From Ritual to Sport: Dragon Boating

Interview with Past President & Director of Toronto Chinese Business Association (TCBA) Peter Cheung,
Director of TCBA 2017, Evan Chau and Mabel Sin

Transcribed by Palettera
Translated by Mung Ting Chung

Kay Huynh, Jason Au, Benjamin Choi, and Stephanie Chan.

Kay Huynh, Jason Au, Benjamin Choi, and Stephanie Chan.

Photography by Claudia Hung and Justin Wong, Wedding Editorials; Photography Assistant: Michelle Yip

Art Direction: Deborah Lau-Yu
Location: Sunnyside Paddling Club, Toronto
Make-up by Aglow by Joan; Hair by Monica Le
Editorial Assistant: Carrie Yan
With thanks to Blake Hara

Past President & Director of Toronto Chinese Business Association (TCBA)  Peter Cheung , Director of TCBA 2017,  Evan Chau  and  Mabel Sin

Past President & Director of Toronto Chinese Business Association (TCBA) Peter Cheung, Director of TCBA 2017, Evan Chau and Mabel Sin

The Beginnings of a Tradition

The roots of dragon boating can be traced back to a 2000-year old tradition in ancient China. The festival coincided with the Duan Wu Festival, celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th month in the Lunar calendar. The dragon was believed to be the ruler of water, which was vital in the lives of rural farmers, and remains a sacred symbol worshiped in Chinese culture.

The origin of the dragon boat ritual dates back to approximately 2078 BC, where legendary poet and minister, Qu Yuan (屈原), opposed the government for its corruption. As an act of loyalty to his country, he committed suicide by tying heavy rocks to himself and drowned in the river. He was a beloved figure in the country and people were devastated by the news. They tried to save him by paddling out into the waters while making loud noises, banging on drums to scare away the ghosts and spirits. They threw rice dumplings into the water for the fish to eat, so that they would not eat into the poet’s body. This tradition has lived on, having started in the countryside wherever there were bodies of water (ex. rivers, lakes, oceans), and evolved into the current sport today.

賽龍舟的起源可以追溯到二千年前的中國。龍舟節在每年農曆的五月初五,剛巧跟端午節在同一天。「龍」被視為水神,對於農民的生計而言最為重要,直至今日仍然是中國文化中的一個神聖象徵。 賽龍舟的祭祀儀式在公元前2078年就出現,當時的詩人及臣子屈原為了反對腐敗的政府而抗爭。為了表示他的忠心,他自行綁上了沉重的石頭,沉入河水中自殺。身受全國人民愛戴的屈原,他的死令舉國上下悲痛不已。他們嘗試拍打水面,發出囂鬧的聲音,又敲打樂鼓,目的都是為了把水鬼和邪靈驅走。他們把糭子丟進水裡餵魚吃,寄望這樣一來牠們就不會把詩人的遺體吃掉。這傳統最終流傳了下來,從原本鄉郊的水域地區,一直演變成今時今日的普及運動。

Dragon Boating as a Sport in Canada and Internationally

In Canada, the sport of dragon boating is still fairly young but outside of Asia, Canada was the first country to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival. It was first introduced to Canada in 1986 in light of the Vancouver Expo and the first race was held in 1989. Less than 20 years later, competitions are held throughout the country: the biggest ones are in metropolitan cities like Vancouver and Toronto. During the Toronto International Dragon Boat Race, close to two hundred teams from around the world come together to compete. There are dragon boat chapters in Montreal, Ottawa, Hamilton, Mississauga, and in eastern cities like Halifax. In fact, there are more than 20 Canadian cities that host their own dragon boat races with participants from various ethnic backgrounds.

 On the global scene, dragon boating is also becoming extremely popular. As the fastest-growing water sport in the world, there are festivals and competitions held in 60 countries including Sweden, Germany, and Russia every year. The International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) is advocating for this sport to become part of future Olympic games and came very close to making it into the 2008 Olympics but fell short by just 2 countries required for an inaugural event.

Every year in April or May, depending on the Lunar Calendar, Hong Kong has a huge Dragon Boat Festival. Crowds of hundreds of thousands come to join in the fun at Victoria Harbour where athletes paddle in the CCB (Asia) Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Races. Live entertainment and many large companies treat their employees to food and drink on large yachts and boats during the festivities.

