Penang Dragon Boat Festival – race of the ancients

Penang Dragon Boat © Adrian Cheah

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 today, housing scores of fisher-folk families just as they did many decades before.

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.

Penang Dragon Boat © Adrian Cheah

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 in 1956.

Ten years later, the race was organised again and made a regular feature in the annual Pesta Pulau Pinang celebrations.

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 held in Penang in a lush setting unmatched the world over for its unique lake environment.

Penang Dragon Boat © Adrian Cheah

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, Qu 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, Qu 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 Qu 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.

Penang Dragon Boat © Adrian Cheah

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 a historic testament to 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 oranges."

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 long.

"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."

Penang Dragon Boat © Adrian Cheah

There are seven categories of races in the Penang festival, some featuring either men or women, others with mixed players. Some require the use of a 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.

Penang Dragon Boat © Adrian Cheah

Like the heroic integrity of the legendary Qu 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.

Written by Himanshu Bhatt © All rights reserved
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated 25 May 2019