Austin Dragon Boat Festival celebrates ancient Chinese culture

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The dragon boat races will be held this Saturday at Lady Bird Lake. 

Courtesy Photo of Asian American Cultural Center

Lady Bird Lake is usually filled with paddle boards and canoes on Saturday afternoons. But this Saturday, 40-foot-long boats shaped and painted like dragons will fill the lake for the 16th annual Austin Dragon Boat Festival.

Two teams from UT, one from the Chinese Students Association and one from the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, will participate in the dragon boat races, a 2,000-year-old tradition. Each dragon boat carries 22 people. While 20 people row, one person steers the boat and the other beats a drum to allow the paddlers to keep pace.

“One of the most challenging things about dragon boat racing is teamwork,” said UT alum Sheena Chang, a former Chinese Students Association member who is coaching the UT teams. “All 20 paddlers should be doing the exact same thing at the exact same time, while the person who steers helps keep the boat straight and the drummer helps keep everyone in sync.”

Chang is also the coach for the Austin Coolers Dragon Boat Team, one of the other 17 teams participating in the races. The Austin Coolers team trains year round and also participates in international dragon boat racing competitions. 

“What I’ve learned from training different types of teams is that everyone learns differently,” Chang said. “On race day, each team applies it differently, so it’s always very exciting to see who comes out on top from year to year.”

The Asian American Cultural Center, in collaboration with the Asian American Community Partnership, has organized the races in Austin for 16 years now.

“Austin has a growing Asian-American population and we wanted to make our contribution to Austin’s diversity and showcase our cultural heritage,” said Amy Wong Mok, president and CEO of the Asian American Cultural Center. 

Before the races, a traditional ceremony known as “Dotting the Eyes of the Dragon” is performed to commemorate the occasion.

“Traditionally, the dragon boats are buried under the sand,” Mok said. “Before the start of the race, we take out the boat and decorate it. The dignitaries will put the ‘eyes,’ using ink, some water and even earth, on the dragon. We believe the dragon was sleeping all this time, and when you give them the eyes, they have the eyes to fly on the water.”

Tiger Wu, electrical engineering junior and captain of the Chinese Students Association dragon boat team, said winning the 500-meter race is all about endurance, technique and synchronization. 

“Not a lot of people like to paddle or row when they have spare time,” Wu said. “It’s different when you are paddling and there’s a lot of stress on your back and your shoulders.”

Wu’s team has been practicing for an hour every Sunday at Lady Bird Lake for the past five weeks. One missed beat can make or break the team’s chances of winning a race.

“If someone in the front is getting tired and is not doing what they should be doing, it makes the timing go wrong for everyone on the boat,” Wu said.  

For Wu, the adrenaline rush makes all the effort worth it.

“It’s most rewarding for me when I see families come together to celebrate this festival,” Mok said. ”I feel proud to see the children from different Asian countries promoting and showcasing their heritage and culture.”