Carol Lundeen

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

By Sarah Brueggemann

On a sultry June day, four fiery-tongued dragons descend uponBoston's waterfront. Their crimson- and jade-colored scales slicesharply through the Charles River. Tickling the waves, blackbraided whiskers trail from the chins of the swiftly movingmonsters. "You're supposed to stroke them for good luck," Beijingresident Jon Li says, grinning.

But the racers riding the backs of these beasts will need morethan luck. Teak vessels carved at the prow and stern to resembleChina's mythical protector of the seas surge forward with a jolt.Here at the Boston Dragon Boat Festival, the competitors plungetheir long blades in unison. As the dragons seemingly devour orangebuoys marking the finish line, the exhilarated racers hold theirpaddles triumphantly overhead.

On shore, the Phoenix Phyre, an all-women's team, prepares forits heat. Many of the racers will pull double duty as awe-inspiringacrobats in the Lion Dance at the performing arts tent. The danceincorporates the story of poet/philosopher Qu Yuan, who's beencelebrated at festivals like this since 278 B.C. One member modelsa papier-maché Buddha mask worn during the performance. Shetugs comically at the pigtails tied with bright ruby ribbons."Maybe I should wear this while we race," she says. "You'll steerus right into the shore!" a teammate replies with mockexasperation.

As the group turns serious to plan its strategy, another teambegins a raucous cheer: "Who rocks the boat? We rock the boat!" Ofcourse, rocking the boat is the last thing they want to do. Withtwo rows of paddlers and a steerperson in the back, maneuvering canbe precarious. A drummer seated up front spurs on the competitorsin moments of fatigue, keeping them in sync.

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

Those exhausted from paddling or playing replenish themselveswith savory zung-ze. A friendly chef gives a demonstration, in rapidChinese, on how to unwrap these traditional sticky rice dumplingsfrom their bamboo-leaf casings. Even if you don't understand aword, the excitement is contagious. Along the riverbanks, richfragrances of Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, and Cantonese foodcommingle. "More than 70 countries around the world celebratedragon boat racing," says race director Peter Lew. "This event isall about multiethnic sharing."

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

The Boston Dragon Boat Festival is usually held in June. Call617/426-6500, ext. 778, or visit bostondragonboat.orgfor more information.

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