This article is part of our Dragon Boat Festival Family Guide. Sign up for our newsletter to receive our best activity, recipe and craft ideas before every Chinese holiday.
A day at the San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival provides an effortless opportunity for families to share Chinese culture together. The traditions of the Dragon Boat Festival play out against a perfect backdrop of beautiful weather, exhilarating competition and fun activities among thousands of other spectators on the waterfront.
I recently chatted with Hans Wu, the San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival’s Race Director, seeking tips for parents bringing their kids to their first dragon boat races. It’s an especially exciting year for the festival, which celebrates its 20th anniversary at this year’s event on September 19 and 20.
The festival features two days of world-class dragon boat races, with 22-person teams steering colorful 40-foot boats along a 500 meter course. Dragon boating is very accessible and inclusive — teams span skill levels, ages and affiliations. You’ll spot youth groups, social clubs, corporate squads and the grand master teams powered by paddlers all over 50 years old.
Back on shore, the festival provides an endless array of fun cultural activities like live performances, crafts, martial arts and acrobatics. Sitting together on the waterfront is a great time to explain the holiday’s origins, along with the reasons for racing dragon boats and eating rice dumplings.
I remember my excitement when I first attended the San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival three years ago. It will be more meaningful, however, when I return this year with my 2 year old in tow for another fun day of races, food and entertainment.
I asked Hans about the festival’s growth over the years, what to watch for on the water, advice for parents bringing their children to the festival and much more:
This is the San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival’s 20th anniversary. In what ways has the festival changed and grown over the years?
The festival has certainly come a long way since its first year, reflecting the growth of dragon boating and awareness of the sport in the Bay Area over the years. The festival started out as a small one-day race with a few vendors and spectators and now it’s an annual destination event for the Bay Area community with over 120 dragon boat crews participating. The level of racing is world-class with teams from all over the United States, Canada and the rest of the world, and the festival has the reputation of being one of the largest and most competitive races in the country.
In addition to the dragon boat races, the California Dragon Boat Association has grown a great, family-friendly festival packed with cultural entertainment, food, rides and activities. The festival is free to the public and we provide free shuttles from several locations in San Francisco. We estimate that 40,000 to 50,000 people attend the festival during the course of the weekend.
How did you first get interested in dragon boat racing? What aspects would you highlight for newcomers to the sport?
I had a job that took me to Canada where I was working many, many hours. Some family friends said that I needed to get out from behind my desk and that I should try this sport called dragon boating. I quickly became hooked as dragon boating is so exciting with the great colors of the boats and teams, the sounds of the drummers and fans, and all the action that happens in 2-3 minutes, since the race is typically just 500 meters. With 22 people in each boat, dragon boating is inherently social — you work hard as a team on the water and then go eat and have fun afterward!
For newcomers, I would highlight that you can gain a basic level of proficiency relatively quickly but hardcore athletes can work on perfecting their technique for years. Second, because the boat has 22 people, it means you have to work together as a team. There is no single superstar on a dragon boat and the team that works best together is typically the team that succeeds. Dragon boating is a very positive, inclusive, accessible and fun activity.
What advice would you give parents who want to use the races to teach their kids about the Dragon Boat Festival’s cultural and historical significance?
Bring your kids out to the races! I think the fun, energy and uniqueness of the sport will provide a natural pathway to discussions about topics like the legend of Qu Yuan, the origins of dragon boating in China more than 2,000 years ago and the reasons for traditions like eating zongzi. Personally, I lean toward the sport and social aspects of dragon boating to hook folks on learning more about its origins in Asia and appreciating how its cultural, positive, inclusive, active, and team aspects perfectly embody the energy and values of the Bay Area.
What makes the San Francisco festival unique, relative to other races in the United States and around the world?
I think it’s our San Francisco location which, together with the festival’s fun reputation, brings a large number of visiting teams from outside of the Bay Area from all over the United States, Canada and the rest of the world, making the races more exciting! Also, our site at Treasure Island has allowed us to grow both the festival and the races where many festivals emphasize one or the other.
What’s your favorite dragon boat racing memory, either as a competitor or as an official of San Francisco’s festival?
Wow, I have many great memories from dragon boating which is why I still do it! Some of my favorites would be traveling to compete in races around the world, including China, Japan, Hong Kong and Canada, with 20-50 of my friends and making other friends in this great, positive dragon boat community. On the festival side of things, seeing the happiness of teams on and off the water during the weekend always makes all of the hard work so very worthwhile!
Thanks so much to Hans for this interview! To learn more, visit the San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival’s official site today.
Your turn! Have you made it out to the dragon boat races? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!
HT: Photos courtesy of the San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival.