Published on June 21st, 2012 | by Chris Wotton0
Breathing Malaysian fire: The Penang International Dragon Boat Racing Festival
Malaysia is known for many things. Its food – from beef satay to the national rice dish of nasi goreng – or perhaps its melting pot of people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, are the kind of things that spring to mind when thinking about this southeast Asian tourist hotspot.
What might not spring to mind so easily is a flotilla of dragon boats racing down the waters of the lake at Teluk Bahang Dam in Malaysia’s ‘second capital’ of Penang, towards the north of the country.
The roots of dragon boat rates are traced back to ancient times in China, and they have been taking place in Penang’s waters since 1934. The festival was founded in 1956 to celebrate the hundred-year anniversary of the Georgetown municipality, of which the island of Penang is a part. The celebrations and race were then revived in 1979 to become the annual event it is known as today.
This three-day race now attracts thousands of visitors from as far away as the United States, Japan, South Africa and the Netherlands. For this year’s thirty-third contest, which takes place on 30th June and 1st July, fourteen international teams from South Africa, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Thailand, Philippines and New Zealand have confirmed their participation, as well as thirteen Malaysian teams on their home ground.
Dragon boats are human-powered and traditionally made from teak wood in southern China’s Pearl River delta region. The tradition of dragon boat racing as an amateur water sport hails back to an ancient Chinese folk ritual of contending villagers held over the past 2000 years.
Other background stories to the festival tell the tale of a Chinese poet who committed suicide by drowning himself in a river in China’s Hunan province – his friends waded towards him, throwing rice into the water to keep fish at bay – and so, while they were racing to save their friend rather than against other competitors in a race, the seeds were sown for the festival that exists today! The boats are still dressed up with decorative Chinese dragon heads and tails for the competitions.
The colour, noise and huge excitement that surround the festival make it what it is today. Twenty-two participants on each team eagerly watch the drummer at the front of their boat give the signal for paddling. It is a high-octane race to the finish, and one that it’s well worth the trip to see. The colonial history of Penang, which only achieved its independence from British rule in 1957, makes for a rewarding visit in itself – throw in the buzz of a dragon boat race and you’ve got a trip to remember!
Images courtesy of Penang Dragon Boat