Dragon Boat racing is an international competition that pits dragon-shaped canoes against each other to be first to capture a flag on the water. 18-20 people man each vessel, with one in front to capture the flag, one keeping pace by the drum, and one steering at the helm. The rest of the team sits in rows, side-by-side, each individual paddling on only one side of the boat.
Originally from the Guangdong Province of China, the Dragon Boat Festival (端午節) occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, usually sometime between May and June.
The legend of the Dragon Boat Festival surrounds the story of Qu Yuan, a poet and minister during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). During these war times, Qu was exiled and accused of treason, and when his allies were captured, Qu committed suicide by drowning himself into the Milou River.
Bunches of Zongzi (粽子) can be found everywhere in Asia during the season of the Dragon Boat Festival.
The local people, who admired Qu Yuan, sent out a search party by boat to find his body. When they could not find him, they offered balls of sticky rice to the fish in the river so that they would eat them instead of Qu's body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi (粽子), the traditional food of bamboo-wrapped sticky rice and fillings eaten during Dragon Boat season.
Today, Dragon Boat racing happens all over the world.
Swan-shaped paddle boats in Taipei's Bitan Scenic Area, during the Dragon Boat Festival 2010.
When I first arrived in Taiwan, it was May 2010. One of my very first ventures out into the city was to an area in southern Taipei, where mountains, river and city meet: the Bitan Scenic Area (碧潭) in Xindian, New Taipei City.
View of the pedestrian bridge from the roof of my future apartment, in Taipei's Bitan Scenic Area,
during the Dragon Boat Festival.
Of course I couldn't know it then, but I would come to live in this area of the city for a brief time, only a couple months after this first visitation. The area includes a vibrant green river splitting the city from steep cliffs of jungle, a Taoist temple, and the suburbs of Taipei.
Massive crowds gather on either side of the river during the Dragon Boat Festival.
A long suspension bridge connects the two sides, with food vendors, street markets, tourists, and riverside activities, such as paddle boats, concerts, and locals practicing daily Tai-Chi on either side of the river. A beautiful and scenic bike path leads from the bridge all the way into Taipei along the river, and it is definitely worth renting a city bike and taking an afternoon to ride in the sunshine and enjoy local river life.
A dragon boat team racing during the festival, taken from the pedestrian bridge, 2010.
But this first day out to Bitan was momentous for me. Not only was I brand new to everything Taipei, but this was a day of festivities: the annual Dragon Boat Festival!
A dragon boat team stretching before the race.
I had no real idea what the Dragon Boat Festival was about, but I watched in fascination as teams of local Taiwanese raced against teams of youthful foreigners to capture their flag on the water. It was hot and humid, sweaty, loud, and crowded. The energy was contagious! I thought to myself, before I leave this country, I must join a team and race!
One of the first days of my dragon boat practice with Team MAX.
Skip ahead to January of 2012. I was now living in the Songshan neighborhood of Taipei, an affluent area just north of Taipei 101. I had settled into the country fairly well-- I knew minimal Chinese still, but I had teaching jobs keeping me busy day to day, I was occasionally modeling and acting in commercials, and most importantly, I had developed a group of reliable friends. It was starting to feel more and more like home, which meant I also I felt the need to change up my routine. I wasn't feeling completely fulfilled by long days babysitting toddlers, or the typical bar hopping at night. I knew that Dragon Boat practice was beginning at the local universities, and that I would need to find a team fast.
Looking cute, but we're strong and tough!
After asking around, it didn't take long to find a few friends to join the team with me, and together we discovered Team MAX, a co-ed team outside the university circuit, and yet open to both locals and foreigners alike. I was able to join the team on only their second or third practice.
Team MAX practicing on the track field at NTNU.
