Dragon Boat Racing: A Growing Tradition in Penang

By Dr. Beh May Ting

Published on 2021-05-29 Updated 2021-06-20

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Dragon boat race at the Teluk Bahang Dam. Photo: Penang Forward Dragon Boat Team’s Facebook

“LAST 100 METRES! Maintain! Last 50 metres! All out!” the drummer shouts. Like a well-oiled machine, we row hard in synchronised strokes towards the finish line.

The season for dragon boat races is once again upon us, a cherished bi-annual tradition in Penang that gathers local competitors at the Teluk Bahang Dam in June. But it is in December that the event is elevated to an even grander scale. With the arrival of international teams to Penang’s shores, the regatta becomes festival-like, extremely competitive and a visual feast to behold.

The dragon’s snout crosses the finish line and the blaring sound of an air horn fills the air. We made it! With oars raised in jubilance, we pat each other’s backs in joy. But we cannot rise from our seats yet. This is one of the many rules that have been drilled into us as dragon boat paddlers; doing so would immediately disqualify the team, even if we had finished the race.

Dragon Boat Racing in Penang

It is believed that seafaring migrants from China, who came more than a century ago to settle along the fringes of Penang, introduced dragon boat races here. Its popularity was cemented during the early 1970s when the regattas became a regular fixture at the annual Pesta Pulau Pinang celebrations; and in the years since, dragon boat races have been held at various venues, e.g. along Gurney Drive and at Mengkuang Dam.

The writer (left) with her teammates offering joss sticks prior to racing during the Penang International Dragon Boat Festival at the Teluk Bahang Dam. Photo:Beh May Ting

A temporary altar dedicated to Mazu at a dragon boat race site in Taipei. Photo:Beh May Ting

The Penang International Dragon Boat Festival celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2019, though the global pandemic disrupted the festival’s continuation the following year. The event is typically held on the first December weekend and is the most anticipated race of the year. The stakes are higher too for local teams competing on home ground; reputations must be maintained.

Meshing Tradition with Technology

A dragon head “fed” with joss papers that is attached to a dragon boat.

Before the start of the race, and for safety and luck, the rituals of offering joss sticks and joss papers to wandering spirits at the race sites must be observed. During the 7th lunar month, known also as the Month of the Hungry Ghost, offerings are made along the shores of training grounds to appease these spirits. My team often jokes that the boat would bear additional “unidentified” weight if we fail to pay our respects.

At dragon boat races in Taiwan, I have noticed also altars devoted to Mazu, the tutelary deity of seafarers, placed prominently at race sites; and every dragon is “fed” with a stack of joss papers on the competition boats.

What’s even more interesting is the blending of cultural connotations and advanced innovations in the sport today; the materials used in the boat-building, to the dimensions of the paddles determine the time down to the millisecond if the team wins or loses a race.

Conversely though, because it is regarded a cultural sport, dragon boat races seem to attract less youth participation despite many active paddlers that are in their mid-20s. While I have seen paddlers from younger age groups in regattas abroad representing their schools and universities, the situation is different in Penang.

Many dragon boat teams are formed by private sports clubs, State Council representatives, public and private entities, and uniformed bodies, but only a meagre few from educational institutions are represented during the Penang International Dragon Boat Festival.

Recruitment of new and possibly younger paddlers is made somewhat difficult now with Covid-19. But encouragingly, having a dragon boat race as a performance event at the Tokyo Olympics can help advance the sport.

The spirit of camaraderie and sportsmanship is strong within the dragon boat community. We are a motley group of different ages and social standings; in fact, some of my teammates are actually grandparents! And the conviviality comes from being in the same boat as them, literally and figuratively speaking.

Dr. Beh May Ting

is an urban anthropologist and a projects researcher in Penang Institute. She draws professional and personal inspirations from the finer things in life.