BY CK Lam
Penang has been playing host to many cultural and traditional events over the years, especially in the last decade with the boom of tourism in the island. However, one particular event has remained steadfast over the good part of the last half century in Penang – dragon boat racing. The state plays host to two key dragon boat racing events annually, which is the Penang International Dragon Boat Festival and the Penang Pesta Dragon Boat Race.
Well-trenched in the annals of Chinese history, the Penang Pesta Dragon Boat Race is held in early December each year at the beautifully scenic Teluk Bahang Dam. The first official dragon boat race in Penang actually dates back to 1956, and amazingly Penang is the first place in the entire globe to host an official dragon boat race outside of China! Over the years, the landscape of dragon boat racing has transformed tremendously and it is now an international event whereby teams from four corners of the world descend in Penang for the annual races.
This sport actually roots back to China over two millenniums ago, and remains a confounding Chinese legacy to this very day. To those who might not surmise the culture, the dragon possesses a symbolic meaning in Chinese culture with a classic dragon having a head of an oxen, antlers of a deer, mane of a horse, body scales of a snake, claws of a soaring eagle and tail of a fish. With all these elements, the dragon is a mythically powerful creature that can transcend all living dimensions.
Thus, in ancient China, the boats at sea were carved with a head of a dragon, subsequently giving birth to dragon boats. They were used primarily by those living in the fishery industry for religious purposes as a method of placating the rain gods. Legend has it that Qu Yuan, a famous poet and minister back in the day, committed suicide in the Miluo River as an act of protest against the political corruption in the government then. Ever since then, the people began the tradition of dragon boat racing to monumentalize his death and it has become an integral part of Chinese culture.
An overview of the physical build of a typical dragon boat is equally amazing, with each boat craved with a ferociously majestic dragon head at the bow and the dragon tail at the stern. To complete the design, the hull of the boat is painted with dragon scales and the paddles simply symbolize the claws. Normally, a dragon boat for competitions today will hold about approximately 20 peddlers plus a drummer in the front and a steersman at the back of the boat.
Fast forward to the 21st century, the Penang Pesta Dragon Boat Race is a colourful and bustling spectacle, enjoyed by the old and young alike. Audience that fills the surrounding of the Teluk Bahang Dam are treated to a vibrant race whereby dragon boats compete against each other over distances ranging from 200m to even two kilometres! The roars of the crowd urging and supporting their respective teams are just amazing even with the sun commonly shining bright through the day. Stamina is tested; endurance is pushed to the limit – the rowers peddling in an autonomous synchronization to the beat of the drums.
Nationalities that make up the composition of athletes competing in the recent editions for the Penang Pesta Dragon Boat Race are from China, Philippines, Brunei, Iran, Australia, Thailand and of course Malaysia. It is ironic that with this competition originally limited to local participants, the rules of participation has fortunately since changed with the inception of official competitions to cater for a worldwide appeal for the sport. Do mark out your calendars for this year’s edition of the Penang Pesta Dragon Boat Race 2016, with the dates earmarked at 10th and 11th December.
This infographic and image on the Penang Pesta Dragon Boat Race is courtesy of PARKROYAL Penang Resort. For more information do drop by https://www.parkroyalhotels.com/en/hotels-resorts/malaysia/penang-resort/stay/destination/penang-pesta-dragon-boat-race.html