Dragon boating has been practised around China and South East Asia for over 20 centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that Stanley’s dragon boat competition started to get attention from Hong Kong’s expat community.
The government decided to leverage the dragon boat competition as a sport— to boost tourism and spread Hong Kong’s unique culture—and in 1976 the first international dragon boat competition was hosted by the Hong Kong Tourism Bureau.
In 1991 the sport gained international recognition with the formation of the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF), and has seen its popularity grow steadily ever since. The tradition has evolved locally to include a festival atmosphere and events are full of fun and camaraderie for competitors and spectators alike.
Dragon boat races are held at various times throughout the year, but this year’s official Tuen Ng Festival will be held on June 23. For a comprehensive list of race locations, times and directions visit the HK Tourism Board’s race schedule here. Besides offering dragon boat races and zongzi (rice dumplings), every dragon boat race presents its own unique perspective on this historic tradition.
For complete immersion and cultural saturation your best bet is Tai O. If any of Hong Kong’s dragon boating events can be considered more ‘authentic’ than others, Tai O is as authentic as they come.
"This activity has become a community-wide event that plays a key role in sustaining neighbourhood relationships, making it valuable intangible cultural heritage in Hong Kong," Secretary for Home Affairs, Mr Tsang Tak-sing, said of last year’s Tai O event.
Tai O’s dragon boat races include a dragon boat water parade also known as God’s Parade. Statues of local deities were once tugged along behind dragon boats to drive a plague from the village. When the epidemic disappeared the tradition was maintained. Now over 100 years old, the custom is considered a part of Hong Kong’s ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’.
Tai O Promenade, Lantau Island
MTR to Tung Chung Station Exit B. Catch New Lantau Bus no. 11 to Tai O
The dragon boat races are Disco Bay at its finest and the carnival here is all about family friendly fun. Forty-eight teams will compete on DB’s main beach in this expat dominated event, held from 8:00 am to 6:00pm on Saturday 23rd, and 11:00am-5:30pm on Sunday.
A stage on the beach will provide plenty of entertainment, some 40 booths offering merchandise and snacks around DB’s main plaza will provide interesting eats, Disney will be hosting a “Best Cheerleading Performance Session,” and Family Kingdom in DB North plaza means the kids will be having a blast.
If you don’t live in Discovery Bay, keep in mind that D Deck is offering a free ferry ride back to civilization for any carnival attendees who grab a meal at one of their twenty restaurants.
Tai Pak Beach, Discovery Bay, Lantau Island
Ferry from Central Ferry Pier 3
As family friendly as it is exciting, Aberdeen has been doing dragon boat festivals the right way for a long time. Check out this photo from gwulo.com showing Aberdeen’s dragon boat races in the 1950’s!
Today Aberdeen’s dragon boat races include a photo competition. If you missed racing signups but still want to compete, photos are as good a way as any. Races start at 8:30am and go till mid-afternoon, and viewing is free from along the Aberdeen Promenade. Food and drink stalls will be set up on the waterfront, so you can watch all 65 teams compete without going hungry.
Aberdeen Promenade, Aberdeen Praya Road
MTR to Hong Kong Station Exit D, bus 70 from Exchange Square
More than 250 teams are scheduled to compete in Stanley from 8:00am to 6:00pm—but the party continues on Stanley Main Street long after the last race is finished. As competitive as Stanley races can get, this venue maintains a harder ‘party’ attitude than any others.
Organized by the Stanley Dragon Boat Association, the Stanley Residents association and sponsored by Sun Life, the largest one-day dragon boat event in the world will turn Stanley into a zoo until late in the evening. This animal atmosphere is compounded by the team costume contest.
The crowds can be overwhelming, but if you’re actively involved in the revelry Stanley can be a blast.
Stanley Main Beach
Bus 6, 6A, 6X, 260 from Central Exchange Square, or the 40 Minibus from Causeway Bay
Last year the Dragon Boat Carnival in TST attracted 150 local teams and more than 30 teams from twelve countries around the world. This year’s carnival is expected to attract over 200,000 participants as TST plays host to the 8th IDBF Club Crew World Championships and the International Dragon Boat Races.
No carnival is complete without a little alcohol, and event sponsors San Miguel will transform east TST into a sprawling BeerFest complete with a Big Roast Party and a live performance stage with a stacked line up.
If you don’t make it to any of the other races, this one will be hard to miss. Event organisers are claiming the carnival on TST Promenade will be the biggest dragon boat event ever held.
Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, Kowloon (Races)
UC Centenary Garden, East Tsim Sha Tsui (BeerFest)
MTR to TST Exit G, or catch the star ferry from Central or Wanchai
The Dragon Boat Festival is a great opportunity to take part in Hong Kong’s living heritage. Luckily, this year’s festival falls on a Saturday, leaving us Sunday to recuperate. Whether you’re sculling to the beat of the drum, paying homage to the great poet Qu Yuan, or simply dropping by to join in the festive spirit, be sure to check out one of HK’s many dragon boat races.
Wherever you end up watching the races this weekend, share your experience with the rest of us by posting your reviews and your best dragon boat photos.