Training started at 6:00am, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and rowing practice started at 8:00am Saturday. For me to get to the track field on time, I had to wake at 4:30am, dress in the dark, walk or ride my bike for 2 miles in the cold rain to take the first MRT across town to Shi'Da, the infamous college neighborhood of National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU). There on the track, I met my teammates for running, stretching, body resistance, and endurance training nearly everyday for the next four months.
All the girls of Team MAX, early in the season. This was one of our first rowing practices.
At first, it was quite cold, as mornings in Taipei's winter and early spring can be as low as 40-50°F. Later, as summer approached, it was hot and disgustingly humid, with temperatures hovering between 80-90°F (with approximately 98% humidity). It rained almost every day. We were soggy, often running on a saturated track with squishy shoes and socks, begging to practice in doors.
Team MAX men & women, out on the track field. The weather was starting to heat up!
Team MAX men & women, out on the track field, closer to race date!
We shared the track field with our opposing team, NTNU's Blacktide. We watched as they practiced team synchronicity with activities like endless laps of leap-frog around the track. They looked ridiculous, but we knew that it was their competitive edge, and that without equal synchronicity, no amount of arm strength or endurance training could match them on the water.
A sunny and warm day out on the river with Team MAX girls.
Saturday mornings we met on the river in Bitan. Here was our opportunity to practice real rowing on real dragon boats. Unlike Blacktide, Team MAX was the only foreigner team granted access to on-the-water training this early in the training season. At first it was slow-going. Not only were we not in sync, we didn't have our form developed, or our upper body strength.
A snippet from one of our rowing practice sessions on the Keelung River (大佳河濱公園).
Our team called in reinforcements from a Japanese championship team, and we were now undergoing intense drills focusing on form and synchronization. We spent full practices with our boats tied to the docks, yet rowing at full strength for hours until we found our rhythm and perfected our strokes. We were tired, hungry, sore, yet energized and excited to show Taipei what we were made of!
Ready to race! Team MAX girls are strong and unstoppable!
Team MAX was split into three teams: women's, men's, and co-ed. The co-ed team was reserved for the strongest women, who could keep pace and intensity with the men on the team. I was on the women's team, and although we were strong and fierce, we kept things fun by accessorizing at practice, wearing make-up and earrings, singing songs, and taking endless photos.
After four months of training 4-5 days each week, it was time to compete! The city was bustling with energy, and our team was foaming at the bit to fly across the water! We were pumped, and we felt ready.
The mantra that led us up and through race day was "Long, Deep, Hard!"
and we loved shouting it in unison with every stroke on the water.
The energy at the city championship game was incomparable to any other competition I've participated in. Local news stations were piling in to interview team members, especially those of us on foreigner teams. One of Taiwan's local aborigine teams were seated next to ours on the sidelines, and so after many hours of waiting and watching other teams compete, our two teams became friendly, despite language barriers.
Dancing among rival teams at the Dragon Boat Festival, 2012.
Eventually, they invited us to sing and dance in a raucous train of pulling back and forth in a human spiral that created an unforgettable camaraderie between our two teams. It was also the perfect exercise to keep our energy and synchronicity up before our team was called to the race line.
Eventually Team MAX women's team was called to the start. Many of us were shaking with intensity, and due to local rules, no talking or noise of any kind was allowed near the docks. Even whispering while piling into the boats could be enough to get any team disqualified, as well as any hint at a false start. We were nervous. One by one we helped each other balance into the boat and into our seats in total silence.
Kalong and I (and Team MAX girls) featured on the local news,
set against the backdrop of our rival team, NTNU's Blacktide.
We were up against three other teams, one of which included our rivals, NTNU's Blacktide. We were completely clueless as to the strength and abilities of the other teams present. At heightened attention, we sat at the ready, and like a spring into action, we jerked our oars up at the first call and into the water with the blast of the gun.
The next two minutes and seventeen seconds were a complete blur. I could hardly see beyond the splashing river water and girls' pony tails wildly swinging with each bodily forward-hurl-of-motion that helped to push our boat faster with each stroke. I vaguely remember my arms going numb, as well as my mind, but resting during this race was not an option. We had to row 500 meters across the water before anyone else.
