Worldwide Sport

Bros Love Dragon Boats

From its origins in east Asia to Flushing Meadows Queens, Dragon Boat races have gone global and corporate, pulling in all types from traders to triads.

08.10.14 9:45 AM ET

It almost sounds like a joke; so a black guy and an Asian woman walk into a Dragon Boat, where a Chinese drummer and Hindu paddlers wait for them. … The globalization of Dragon Boating has reached its acme in New York City, where teams composed of Wall street brokers compete against Chinese gangsters and the “Dragon Queens,” the women’s team of  the NYPD. Dragon Boats have definitely paddled into the New World.

When the Greeks who laid the foundations of Western civilization were competing in a formal series of events that were both sport and ritual, aka The Olympics, across the globe there were Dragon Boat races, with drumming and competition being held in the same spirit. More than 2,500 years have gone by, and most of the ritual elements of Dragon Boat racing and the Olympics have been stripped away. New gods have come and gone, and Dragon Boat racing has become popular around the globe. They were certainly embraced enthusiastically this weekend in Queens, the most diverse borough of New York City, and, in fact, the most diverse corner of the planet. Lest you imagine that the racers and audience were drafted from the large Chinatown in Flushing, where 40 percent of New York’s Chinese population resides, I can assure you that it seemed like I heard every one of the 138 languages spoken in Queens. 

This point was not missed by the Queens Borough President, Melinda Katz. At the opening ceremony of “The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York,” Katz noted the diversity of the teams and and watchers. Mayor Bill de Blasio sent a proclamation and two commissioners to read it. One was the Parks Commissioner, and the other the Fire Department Commissioner, who had a personal stake in the races. The Fire Department fielded a team this year.

Petra Szabo

There is a legend associated with these games which has the poet Qu Yuan grabbing a big rock and drowning himself in the Yangtze to protest his emperor’s policy of acquiescing to a warlord. The local fishermen were not fast enough to save him, But they did manage to preserve his body from being eaten by water dragons by beating drums and splashing paddles. Today’s Dragon Races commemorate that, and teams now compensate for the fishermen’s failure with the impressive speeds modern Dragon Boats reach today. 

With every race and creed of the the world paddling on a lake in Queens, I was eager to see how a team can win or lose. Luckily there were motorized chase boats to get me close to the chicks from the Police team and the brawny black Fire Department paddlers and the Hindu guys in orange harem pants. The races are fast and end in less than two minutes, so you have to watch with care. From the shore it looked like a blitz of paddling. I needed to get closer.

As I got into the shaky chase boat, I asked out loud whether they had any plans to recreate the poet’s drowning, and assured them that I had not written any verse since a crush I had in high school. A bit uncomfortable with my humor, the man in charge of sending the press out in the motorized chase boats admitted that in the past an over-enthusiastic photographer flip a boat over, but he was rescued before any water dragons arose from the lake in Flushing Meadows park. 

By the way, don’t ever use the word “row” with a Dragon Boater. Otto Chan, my friend and contact in this elite world warned me in advance not to say it. His crew, Team Extreme, seemed to work in unison; the drummer beats and the paddlers work in specific  rhythms, and then they “empty the tank” at the end, for that last-ditch spurt of speed. Unfortunately in today’s race, Otto’s team was a few seconds behind the winner. Three to be exact; these are competitive races.

In this competition, 197 teams were racing. This many teams means 2,500 athletes in town for the event. International teams come from around the world and New York is a city large enough for an African-American team to exist, as well as the Asian Federal Officer’s team. The race is a big one; Otto, who has been racing since 1998, has traveled with various teams to places like Baltimore and Rhode Island, but noted that this is the American event with the most corporate sponsors. It’s in New York, it’s big, and it makes the news. The main funders of this race were WNBC and HSBC, but many smaller firms invest. 

Dragon Boat racing has only been in this country since 1983, when Singapore donated a few boats to San Diego and they put on a little race. A far cry from the pageant that is built up around Saturday’s  races, which included tap dancing performances, Wing Tsun martial art demonstrations (I saw a man destroy cinder blocks with his hands), an international food court, Chinese Radio, enlisting in the army and the Boy Scouts. There is no merit badge yet for Dragon Boat racing, although there is one for canoeing. I should know; I have one.

Competitors celebrate after winning a race during the 24th annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival at Meadow Lake in the Queens borough of New York City, August 9, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT SOCIETY) - RTR41T6Z

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Competitors celebrate after winning a race during the 24th annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival at Meadow Lake in the Queens borough of New York City, August 9, 2014.

Of course, this village of merchants and performers, surrounded by families making a day of it, is only there because of the races. They are short and exciting; from the chase boat you can really see that the key to winning is perfect synchronization of the paddlers and energetic but controlled muscular effort. The drum and drummer, which Otto regards as extra weight and wishes could be discarded to speed up his craft, are right at the prow, so the paddlers are directed by the pounding, which also echoes across the water. But no one knows who won until the board goes up. As the paddlers have the sweat hosed off of them, they are either elated or dejected with the timing results. 

It costs $900 for a 22-paddler team to enter the race, and $600 for the smaller 12-person groups. There are teams that are just put together by the Park authorities, and they practice on the public Dragon Boats that Flushing Meadows owns. However, this is where the beginners start. Teams are commonly sponsored by corporations, and even fielded by financial firms. Sometimes one financial firm competes against another, replaying Wall Street beefs perhaps. Otto has seen Verizon compete against AT&T. The JP Morgan team, under the plush tent and in their matching T-shirts chewed on steaks for pre-race protein, while the simpler tent put up for the team deployed by New York Presbyterian Hospital only had a bucket of ice with bottles of water in it. Otto has been sponsored by Tommy Hilfiger and New York Life insurance, which meant jerseys with the company’s name on them. It can go farther than that, as far as branded paddles. Dragon Boats have crossed the globe into the welcoming arms of American business.

Petra Szabo

The Olympics allow nations to field champions and individually represent the country in mock battle. Dragon Boat racing, which relies on synchronization and perfect teamwork, is the Eastern answer to the Western cult of the individual, at least in the field of sport. The team that showed up from Toronto, which boasted of being “fully integrated, half Asian” had been practicing synchronous paddling, while the South Indian team fielded by a boat club called Malayalom, was made up of all men from Kerala. They lost to the more practiced Fire Department team. Everyone watched the “police girls,” a woman’s team from the Police Department. The skimpy uniforms helped. But they didn’t win.

At the end, it was still the all-Asian “Dragon Fear,” tough men with tattoos that I guessed were from Chinatown,  that took victory in the race I saw. Maybe we westerners still have a bit to learn about working (or paddling) as a group for the greater good. We’re apparently willing to learn; pretty much every kind of American was represented at the races. After all, there is a cash prize, but no one I asked knew what it was. 

The Canadian team was the last I saw, “half-Asian” in their words, but also half everything else: white girls, black dudes, etc. Katz called her constituency in Queens the “most diverse in the entire world,” and the local teams were just as much a cross section of the city. Watching New Yorkers come together, whether under the umbrella of the Fire Department or JP Morgan or the Triads, to compete against teams from around the world is the beauty of our melting pot. We contain multitudes. And besides, we won.