Date With a Dragon

Watch these ancient sea creatures race into the hearts of Bostonians.

Boat Racers

Carol Lundeen

On a sultry June day, four fiery-tongued dragons descend upon Boston's waterfront. Their crimson- and jade-colored scales slice sharply through the Charles River. Tickling the waves, black braided whiskers trail from the chins of the swiftly moving monsters. "You're supposed to stroke them for good luck," Beijing resident Jon Li says, grinning.

But the racers riding the backs of these beasts will need more than luck. Teak vessels carved at the prow and stern to resemble China's mythical protector of the seas surge forward with a jolt. Here at the Boston Dragon Boat Festival, the competitors plunge their long blades in unison. As the dragons seemingly devour orange buoys marking the finish line, the exhilarated racers hold their paddles triumphantly overhead.

On shore, the Phoenix Phyre, an all-women's team, prepares for its heat. Many of the racers will pull double duty as awe-inspiring acrobats in the Lion Dance at the performing arts tent. The dance incorporates the story of poet/philosopher Qu Yuan, who's been celebrated at festivals like this since 278 B.C. One member models a papier-maché Buddha mask worn during the performance. She tugs comically at the pigtails tied with bright ruby ribbons. "Maybe I should wear this while we race," she says. "You'll steer us right into the shore!" a teammate replies with mock exasperation.

As the group turns serious to plan its strategy, another team begins a raucous cheer: "Who rocks the boat? We rock the boat!" Of course, rocking the boat is the last thing they want to do. With two rows of paddlers and a steerperson in the back, maneuvering can be precarious. A drummer seated up front spurs on the competitors in moments of fatigue, keeping them in sync.

Across the river, ornately costumed dancers keep time to a slower, more graceful rhythm. Young girls flit like delicate lotus blossoms to the airy notes of a lute. Families take a break from cheering the teams to gasp at sword-wielding martial arts masters and to color Peking opera masks in the arts-and-crafts tent.

Those exhausted from paddling or playing replenish themselves with savory zung-ze. A friendly chef gives a demonstration, in rapid Chinese, on how to unwrap these traditional sticky rice dumplings from their bamboo-leaf casings. Even if you don't understand a word, the excitement is contagious. Along the riverbanks, rich fragrances of Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, and Cantonese food commingle. "More than 70 countries around the world celebrate dragon boat racing," says race director Peter Lew. "This event is all about multiethnic sharing."

As festivalgoer Amy Tatarka places her little boy gently on the bow of a moored dragon boat, she says, "There's not much diversity where my family lives. I want to start my son young and keep his mind open to different cultures." Children run rampant over the boat, bailing more water in than out. A member of the dock staff asks, "Are you guys going to race next year?" From the smiles on their faces, this tradition will be one that lasts another 2,000 years.

The Boston Dragon Boat Festival is usually held in June. Call 617/426-6500, ext. 778, or visit bostondragonboat.org for more information.

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