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Spirits awakened at dragon boat opening ceremony

The 27th Canada Dry Victoria Dragon Boat Festival runs through Sunday
Fairway Market manager Robert Jay and Aurora Joe, 10, dot the eye of a dragon boat during ceremonies for the Victoria Dragon Boat Festival at Ship Point on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Six dragons awakened from their slumber and found themselves in Victoria’s Inner Harbour on Friday, just in time to take part in the 27th Canada Dry Victoria Dragon Boat Festival, which runs until Sunday.

Dragon boat racing traces its roots back to southern China, where it has been held for more than 2,000 years.

In Chinese mythology, a dragon boat has a spirit. Each boat typically features an ornately-carved dragon’s head for a prow and a tail at its stern. The paddles used to propel the boat through the water symbolizes its claws. The drum at the stern represents its heart.

But the spirit of the dragon boat slumbers in the mountains until it is awakened.

A dragon boat festival usually features an Awakening the Dragon ceremony, at which a priest or dignitary dots the protruding eye of the dragon, waking up the spirit of the boat. The crew also becomes instilled with the Spirit of the Dragon and the Goddess of the Sea.

To welcome the competitors and spectators Christine Sam, a member of the Songhees Nation, sang and offered prayers to the assembled crowd.

“I sang a song my grandmother, Virginia George, taught me,” said Sam, who is also one of the Lekwungen Traditional Dancers.

Traditionally, a tribe approaching the shores of another tribe would sing a Paddle Welcome song to show that they were approaching with peace.

“It was an honour to have been invited to sing and offer a prayer at today’s ceremony, said Sam, 28. “We appreciate their acknowledgement.”

Her grandmother had the honour of welcoming guests onto their traditional territory, an honour that now rests with Sam after her grandmother’s death in 2015.

The festival is expected to attract up to 80,000 visitors watching 33 teams, 15 of them women-only, compete on the water today. Each boat is crewed by 20 paddlers, a helmsman in the rear and a drummer at the bow. They will race against each other up and down the Inner Harbour, starting at 8:15 a.m. and continuing until 4:20 p.m.

Races will be suspended at various times to accommodate the arrival and departure of the Coho and Victoria Clipper ferries.

“I am so excited to be back in our first person-to-person event after our two-year hiatus because of COVID-19,” said Pei Mei Chia, a member of the Vic Vixens team.

Her team has been practising twice a week since April 1. The event has attracted teams from the Victoria Canoe and Kayak Club, Vancouver Island Paddlers, and from the rest of Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and the U.S.

Standards range from recreational to competitive. “But they all share the same social aspect of the sport,” said Chia, who has been a co-chair of the society hosting the event for the past two years. She first picked up a paddle in 2019. “You get to meet people from all over the world,” she said.

While the festival is centred around the action on the water, what sets it apart is the cultural celebration on land, with music and performances with an ethnic vibe.

“The event is an opportunity to showcase the various ethnic groups in the city, making this a true cultural festival,” said Tony Joe, a board member of the ­society that runs the event.

The event traces its roots to 1995, a year after Commonwealth Games spectators caught sight of a dragon boat plying the waters of the Inner Harbour for the first time.

Christina Yuen, an official with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, was one of the invited dignitaries at Friday’s opening ceremony.

“I still recall that first dragon boat brought to Victoria from Hong Kong,” said Yuen, who lives in Toronto. “That boat signified the strong ties enjoyed between our two cities.”

The local Chinese community was well represented, including Paul Chow, one of the founding board members of the festival, and 96-year-old Gordon Juy Kong Quan, who served in the Burma Campaign in the Second World War and is the last surviving member of his intelligence unit in British Columbia.

The races are free to watch, as are the family friendly performances and activities. Festivities take place at Ship Point in the Inner Harbour, until the closing ceremony at 5 p.m. on Sunday.

The B.C. Cancer Foundation is a benefiting charity of the event.

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