Dragon boats and their crews take to the river to dredge up funds for schools-and to showcase a racing sport that's making waves around the world.
Dragon boat racing has been around for more than 2,000 years, and is still practiced by farmers in China as a ritual to bring rain (celestial dragons were thought to control the weather). Since we don’t really grow crops here in Chicago, the ComEd Dragon Boat Race for Literacy on Saturday 22 in Chinatown will precipitate some money to help cultivate more educated kids.
This weekend’s event is more than just a fund-raiser, though. The day features an appearance by Cirque Shanghai, lion-dance performers, food, and dragon boat races between 22 teams, including groups from the Chinatown Fire Department and the office of Ald. Danny Solis (25th). It’s also the one time each year that you can catch dragon boat racing in Chicago. The fast-growing competitive sport—popular in countries around the world, in Asia and elsewhere—could one day be an Olympic competition, if supporters get their way.
Dragon boat racing—which features two boats going head to head—requires skill. The boats weigh about 2,000 pounds and will be crewed by a team of 21 people along a 500-meter course for the Chicago event. It may sound similar to crew, but while that sport requires just eight people rowing with locked-down oars. In dragon boat racing, 18 people try to move the vessel by paddling in unison. Additional team members can include a drummer, who helps keep the rhythm of the strokes; a steerer, or coxswain; and a flag catcher, who grabs a flag attached to a buoylike object as the boat crosses the finish line.
“[Without the] oars locked into place, it’s just you bracing yourself and making that boat move…you feel the adrenaline,” says Joyce Jeng of the Asian Social Network, a company that has taken part in the Chinatown race since its inception six years ago.
In May, Time magazine declared the sport “the next big thing,” reporting that in 2005, more than 75 dragon-boat festivals were held in 31 states and 70 cities across the country. “It’s bigger on the East and West Coasts, but the United States hasn’t taken to it as quickly [as the rest of the world]—kind of like soccer,” Jeng says.
Of course, the upcoming event in Ping Tom Park, along the south branch of the Chicago River, is more about fun than competition. Jeng and her team tend to be the attention-getters—members of the ethnically diverse group paint their faces and write their team name, dragon’s chi (“dragon’s breath”), on their arms. The race will involve 22 boats crafted to look like dragons, and will also incorporate traditions like an “awakening of the dragon” ceremony where an official uses a calligraphy brush and ink to touch the eyes of the boats’ dragon heads, Jeng says, “meaning, it’s time to race.”
Last year’s race raised $2,500 for the Center for Asian Arts and Media at Columbia College Chicago. This year’s proceeds will go to the Chicago Public School system.
The ComEd Dragon Boat Race for Literacy is Saturday 22.