Whether locally or globally, perhaps one of the reasons behind the steady growth of dragon boating is the emphasis of teamwork within the sport: usually there are 20 paddlers, 1 drummer, and 1 person in control of the steering of the boat. There are no superstars -— you either win together or sink together. The sport has no age limit and no gender preferences, embracing all who want to participate. Although some may think that dragon boating is primarily a summer sport, the training begins months earlier to allow the athletes to build chemistry and rhythm as a team.

在加拿大,賽龍舟作為一項運動的歷史不長。然而,在亞洲以外,加拿大算是第一個慶祝龍舟節的國家。在1986年,龍舟節首次引入加拿大,而在1989年的溫哥華世界博覽會上舉行了首次競技賽。才二十年不到的光景,全國各地都在舉辦大大小小的比賽:最大型的比賽通常位於國際大都市,就像是溫哥華和多倫多。在多倫多國際賽龍舟比賽中,接近二百隊從世界各地來到的比賽健兒都為了獎盃而努力。蒙特利爾(滿地河)、渥太華、漢密爾頓、密西沙加和哈利法克斯等東部城市都設有賽龍舟的分會。事實上,全加拿大有多於二十個城市都有舉辦賽龍舟比賽,參加這些比賽的健兒包括了不同族群的運動員。 在全球層面,賽龍舟也變得非常受歡迎。作為一項快速成長的水上運動,全世界六十多個國家(包括瑞典、德國和俄羅斯)、一百多個城市每年都有舉辦不同的節慶和比賽。國際龍舟聯合會(IDBF)致力於將此項運動加入成為未來的奧運項目之一。在2008年北京運動時,賽龍舟差一點就加入成為項目之一,可惜最後僅差兩個國家的支持而未能成功。 每年西曆的四、五月(視乎農曆而定),香港都會舉辦大型的龍舟節。數以萬計的群眾一同來到維多利亞港,觀賞運動員在建行(亞洲)香港國際龍舟邀請賽中百槳齊發的英姿。在節日當天,既有現場表演,各家大公司也為其員工在遊艇和船上面提供食物和飲品。 無論是在地區性還是全球性層面而言,或許龍舟能穩定地增長的原因就在於它對團體合作的重視:通常有20名划槳手、一名鼓手和一名掌舵人,後者負責控制龍舟前行的方向。隊伍當中沒有誰會特別受到矚目–贏就一起贏,輸也一起輸。這項運動也沒有年齡限制和性別優待,誰來參與都可以。雖然有的人認為賽龍舟只是一項夏天運動,但其實認真的訓練往往早於夏季的來臨就開始, 這些運動員忘我地投入到隊伍中,建立起默契和節奏感。

An Invitation from the Founders to Build the Future 創辦人邀請大家一起開拓未來

The Toronto Chinese Business Association (TCBA) has hosted the annual Dragon Boat Festival since 1987, when the Hong Kong Councillor visited Toronto and saw the potential of the city hosting its own festival. The city was home to a growing Cantonese community of Hong Kong immigrants, who migrated during the 1980s and was seen as a great prospect for the sport. The first race took place in 1989 and consisted of only 27 teams and 20 races held at Ontario Place, but when locals saw what was happening first hand, they immediately loved the sport, even attracting Olympic canoe athletes to join the sport. In a short 3 years, the race outgrew Ontario Place and had to move to a larger space at Centre Island where it is now held. Since then, the event attracts over 5000 people annually, including paddlers, friends, families, and spectators. 

The growing popularity outside of the Chinese community prompted the name of the event to be changed to the Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival, also signifying the sport’s integration into the Canadian cultural fabric.

The TCBA is now fervently looking to recruit and train up the next generation of young leaders embrace the tradition and grow the festival. With the newly established TCBA Junior Chapter, we are focused on building up a group of young leaders of this sport.

The sport is loved by paddlers and spectators, whether or not they are familiar with the origin of the Duan Wu festival and legend of Qu Yuan. Dragon boating is embraced by many local communities, and we hope that the next generation leaders will rise up from the thousands of participants this sport attracts each year.


