Celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival

by Christina Butcher for OLY ARTS

Dip your paddle into the water, pulling the handle until the blade rises, and feel the spray of the Puget Sound’s cold, salty water. Move and breathe in time with teammates. It sounds relaxing, doesn’t it? But for dragon-boat racers across the Puget Sound, it’s not just relaxing. It offers these athletes a chance to honor tradition and embrace multiculturalism in their communities. On April 29, Saint Martin’s University will embrace those sentiments as well as it opens the dragon-boat racing season with its annual Dragon Boat Festival, held at downtown Olympia’s Port Plaza.

“The Festival is truly a community event,” said Sally Henry, the Dragon Boat Festival chair at Saint Martin’s University. “Many competitive teams from Portland to north of Seattle participate at the festival to kick off the beginning of dragon-boat racing season.” Each year, the festival draws over 5,000 spectators to the waterfront. OLY ARTS asked Henry how many teams are expected to open the races. “Approximately 50 teams will participate at this year’s festival,” she replied. “Saint Martin’s University provides the boats for all festival participants. We have eight dragon boats used throughout the day.” In addition to the races, the celebration boasts community vendors, traditional Chinese-art demonstrations, lion dances, martial-arts performances and music.

The Dragon Boat Festival is based on a traditional, Chinese celebration that occurs near the summer solstice each year. It honors the memory of a celebrated Chinese poet and minister, Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), who committed suicide in a river in political protest against the social injustices of his time. When people heard what he’d done, they raced into the river in their boats, hoping to save him or, at the very least, retrieve his body. Thus, the tradition of dragon-boat racing was born.

Although the festival is based on events from thousands of years ago on another continent, it holds cultural relevance here in Olympia. “The Dragon Boat Festival began in 2006 as an opportunity to give back to the community and celebrate cultural diversity,” Henry explained. “Saint Martin’s University now has three sister universities in China and (participation) has grown from 12 teams to 50 teams this year.” The university has a longstanding history of exchange programs with universities in China, but lucky residents of the Puget Sound will only have to travel as far as downtown Olympia to enjoy the races.

What: Dragon Boat Festival

When:  9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Saturday, April 29

Where: Port of Olympia,
701 Columbia St. NW, Olympia

How much: free

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