ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s an ancient Chinese tradition dating back more than 2,000 years.
The dragon boat festival is believed to have originated to honor the life and death of Chinese scholar and poet Qu Yuan. He is believed to have drowned himself in the Miluo River after he was exiled by the king in 278 B.C. Those who loved and admired him took their boats out on the water and searched for him but were unsuccessful.
Now centuries later, that search and attempted rescue of Yuan has turned into the popular dragon boat festivals held around the world. The date of the festival varies each year. It is held on the fifth day of the fifth month, according to the Chinese lunar calendar.
These days when the dragon boats take to the water, it isn’t about looking back but moving forward and discovering how this ancient craft reminds us about how much we all have in common.
Asian Americans make up a growing population in Central Florida. In fact, Asian Americans make up about 6% of Orange County’s population. So, it makes sense dragon boats as a recreational sport is also taking off.
Most Saturday mornings at Lake Fairview Park, you can find members of team C.H.A.R.G.E on the water of Lake Fairview practicing for dragon boat races.
The team is organized by the Chinese American association of Central Florida. For 10 years now they have been rowing and growing. Right now, there are more than 100 members who make up seven teams.
Kevin Chu and his parents are part of team C.H.A.R.G.E and he says it’s more than a fun family activity. He says it’s also a rigorous workout that teaches life skills.
“Teamwork and leadership as well, because like, as a leader of boat they, you know, each time we rotate, taking the lead, action, you know, we make sure we all in sync, follow each other through, make sure we don’t like fall behind, you know, we keep us all in one big team,” Chu explained.
But you don’t have to be Chinese or of Asian descent to be a part of the team. But there is one big requirement, according to C.H.A.R.G.E team member Shally Wong.
“You have to like people. You know, it is tight on the boat. So that is the only qualification to be, you know on the dragon boat. You have to like people,” she said.
Wong says dragon boats have long been a symbol of community in China. And it’s that sense of community the organization hopes will ripple across Central Florida as the population grows.
Wong says dragon boats are a great way to educate people about her culture. A lesson more important now than ever because of the recent hate crimes committed against people in the Asian community.
“I have been asked this many times lately the past month,” Wong said when asked why she things people in the community have been targeted.
She went on to explain how she believes when we are born, we all care for and like one another.
“You are taught for that so I will say, learn something new. If you just don’t understand. I think it’s just because all the hate is actually from ignorance,” she said of the recent hate. “So, if we have opportunities for you to learn more, get, you know, get with your Asian friend, talk about it.”
Dragon boats are a microcosm of society. Wong says it takes everyone to make it work. That was evident on our visit one recent Saturday morning as the team was out on the lake practicing.
“You will see people of all walks here,” Wong said. “We’ve got a teacher there, we have physician there, we have IT manager there…and we don’t care.”
Wong also said, “It’s not about one. It’s not about yourself. It’s about the team. We have one mission only, going forward.”
In other words, we are all in the same boat and the only way to move forward is by rowing together in the same direction. She says once people understand how to take the dragon boat mentality on land, healing and understanding can begin.
“Once you understand each other, the hate won’t make sense. We are one human race after all,” Wong said.
Dragon boats have also been used by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to build a bond between kids and police officers in the community. The Dueling Dragons of Orlando is a partnership between teens and officers from the Orlando Police Department.
It’s a way for kids to learn teamwork and it builds trust in the police officers who serve their communities. Dueling Dragons recently celebrated 10 years of law enforcement officers teaming up with kids to race dragon boats.
To celebrate a decade of teamwork, artist Steve Nedley, was commissioned to paint a mural in the Mills 50 neighborhood. The mural sits on the side of PopThai restaurant on the corner of Mills Avenue and Montana Street.
Sheriff John Mina and others from OPD were out to put some finishing touches on the mural. It’s a reminder about teamwork and helping your community.
Wong says she hopes more people will take the time to learn about the art of dragon boats and use it as an opportunity to ask questions.