Asian Festival Bridges Cultures: Dragon Boat Race Kicks Off Annual Memorial Day Weekend Festival

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China’s ancient sport of Dragon Boat Racing is splashed with bright colors, it’s driven by a steady drum beat, energized by chanting and cheering, and it’s something that you just don’t see cutting through downtown every day.

The mechanics of the sport are pretty straightforward, and can be taught at a practice event, the day before the race. Working together in synchronization, however, is the real challenge. 20 people sign up on each team, to participate in this one-day activity, as part of Columbus, Ohio’s annual Asian Festival.

The festivities kick off with the lion dance, and then a loud horn blows, to signal the start of the first race. Kites blow in the breeze of late spring, and lanterns are scattered along the river. I stumbled upon the races while out on a bike ride, along the Scioto Mile, and thought, is that something I could do?

I have my doubts, since I struggle to work with a single partner in a 2-man canoe, on a quiet lake, with no spectators, no outward competition, and no prize, trophy or bragging rights on the line. My head spins, thinking of getting into the narrow boat with 19 other individuals, gripping the wooden paddle in both hands, and listening for the horn.

But there’s information available, at the race and online, for those considering putting together a team.

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For the most successful teams, who advance through the competition, race day can be a particularly long day! Spectators gather downtown, at Westbank Park, to watch the races and ceremonies from 9 am – 4 pm. Competitors are on site much earlier, with a 7 am check-in; hopefully team captains got the coffee pot ready the night before!

Those in it for the long haul take advantage of the food trucks, on site. As I walked along the river I breathed in the savory scents of Aloha Streatery (Hawaiian), Ninja Bowl (Japanese) and WF Foods (American). I paused, and took another, deep breath. Smells delicious, all fatty and fried and wonderful!

The event is sponsored by some big names, around Columbus and nationally. Locally, the Franklin Park Conservatory, the Greater Columbus Arts Council and the OSU Wexner Medical Center give funds to make the Asian Festival possible. There is also support from JP Morgan Chase, L Brands and Honda, which have headquarters, offices, data centers and manufacturing facilities in Central Ohio.

2018 Champions: (Did I mention bragging rights?)

1st – Honda III (Green Team)

2nd – Commercial Works

3rd – Honda I (Blue Team)

Team Captains take on the task of handling the paperwork involved in participating: Team Entry Guidelines, Entry Form, Team Roster, Waiver of Liability, Safety Procedures, and Cancellation Plan. Arrangements are made to rent boats and equipment.

Is it worth the effort, to put a team together?

In addition to boosting team spirit, and promoting a healthy lifestyle, many local businesses create teams, because participation contributes to team building that can be taken back into the workplace. Many groups rent team tents, where they laugh and retell stories of past dragon boat races, where they eat lunch together and rest between events, adding to the sense of camaraderie.

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Why rally around a dragon?

“The Dragon has a very symbolic meaning for the Chinese. A classic dragon has the head of an ox; a deer’s antlers; the mane of a horse; the body and scales of a snake; the claws of an eagle and the tail of a fish. With its strength and power the Dragon rides the clouds in the sky and commands the wind, mist and rain. The Dragon Boat is deeply embedded in China’s ‘Dragon’ culture. . .” (International Dragon Boat Federation website)

The Dragon Boat Races were added to the annual Asian Festival in 2010, but the festival itself, held over Memorial Day weekend, offers so much more. It promotes the importance of cultural diversity in building a vibrant, prosperous and healthy community. Hosted for more than 20 years, it is a free event, with free parking and a free shuttle from the parking lot, making it accessible to all.

The Dragon Boat Races are part of a growing list of downtown summer festivals, on the river, the Columbus Commons, Goodale Park, the Discovery District, and Short North. The Asian Featival itself takes place at Franklin Park Conservatory. It seems that every weekend brings a new opportunity to explore downtown!

The festival has received support from the state, city, corporate world, and local communities every year since its beginning in 1995. In a commercially motivated society it’s hard to remain a culturally themed festival, but the Asian Festival keeps its values at the forefront.

Asian Festival Statement of Values:

  • Showcasing our cultural heritage
  • Advocating the importance of lifelong learning and education
  • Providing a fun and entertaining experience
  • Nurturing community collaboration and strong relationships
  • Fostering a healthy lifestyle and quality of life
  • Serving with integrity

The Asian Festival, and the Dragon Boat Races in particular, bring together a diverse crowd. There is no requirement that race participants be of Asian heritage. The goal is to educate the public about this ancient tradition, and provide an opportunity for teams to share a grand experience. I enjoyed watching a family take in the excitement of the races, and noticed the bright eyes of a young daughter, sharing the moment with her father.

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Whether you’re looking for Asian food, games, & exhibits, a multi-cultural market place, or access to the career fair and health pavilion, you’ll find it at the Memorial Day Asian Festival. There’s a children’s area, and performances throughout the day, from martial arts to song, dance and storytelling.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Hungry Asian Youngstaz (HAY) is a performance group from Hilltop, Ohio that has a passion for break dance.
  • Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko combines dancing and karate forms with drumming, presenting an exciting blend of traditional and contemporary Okinawan music.
  • Master Sen Gao, a Chinese National Wushu athlete and judge, performs the Dragon Dance.

If you get a chance to go, you’re sure to enjoy! If not, plan for next year’s festival!

Join me on my next adventure!

~ Kat

Related Links:

Asian Festival: http://asian-festival.org/

Dragon Boat Race: https://asianfestivaldragonboat.org/

International Dragon Boat Federation: https://www.idbf.org/history

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