一名香港議員曾到訪多倫多,在當年就看出這城市有主辦龍舟節的潛質,而自1987年以來,多倫多華商會(TCBA)每年都有舉辦龍舟節。該市是許多香港移民的家園,自八十年代起便形成了一個廣東文化的社區,足以促成這項運動的發展。第一次的競賽在1989年舉行,在安省遊樂宮由27個隊伍、20組比賽組成。當地居民目睹及愛上了這種運動—即使奧運划艇選手也參與其中。短短三年間,這項運動已經發展至安省遊樂宮容納不下的規模,需要轉移至場地更大的湖心島,現在的比賽都選址在此。自此之後,這項活動吸引了大約五千名觀眾,包括三千五百名划槳手,以及他們的親友來觀賞。 由於其受歡迎程度已經超出了華人群體以外,在1966年,該活動更名為多倫多國際龍舟節。這次的更名意味著這項運動已經融入為加拿大的一部分,也見證了TCBA將這項運動帶進加拿大的努力。 TCBA致力於招募和訓練新一代的年輕人,好讓這項傳統得以延續下去,及讓這個節慶繼續發展。我們期望下一代能承傳這項運動的歷史意義和熱情。作為最初的倡導者,TCBA吸引了初露鋒芒的領袖(35歲以下)來參加剛成立的TCBA青年分會,以及在節慶當日幫忙的義工。下一代的賽龍舟需要新血和領袖加入,把文化的火炬承傳下去。  詩人和忠臣的背景起源或許不為一般槳手所知,即使對屈原的事蹟一無所知的人也可以喜歡上這項運動。但是,透過多倫多的賽龍舟比賽而連繫起的群體,肯定連這位忠臣詩人也未嘗預料得到。賽龍舟已經發展至整個群體都樂意參與其中,而這也是TCBA的期望,能使新一代負起推廣這項既有趣又有意義的運動。

Jason Au Years paddling: 18

Jason Au
Years paddling: 18

What does dragon boat mean to you, Jason? 划龍舟對你的意義是什麼?

Dragon boat was the vehicle through which I re-connected with my cultural heritage. The sport first brought me to China in 2005 when I coached a team that travelled to Tianjin to compete in an international university race. I returned to Tianjin in 2006 and found myself unable to articulate myself when speaking Cantonese to an athlete from a team in Macau. That moment motivated me to learning Cantonese, which in turn led to a series of events which changed my life: my first trip to Hong Kong in 2008, my decision to apply for my Hong Kong Identity card in 2010. These experiences have completely transformed the way I view myself as a Hong Kong Canadian and more broadly as an member of the overseas Chinese diaspora.


How has the sport become a ritual in your life?

While the logistics are a routine, the physical preparation to practice or race cannot be just a routine — it is in fact a ritual. Take race day for example: the steps are the same but as you repeat each step you need to revisit its meaning and intention each and every time. That means actively thinking about and processing the purpose and meaning of what you are doing so you are not just going through the motions. In that sense, even though I’ve been to the start line thousands of times, every race situation is new and novel, and breathes life into the ritual of racing.

訓練已經成為習慣的一部分,為了練習和比賽而作的體能準備卻不能視作例行公事–那其實是一種儀式。 以比賽的日子作例子:那些步驟是一樣的,但當你重複這些步驟時,每一步和每一次你都需要重新檢視它背後的意義和意圖。那意味著主動地思考和處理其目的和你為什麼要這樣做的意義,而你並不是在無意識地進行那些動作。這麼說來,雖然我已經踏在起步線上數千次,每次的比賽狀況都是全新的,為比賽注入新的空氣與生命力。

Terence Yu (Left) Years Paddling: 7  Ted Yuen (Right) Years Paddling: 18

Terence Yu (Left)
Years Paddling: 7

Ted Yuen (Right)
Years Paddling: 18

Terence, how would you recruit new members to your dragon boat team? What would you tell them about the sport? 你是如何招募新成員的?  你會怎樣宣揚這項運動呢?

The sport of dragon boat in Canada is all about family. Each dragon boat team needing a minimum of 20 paddlers, it sets the environment as the ultimate team sport, so if anyone is looking for a way to stay active, make new friends and have fun while doing it, dragon boat is something you should consider. This is what Chinese culture is about, honouring and including everyone as family. 

在加拿大賽龍舟的團友就像家人一樣。因為一個龍舟隊至少需要二十名划手,所以這項運動真的是培養團隊精神的最好方式。若有人正在尋找一個可以訓練身體又可以交新朋友的體育運動,那就應該考慮賽龍舟。同時,這項運動也反映著中國文化裡 “四海之內皆兄弟也”的念頭。划龍舟跟中國文化一樣重視尊重及包容別人。

Ted, why do you think dragon boating has increased in popularity over the years? 你覺得為什麼划龍舟變得越來越受歡迎呢?

