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Lost in New York: The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York City
Peter Tatara - August 24, 2006

My name is Peter Tatara. I live in New York City. Perhaps you've heard of the place. First made famous in the 1984 film Ghostbusters, New York is today visited by hundreds of millions of people, but while they all visit 42nd Street, very few tourists explore so much as one block away. Enter this very travelogue, a field guide to the urban odyssey that is 43rd Street and beyond. Won't you join me as I get Lost in New York? Okay, that last sentence sucked.

According to Chinese legend, there was once a loyal minister named Qu Yuan who was exiled when his king fell under the influence of a corrupt magistrate. Without his wisdom as its guide, Qu Yuan's land was conquered, withered, and died. Alone, Qu Yuan, then, lashed himself to a heavy rock and plunged into a river to join the ghosts of his countrymen. Fishermen, seeing Qu Yuan disappear into the water's depths, paddled quickly and beat drums to ward off fish and evil spirits. But they could not rescue him. To the river's bottom, Qu Yuan sank. The fisherman, mourning Qu Yan, threw rice into the waves so that -- at least -- his spirit would not go hungry.

Then, late one night, Qu Yuan's ghost returned, thanking the fishermen for their offerings, but he informed them he did not receive any of their food -- the rice eaten by a swift river dragon. Qu Yuan instructed the fishermen to wrap their rice in silk, as by doing so, it would sink without catching the dragon's eye.

This legend is today remembered in the Dragon Boat Festival, an event traditionally held every August, in which zong zi -- rice balls filled with eggs, beans, vegetables, or meats steamed inside leaves -- are eaten and dragon boats -- long, narrow vessels propelled by the sweat and strain of no less than 18 men moving in unison to the beat of massive drums with ornate dragons carved into their bows -- race. And for the past 16 years, teams from communities, colleges, and corporations from across North America have come together for one of the world's largest dragon boat events -- New York City's Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival.

Held early each August in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, New York City's second largest park, the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival is a two-day gathering of 50,000 racers and spectators where the dragon boat championships are the crown jewels of a loud and dizzying carnival celebrating the past, present, and future of Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. And, odds are, you've never heard of it.

While the event draws Chinese Americans and Chinese Canadians from as far away as Seattle and Vancouver, if you were to ask the average Times Square tourist about the Dragon Boat Festival, they'd be clueless, and that's a shame. I've attended the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival for the past two years, and left each with a camera full of pictures, belly full of food, slightly larger Cantonese vocabulary, and perhaps most telling of all -- as not much can get me to leave my house -- a deep tan.

If you travel into Manhattan on any given weekend throughout the summer, after wandering a few blocks, you're going to run into a street fair -- a stretch of five or six blocks closed to traffic and filled with local artisans and deep fried food.

Manhattan's street fairs are all held under the pretense of celebrating one holiday or another; however, whether it's Queensland Day, Nag Panchami, or Richard Dean Anderson's Birthday, after walking through a few New York City street fairs, regardless of why they're held, you come to realize, they're all exactly the same.

Never been to a New York City street fair? Picture a falafel stand. Next to it, imagine a guy selling kettle corn. Now, fried dough. You're looking at a husband and wife selling pewter jewelry. Gyros. Next, a struggling musician passing CD-Rs to anyone who'll listen. A few hippies hocking organic smoothies of questionable quality. Bootleg toys. Now, go back to the falafel stand and repeat. Again and again. That's every New York City street fair. One after another, row after row, that same handful of sights, sounds, and smells repeating until you hit the end of the fair and you're, without warning, in the middle of traffic. On occasion, there's a poorly-paid kid representing some corporation handing out samples of their newest power drink. (And, while sure, these drinks are free, more often than not, they're tart-tasting tonics with an aftertaste decidedly inspired by urine.)

Is this to say I'm opposed to New York City's street fairs? No, I love falafels, and they're a decent way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but once you've seen one, you've seen them all. (I do have to say the Bastille Day street fair does try to be original. While it still follows the same kettle corn and fried dough formula, each and every one of its vendors wears either a beret or a funny, French chef's hat. Most, too, ad le in front of all their wares... Le falafel, le homemade jewelry, le experimental soft drink we're giving to the New York City sample market.)

But the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival is different. The street -- well, park really -- fair that surrounds the races is a city of tents built to entertain and sustain both the event's spectators as well as actual dragon boat teams. This nonstop party, without a falafel or gyro in sight, is broken down into two parts.

The festival's first half is just that -- a festival. Surrounding a towering center stage, it fans out in a seemingly endless circle populated by kung fu monks, lion dances, dumpling-eating contests, magic shows, traditional and contemporary games, small huts showcasing local bakeries and restaurants, and massive pavilions sponsored by Chinese-language banks, newspapers, and television stations.

