Dear dragon, my friend

Amrita V Nair | Updated on June 08, 2018 Published on June 08, 2018

Singapore has elevated its annual dragon boat races to a platform for social bonding

At 7am on a Saturday morning, while the rest of Singapore sleeps in, the dragon boating centre at Kallang river is abuzz. Scores of men and women — ranging from secondary school students to mid-career professionals — push long narrow boats out to the river. They are here to practise dragon boating. Named after the decorative dragon heads that adorn the boats during competitive events, dragon boating is arguably Singapore’s most popular sport.

The purported history of the sport dates back to ancient China. The most well-known origin story ascribes tragic roots to it. Legend has it that in third-century BC, during the tumultuous Warring States Period, lived Qu Yuan, a poet, minister and patriot. When the kingdom that he was devoted to fell to the enemies, Qu Yuan wrote a desperate poem of lament and then drowned himself in the Miluo river in Hunan. The people of his kingdom raced out in their boats in a desperate bid to rescue him or to at least retrieve his body. But he was gone without a trace. And so, they threw lumps of rice into the river so that the fish would feed on the rice instead of his body. They also rowed up and down the river, thumping the water with paddles and beating drums to keep evil spirits away from Qu Yuan. To commemorate his life and services to the kingdom, the people of the region began to repeat the practice of preparing sticky rice dumplings known today as zong zi and rowing up and down the river annually, on his death anniversary — the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. This practice evolved into the dragon boat festival and Chinese and Chinese-influenced cultures around the world — including Vietnam, Korea, and Singapore — celebrate it with traditional events and thrilling regattas.

In Singapore, every July, the Dragon Boat Association conducts the Singapore Dragon Boat Festival (SDBF) at Bedok Reservoir. This year, these races will be held on July 7 and 8. In the month leading up to this event, food stalls and restaurants in Chinatown start selling the Singaporean variants of the zong zi — wrapped in bamboo leaves and stuffed with various sweet and savoury fillings. The lead up to the dragon boat festival also coincides with the recently-concluded DBS Marina Regatta that is held at the Promontory at Marina Bay. This year, the Marina Regatta was held over two weekends — May 26-27, and June 2-3. More than 80 dragon boat teams from all over Asia vied with each other for the cash prizes totalling SGD 134,000 (₹6.7 crore approximately) — the highest prize money on offer for the sport in the region.

The SDBF and the Marina Regatta are popular with Singapore residents and tourists alike. Local favourites include the Paddlers in the Pink — a team of breast cancer survivors and supporters from the Breast Cancer Foundation of Singapore. Among visiting teams, Team Mushu (aptly named after the wisecracking dragon from Mulan) that comprises entertainers from Disneyland Hong Kong, is popular for the surprise song-and-dance routines in between races.

Local teams practise year-round for the regatta. Teams representing corporate entities (such as local and international banks) as well as rowing clubs (Canadian Dragons and the Spanish Armada, for instance) brave the hot Singapore sun for several hours each week to work on their strength and stamina. Most local rowers start young as dragon boating is a popular extracurricular activity in the secondary schools and colleges. Expats usually pick up the sport in an effort to make more friends. Even teams with nation-specific names usually comprise members from all over the world. The British Dragon Boat Team, for instance, prides itself on having members from 16 nationalities. Avinash Sankar, who hails from Kerala and has lived in Singapore for six years, has been with the team since 2013. He says, “For me, dragon boating started out as an effort to expand my social circle and as a group workout. Soon, I made great friends through the team. We hang out outside of training as well — going to fitness boot camps and movies, or getting together for barbecues.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that dragon boating is such a great bonding activity. On the river, all 22 rowers have to be in sync with each other for the large unwieldy boats to be navigable. Synchrony is so important that during races, a drummer sits at the head to set the beat to which the team rows.

Most teams hold beginner sessions annually where newbies can try their hand. These sessions welcome participants across age groups and fitness levels. It is followed by training sessions. Before long, these erstwhile newbies are setting their alarms on Friday nights in eager anticipation for their morning practice on the Kallang.

Amrita V Nair is a freelance writer based in Singapore

Published on June 08, 2018

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