Quickly, we heard the command to stop rowing, and without hesitation, we laid our oars across our laps according to race rules. We coasted across the water for 30, maybe 40 feet in total silence, before we were given the signal to lift our oars once again, and slowly, calmly, return to the starting line. We weren't even allowed to whisper, but as we gave each other anxious glances, it became clear that we had at least captured our flag... but who had won the race wouldn't become obvious for several minutes.
The final race into victory, winning Taipei's City Championship Dragon Boat Festival Women's Division, 2012!
The energy of our supporting team members chokes me up every time!
As our boat approached the judges tent, loud speakers shouted an onslaught of Chinese that I couldn't understand. But while I was lost in translation, the English words "Team MAX" came through the noise, followed by tremendous cheering and celebration from the sidelines. It suddenly became apparent that Team MAX women's team had just won the city-wide championship Dragon Boat Festival! But until we were out of our boats, and had returned our oars and life vests, we weren't allowed to make a noise.
Of course, once on the side lines we erupted in exuberant celebration, hugging, crying, yelling, high-fiving, shot-gunning and drenching each other in Taipei's finest beer. Winning the championship after so many months of tough dragon boat bootcamp, beating our rivals the Blacktide, and making a name for ourselves as a locals/foreigners team (all over the local news stations, no less), filled us with an inexplicable pride. The hard work had paid off, and the team camaraderie had prospered. We were victorious!
Our team won a cash prize, as well as a beautiful trophy as Taipei's City Championship Dragon Boat Team!
There were other races over the months to come that we did not win, beaten badly by the female aborigine firefighters, for example. But these races were much smaller in scale, with almost no crowds, and certainly no camera crews. The cash reward was minimal, if it existed at all.
Winner-Face! Team MAX girls made our way through a victory tunnel of our fellow teammates immediately after winning the Taipei City Championship, in the middle of a heavy downpour.
As the summer continued, many members of our team flew back home to the countries they came from, school semesters having ended as well as their Chinese studies in Taipei. Others took vacations while their teaching positions were on hold until the new school year began. I prepared for my own exodus back to America, into the loving arms of my boyfriend (now husband), who was waiting for me back in Los Angeles.
The five months that I was a Dragon Boat rower on Team MAX were some of the best months of my life. There I was, on the cusp of my 30th birthday, in the best shape of my life. I had discovered my physical strength, as well as a new level of confidence that probably comes with most team sports, but I had never experienced before. Plus, few people in America know about the Dragon Boat Festival, or have an appreciation for the importance it carries in Asian culture. Capturing that flag at the 500 meter (or 2,000 meter) finish line comes with the national pride of discovering Qu Yuan (alive) in the water, going back over 2,300 years!
Teammate Lynn becoming one with the dragon.
Whenever I step onto the row machine at the gym-- which is a totally different style of rowing-- I try to channel my inner dragon. For my first few years back home, I slayed the machine as if I were in the middle of that final race. But eventually, over time, my strength training has grown softer, as I've shifted my focus more on running and cycling. My peak strength can no longer endure 2,000 meters on the machine without resting every 250 meters. Still, when I take my position at the machine, I take a moment to remember that feeling of immense strength and power that took us across the finish line into first place. I fill with pride, and I stab the imaginary water with my oar-- sideways, like a dragon. I usually get confused stares from others in the gym, and I often wonder if staff will approach me and escort me outside, but I think, maybe because of the intensity of my workout, no body has stopped me yet. They must think that I know what I'm doing-- using the row machine so incorrectly-- because of the ferocity at which I take the machine.
The dragon lives on!
Most of the photos and videos posted above are from my own library, but some are not. Thank you in advance to my teammates for letting me borrow these memories from them! If you want credit, tell me which ones are yours and I will gladly give credit where credit is due. Love you!