FROM A SIX-BOAT “EXPERIMENT” TO TODAY: HOW THE FIRST DRAGON BOATS CAME TO CANADA
Posted on: August 13th, 2013 by awebster
These days, more than 150 highly trained teams compete each year, so it’s hard to believe that dragon boat racing debuted in Vancouver with only 30 cobbled-together teams sharing six boats.
Those six were brought over as part of a display for the Expo 86 Hong Kong Pavilion. They were later used in Vancouver’s first dragon boat festival. This event has the distinction of being the only project from that period that still continues.
This year the festival, now called the Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated its 25th anniversary on June 21, 22 and 23, at Creekside Community Centre on False Creek.
Amazingly, the idea for this far-reaching project came from two high-school friends born and raised in Vancouver.
Larry Chu, a second generation Canadian, and Rick Lee, a fourth generation Canadian, were friends just chatting when the idea of bringing dragon boating here came up. Vancouver had just been chosen to host Expo 86 as a nod to the city’s centennial year in 1986, and leaders were challenging the community to come up with ideas not only on the fair’s theme of transportation, but also to celebrate the city’s multi-cultural heritage. The two young men decided to put it all together: dragon boating, transportation and diversity.
In 1983 Rick and Larry traveled to Hong Kong to gauge the feasibility of holding dragon boat races here. Hong Kong had revived the ancient tradition and been organizing the Hong Kong International Races since 1976.
Rick recalled how excited they were to see the dragon boat races in action. He knew they would be perfect for Vancouver.
Back home again, they began to look for support. The obvious choice was the Chinese Cultural Centre (CCC). After all, dragon boating was a Chinese tradition and bringing it here would be a great way to promote Chinese culture beyond Chinatown. In spite of liability concerns, the CCC signed on and things got rolling.
Edward Hung, commissioner of the Hong Kong Expo pavilion, agreed to bring not the two boats originally planned, but six dragon boats, complete with the full set of paddles, drums and umbrellas, which would be left after Expo for the CCC to continue to hold races. Then Cathay Pacific offered free airline tickets to the winning team so it could represent Vancouver at the next international dragon boat race in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Tourist Association promised to host the winners.
The hardest part was to publicize the event to a general population that knew nothing about dragon boating and to encourage the creation of teams. Larry, Rick and their supporters talked to anyone who would listen and urged, pleaded, almost begged them to form teams. Their hard work paid off and 30 teams signed up for Vancouver’s first Dragon Boat Festival.
Expo ’86 opened on May 2nd and for the next six weekends, the teams paddled up and down False Creek, showing off the colorful boats decorated with dragon heads, tails and scales, while practicing before the races in mid-June. For many paddlers this was their only practice time before the big race, which proved to be a huge success and set a precedent for the annual festivals that followed.
A similar race was held that July to celebrate Hong Kong Day. Teams from five different countries were invited by Edward Hung to take part in a mock race that would become known as the first international dragon boat race in North America.
So many years later the Dragon Boat Festival still runs strong every year. A family event anticipated by all cultures, it features hundreds of racers from many different backgrounds and ages.
For a project first conceived under the city’s cry to celebrate its diversity, it’s still doing an awesome job.
By Winnie Kwan