By Basha Cohen
Dragon-boat heads are bobbing in the boathouse marina of Sloan’s Lake. The steady sound of practicing teams’ grunts and chants wafts through the air as the Dragon Boat Festival returns for its 21st year, celebrating the Year of the Water Rabbit (and the Year of the Cat in Vietnamese culture).
The highly anticipated festival comes to the shores of Sloan’s Lake on July 22 and 23 with more than 40 teams racing. In addition, there will be three multicultural performance stages featuring traditional and contemporary instrumental, vocal, choral and percussion music, as well as celebratory dances.
An Asian arts marketplace with more than 60 vendors will be featured, along with culinary delights from Taste of Asia. As one of Denver’s signature summer events, the Dragon Boat Festival reaches visitors from throughout Colorado and is a perfect backdrop for showcasing one of northwest Denver’s greatest assets, Sloan’s Lake.
Between COVID-related lake closures and hate crimes that have plagued the Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities for the last several years, the re-emergence of the festival in 2022 was a true celebration of culture and community.
“We are the largest AANHPI celebration of the Rocky Mountain region,” said Sara Moore, executive director of Colorado Dragon Boat. “We had an estimated 170,000 attendees last year. It is a testament to how supportive Coloradans are to ensuring a safe space for culture and diversity.”
Importantly, an education and empowerment section of the marketplace helps raise awareness of hate and racism in the AANHPI communities and how people can become allies. To get a true feeling of the festival and the cultures that it celebrates, the opening ceremony starts at 9:45 a.m. on July 22.
Shaolin Hung Mei Kung Fu, the traditional 75-foot-long Chinese dragon, will parade throughout the south side of the park to the main band stage. The dragon is a spectacular explosion of color and glorious creativity that symbolizes chasing away negative energies and sending good luck, good fortune and a safe day of racing to all of the teams, vendors and attendees.
A storyteller will follow, presenting the history and culture behind dragon-boat racing followed by a Buddhist monk and congregational chanting that will offer a formal blessing for the event. The dragon and monks will then make a final procession to the shoreline, where they will hold a ceremonial purification and “eye dotting” ceremony.
“Dotting the eyes, nose and ears of the dragon boats awakens the boats’ ‘senses,’ sight, smell, hearing … and imbues the boats with the spirit of life to ensure a safe day of racing,” Moore said. “We end the ceremony watching the dragon twist and turn as it performs a spectacular, traditional Chinese dragon dance.”
One division of the Dragon Boat races feature colorful flag-catching, Taiwanese-style boats with 18 paddlers, one drummer and one flag catcher each. At the finish line, the flag catcher has to lean out and grab the flag to win the race.
A Hong Kong-style division features slimmer, sleeker boats that travel faster on the water with 20 paddlers. It is mesmerizing to watch them calibrate synchronically as they paddle for the win. Laurie Dunklee, a northwest Denver neighbor and former journalist for the North Denver Tribune, reflected on the origins of this annual event.
“The Dragon Boat is deeply embedded in China’s culture, with each boat having an ornately carved dragon’s head at the bow and a tail at the stern,” Dunklee said. “The paddles symbolically represent the claws. With its strength and power, the dragon rides the clouds in the sky and commands the wind, mist and rain.”
“The Dragon Boat Festival is a statutory holiday in China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, held around the summer solstice,” Dunklee continued. “Most celebrations involve eating zongzi (sticky rice treats wrapped in bamboo leaves), drinking realgar wine (yellow wine with realgar, a mineral often used as a pesticide and considered an antidote for poison), and racing dragon boats. Chinese folklore holds that the festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (c. 340-278 BC). Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the river. It is said that the local people, who admired him, raced out in their boats to try to save him.”
With culture as the backdrop and the mountains and lake as its frame, this free, two-day event celebrates everything beautiful about Colorado summers and the cultures in our midst.
For more information, visit cdbf.org. Additional volunteer opportunities are available for those interested in getting involved.