Despite its corporate influences, Richmond’s Dragon Boat Festival was an entertaining spectacle of Chinese culture by the James.
A little piece of China came to Richmond earlier this month, when the Richmond International Dragon Boat Festival hit Rocketts Landing on August 3. The festival, which has run annually for the past 11 years, featured 41 teams competing on the James alongside a variety of Chinese cultural performances.
Dragon boat festivals originated in China, and are usually held as a cultural festival around the summer solstice. The tradition of racing dragon boats dates back to the 5th or 6th century, and today the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) helps to organize rowing teams and races throughout the world. Every other year, the IDBF hosts a world championship in different cities around the globe.
The journey to my first-ever dragon boat festival began on the GRTC Pulse. With the final eastbound stop being Rocketts Landing, the Pulse was the obvious choice for anyone seeking a quick way to the festival without hopping in a car or sweating on a bike. But for some unexplained reason, my bus stopped at the Shockoe Bottom station; passengers were informed that the bus would not be traveling any further. This was unexpected, but turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the Virginia Capital Trail was just two blocks away. The 10 minute walk to the festival along the river came complete with cool breezes and nice views of Richmond’s skyline.
The trail took me right to the middle of the festival, which was in full swing when I arrived. A voice over the PA system narrated a race in real time as teams cheered on from tents along the river. Meandering lines of attendees led to a handful of food trucks, which provided festival-goers with all of the essentials, from funnel cakes to beer.
Farther down the trail, crowds gathered to watch Chinese traditional dances. Conveniently, the performances largely took place between dragon boat races, so there was no need to pick between one or the other. An announcer — who couldn’t have been over the age of 10 — expertly described what was happening in each dance, and what it meant within the context of Chinese culture. Elegant and informative, the Chinese cultural performances were a definite highlight of the festival.
In the river, long canoe-like boats containing 22 rowers plus a drummer sped through the water. While it was a little difficult to get a great view of the boats because of our distance from shore, it was clear where each of the boats stood in the race. The speed at which the boats traveled was truly impressive; none of the races I witnessed lasted much more than a minute and a half.
Seeing nearly two dozen people working together to propel a massive boat forward is quite a spectacle. This, in combination with the cultural performances, made the festival well worth attending. But throughout my time at the festival, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that things were a little off — in the most corporate way possible. It seems as though many of the teams participating in the races were representatives from big businesses, participating in the festival for team-building exercises. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but in many ways, the Dragon Boat Festival resembled an employee playground for major corporations, who drank beer and took cool photos while superficially signaling support for the community at hand.
Perhaps the festival would have felt less corporate if the teams had come up with names a bit more creative than “Team CarMax” or “Altria East/Spring.” I will admit, though, that “Bankers Aweigh” perfectly captured the corporate/boating feeling of the festival while making me smile.
All in all, the Dragon Boat Festival was a fun way to spend a Saturday. While there are definitely ways the festival could feature better, more in-depth discussions of Chinese culture in the future, watching almost unbelievably long boats race down the James was definitely worth the trip to Rocketts Landing.
Top Photo by Jimmy O’Keefe