It was at omnibus food concern Kikkoman's pavilion my first year that I almost won a year's supply of soymilk. While Kikkoman's most known in the United States for its brand of soy sauce, the company is responsible for a vast array of sauces, seasonings, and foodstuffs. At Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival 2005, Kikkoman was out in force to promote its new line of soymilk -- Pearl -- and, at one point during the day, a clownish Kikkoman ambassador pulled me from a crowd to test my Kikkoman IQ, and if I answered his one, simple question, I could gorge myself on all the Pearl I could drink for 365 days. Of course, the corporate rep picked me for a reason. I'm white. The rep and the audience laughed. They didn't think I could do it.

And I couldn't. What was my question?

"What are all five Kikkoman Pearl flavors?"

I had no clue, but I was able to fake it believable well.

"Vanilla... Chocolate... Strawberry... Original... Green Tea?"

The host laughed. The audience laughed. The round eye got it wrong. What are all five Kikkoman Pearl flavors? Vanilla, Chocolate, Original, Green Tea, and Tropical. Tropical? What the hell kind of soymilk flavor is Tropical? (And I only guessed Green Tea because I was all out of ideas, not remotely fathoming it'd be right.) Of course, while I couldn't name all five flavors of Pearl that day, I'll never forget them now. Vanilla, Chocolate, Original, Green Tea, and Tropical are indelibly seared into my neural synapses. This is the very same thing that happened to me in sixth grade when I couldn't remember Abraham Lincoln's horse's name on a test. I can't forget it now. (If you're wondering, the horse's name was Bob.)

And while I didn't win all the soymilk I could drink, I did take home two complimentary bottles of Pearl. Chocolate and Tropical, I think. I can't recall.

And all of this is, still, only part of the festival. After you've had your fill of kite-flying demonstrations and mango bubble tea, it's time to move onto the event's second half. While the first chunk of the Dragon Boat Festival is clearly built for its spectators, its next exists squarely for the races' participants. Here, each team camps, living and training on the shore of the 84-acre Meadow Lake. The camps smell of gas stoves and sunscreen and are a perpetual buzz of barks and yelps as the competitors make their final preparations.

It's here, among the racers, that the best spots to watch the races can be found. While all the official seating is on the festival side of the Dragon Boat Festival, the teams welcome spectators as their neighbors -- providing they don't try to sit in their boats -- and if you want to get close to the drama, agony, and thrill of dragon boat racing, you've got to plant yourself as close to the teams and water as possible.

What's dragon boat racing like?

At the crack of a gun, a score of women and men punch forward as hard as they can, attempting to lift their ornate, dragon-shaped boats from the water with an alchemy of muscle and prayer. Over a span of 100, 200, 500 meters, they thrust ahead, forcing all their strength into their oars as steadily-quickening drums beat on, only begging for unquenchable speed. Then, it's over. Then, the screaming starts. The winner's groupies (yes, there are groupies) explode on the shore. Chants and cheers go up. The other teams explain the sun was in their eyes, the wind wasn't right, a sea serpent was in their path, and they'll be back next year.

This happens 40 times over the span of the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival's two-day run, and beside the main competition, throughout the festival's span, various corporate, charity, and invitational races give watchers some big names including Verizon, Citibank, and Con Edison to root for -- or, more accurately, in Con Edison's case, boo. (Don't get it? If you lived in Astoria, Queens, you'd be rolling on the floor, or at least mildly pissed off for being reminded it took power company Con Edison two weeks to get your and all your neighbors' power back after a cable or somesuch exploded in the middle of the hottest day in the middle of the hottest two weeks in July.)

And then it's all over. And you feel good.

My first year attending the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, I went with my girlfriend -- and I brought my parents and she brought hers. My second year, I met up with a former boss and his family. Both times, despite the omnipresent spectre of awkwardness, all parties involved had a great time. The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival is a unique, invigorating, yet entirely relaxing experience. Not the kind of thing you can find every weekend in Manhattan -- or anywhere -- it pulls together passionate people, fresh food, local music, and a one-of-a-kind celebration.

But, looking back, now, as I prepare to assert my conclusion, I've come to the realization the bulk of my writing's been nonsense about Kikkoman soymilk and street fairs, leading you to this critical point with very few sentences actually about the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival. What am I to do? Do I draft a list of positive bullet points? Go back and insert a paragraph or two of genuine worth? No, I'm going to go bravely, stubbornly forward relying not on evidence but on experience -- the experience of going to the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival. And if you want this experience, too, I'll see you at Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival 2007. If you don't, enjoy your Manhattan street fairs. (You'll probably see me at a few of them, too. I love falafels.)

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