, mixed Sea Cucumbers that gave circuitous rise to Tado’s Dragon. Tado’s captain and steersman, Rodel Contado (who the team took its name from), works for The Cukes’ captains, and the three of them encouraged Maja, Divine and Rhoda to go for it and start their own crew, putting their money where their mouth was by lending the emergent team its boat for training.

Tado’s Dragon added gymnastics teacher Cecilio Cabueñas (or Doods) as a coach and it was off to the races (no pun intended). “Rodel and her employers – and our own employers – encouraged us to start an all-domestic helper crew to enhance their lives. I volunteer at the YMCA on Sundays, and I see the need for this kind of thing,” says Rhoda. “You see helpers on the Hong Kong side on weekends doing nothing or, worse, gambling. Dragon boating keeps people from bad habits and takes their minds off whatever stress they’re feeling. Because depression is real, I’ve been there, and if this provides relief that’s good.”

Running Tado’s Dragon team is a group effort; all three (two other volunteers complete the executive committee) help with coaching and take on extra duties like Maja’s warm-up training and Divine’s sponsorship and fundraising, and women of all shapes, sizes, and abilities are welcome to join. “We’re always looking for new members for the team,” begins Maja. “I just ask if [someone] can swim and then suggest they come along and try it. If you don’t like it, you’re free to leave.” Rhoda is more direct. “Don’t ever say ‘No’ to something you haven’t tried,” she emphasises, a credo she herself lives by.


About those sponsors. Right now, Tado’s Dragon is limited to local races – in DB, South Lantau and Lamma – but Maja and Rhoda have had a taste of dragon boating in June, in Stanley and Shatin. “We don’t want Tado’s to be just about training,” states Divine.

“We want to get out into real races.” That’s easier said than done. A team of DB domestic workers is the point, of course, but it’s also more logistically manageable for 6am training sessions and it keeps expenses down. Tado’s Dragon gets no support to cover basics like entry fees; no one will even waive them.

“Maja and I have been racing for many years, so the dream is to get a sponsor so that the other members can have that experience too,” says Rhoda. “Hopefully we’ll find someone to support us. As much as we want to enter more races, we just don’t have the financial ability just yet.” But the threesome is confident they’ll get there. It’s only been a few years, two of those in near-lockdown.

And in the meantime, there’s more to the team than just racing. Training and meetings have turned into social events, birthday parties, celebrations of other landmarks, and they’ve provided a much-needed space for sharing, support and sometimes just venting to someone who “gets it”.

“When my father was in the hospital last year, dragon boating helped me a lot, to refocus and manage that stress,” notes Divine. It explains why these ladies are making time in already busy weeks and giving up their single day off. Rhoda speaks for all three when she declares, “I make time because I love doing what I do.”

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