For people who like to compete, dragon boating is probably one of the most intense sports you can get into. It is a great full body workout and definitely great cardio. As for cultural reasons, some Asians participate at first because it is part of our culture/heritage. But it is not primarily Asians that participate in this sport anymore; there is a good balance of people of different backgrounds that participate. Team bonding and building with a group of friends and/or family is great motivation. Most teams are very tight knit; all the teams I have paddled for become my second family.


Kay Huynh Years Paddling: 8

Kay Huynh
Years Paddling: 8

In your opinion, what are some reasons for the recent increase of interest in the sport? 你認為是什麼原因,令到這項運動近來引起了越來越多人的興趣?

Social media has really helped increase the exposure of dragon boating and allowing others to see how it can be such an exciting team sport. Participants are also very actively encouraging their friends to join because of the challenge and comradery that comes with being on a such a tight knit team. 


Your favourite thing about dragon boating? 你加入龍舟隊以來有什麼難忘的時刻?

My favourite thing about dragon boating is moment at the start of every race where the focus and concentration of your teammates becomes almost surreal. A mix of nerves, excitement, and exhilaration that can be felt in the entire boat, and for two minutes you are giving it your all until you cross the line. Regardless of the result, there is always a sensation of joy that overwhelms the body from a hard fought battle. 

我在賽龍舟時的難忘時刻是在每場比賽的開始時。你眼看你的隊員們集中和專注到不真實的程度,每個人都非常興奮,為了比賽躍躍欲試, 但同時處於焦急中,因為你見到你四周的其他隊伍也正為了比賽而急不及待。當所有的船隻都在其位置準備就緒,所有的船隻都安靜下來,直到你聽到那一聲「準備」,我身體裡的腎上腺素便隨之狂飆,因為我知道接下來的短短兩分鐘我將傾盡全力。無論輸贏,比賽結束後的成就感是無法代替的。


What is your most memorable moment from dragon boating? 

Stephanie Chan Years Paddling: 16

Stephanie Chan
Years Paddling: 16

After 10 years of paddling with the same club, in 2016 we were finally able to win the Toronto Island Dragon Boat Race Festival Grand Championship. We had been a close second for many years but we were finally able to taste that sweet victory last year. I never would have imagined being at the top of the podium at such a big regatta when I first started dragon boating. There were definitely tears at the end of that race.

Without being a part of dragon boat, I never would have met my fiancé, Danny, whom I met during our first national team tryouts.

在2016年跟著一起經過十年參與龍舟比賽的朋友贏得多倫多龍舟比賽冠軍算是最難忘的吧。幾年的努力後,都在亞軍的位置停留著。所以可以贏得冠軍真是夢寐以求的。一開始的時候,我沒有想過有一天我會站在台上獲得勝利榮耀。拿到冠軍的那天,我們的團隊也掉了不少眼淚。 若沒有參加龍舟運動,我也不會認識我的未婚夫。我們是在國家隊的選拔比賽認識的!

What does dragon boat mean to you? 

Dragon boat has been my life for the past decade. I have formed so many friendships with paddlers across the country and even when we race internationally, there are many familiar faces. My club team has become my family and I definitely would not be having as much fun without them. We’ve pushed each other past our limits, challenged ourselves physically and mentally, and have been there for each other through sweat and tears. I have formed relationships and memories that will last my lifetime. 

在這十年內,龍舟佔有了我生命的一切。因為比賽的時候我們常常會去加拿大不同的角落,所以我也交了無數的朋友。甚至到世界各地比賽的時候,我也會碰見熟悉的臉孔。我的隊友也變成我的家人。沒有他們,我也不會那麼享受這項運動。我們一起超越了身體上和精神上的底線; 一起流過汗也一起流過淚。建立的友誼和累積的回憶足夠讓我回味一輩子。

Benjamin Choi Years Paddling: 10

Benjamin Choi
Years Paddling: 10

Are there particular races that stand out in your years of paddling? 在那麼多比賽裡,有沒有一個是特別印象深刻的?

Two come to mind: firstly, winning the 500m mixed final at the 2012 Club Crew World Championships in Hong Kong. Our team was established in 2011 with the goal of simply qualifying for the 2012 World Championships. We were the 5th and final Canadian entry to qualify, and certainly never expected to be at the top of the world podium the following year. Many tears were shed with some of my closest friends.

More recently, my new club, New Dragons Racing Club (NDRC) won the 2016 Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival at Centre Island which became our most cherished local regatta.