Putrajaya and Malaysia now on the world map for dragon boat racing.
Dragon boat festivals originate from China, and major dragon boat festivals around the world are loud-with-drumbeats events, with a lot of revelry and of course, huge 42-feet long boats painted and designed to look like dragons effortlessly gliding across the water. Usually held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, these festivals also go hand in hand with other Chinese festivals like the Chinese dumpling or “bak chang” festival.
But, despite its Chinese roots, dragon boat paddling has become a water-based sport, gaining popularity in even Western countries like New Zealand, Britain and more, with each having its own dragon boat association.
There is an estimated 50 million dragon boaters around the world, and top international racing teams can be from China or Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, to countries as far flung as Australia, United States or the Czech Republic.
According to Lee Shih, a full-time lawyer who also coaches and competes in dragon boat races with his team, KL Barbarians, dragon boat racing is the world’s fastest growing water sport.
Interestingly, the sport which is governed by the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF), wanted to maintain the cultural aspects of dragon boat racing, and makes it compulsory for each boat to have drummers during competitive racing.
“The drumming is a distinct feature about this sport, but it’s more symbolic than anything,” explained Lee Shih.
There are many versions of the legend, but the one most often told is of a minister and poet who drowns himself out of despair for his country. Villagers who admired him ran out and tried to scare fishes from eating his corpse by thrashing about in the river with their paddles and through the beating of drums. This is represented today by the drum beating activity during dragon boat festivals.
Why so popular?
“Dragon boat racing is a simple activity that teaches a lot of people about the importance of team work,” said Lee Shih
That’s probably the reason why it is the fastest growing water sport, taking over other popular ones like water skiing, wake boarding, canoeing or kayaking.
“I don’t see these sports being as popular as dragon boating yet, in Malaysia, because of the fact it is a team sport that requires a minimum of 10 people.
According to Lee Shih, from what he has seen in Malaysia and other countries, the fastest segment taking the sport up is the corporate sector.
Team work and working together are values that both the corporate sector and dragon boat racing have in common.
“The most important thing is that it is a true team sport that doesn’t require any experience. There is no space for any single individual to shine. It’s only the team that matters because the whole basis of dragon boat racing is having 10 to 20 people, pulling their paddles at the same time, and at the exact same angle,” said Lee Shih, who also added that the moment he always looks back on, is when his boat crosses the finish line.
“I can turn to my teammates’ faces around me, and we know we have paddled that one perfect race!” he reminisced.
Dragon boating as a lifestyle
For Lee Shih and his team mates, ranging from mid-20s to even early 40s, dragon boating has become a way of life.
“It has become a lifestyle because it takes up my whole weekends, and lunches and outings are filled with discussions revolving around it,” he said.
As if that isn’t enough already, even on weekdays, he and his team mates would be in a park somewhere in KL to do physical conditioning.
What is it that drives this kind of dedication and commitment for the past 10 years for Lee Shih?
He explained, “What makes me keep coming back, not just as a paddler but also coach and mentor, is that all of our hundreds of hours together will be pretty much distilled into a minute’s worth of racing in a competition.”
As a result, his dragon boat racing team, KL Barbarians, has been growing from strength to strength, consistently securing medals and first place positions even at international races. They are currently in training for another international race in Boracay, Philippines, this coming April.
“The amazing thing I find is that we are able to draw so many people from different backgrounds, professions, different working hours, and have a common ground in dragon boating,” Lee Shih observed.
Dragon boating in Malaysia
Anyone can dragon boat, although it may not be easy to start, because of the big and heavy equipment needed, not to mention the large body of water to dragon boat on.
Lee Shih said, “Unfortunately, Malaysians don’t know about the world-class facilities we have here.”
That is about to slowly change, however.
An international dragon boat race organised by the Malaysia Dragon Boat Association was held in Putrajaya last year. With several teams from all over the world coming to Malaysia to compete, the event served to really put Putrajaya and Malaysia on the world map for dragon boat racing.
The icing on the cake, however, was the comment by top IDBF officials officiating the event that Putrajaya has world-class facilities to host dragon boat events, and even other water-based sports.