Top 8 Dragon Boat Festivals in North America

By Christine Wei

This past Monday, Chinese communities from all over Asia gathered to cheer on their favorite teams at colorful dragon boat races in celebration of the Dragon Boat Festival. The holiday was born, as legend goes, when wrongly exiled court official and scholar Qu Yuan drowned himself to protest corruption and maintain his honor during a troubled political period in China. His friends rowed out to the river, warding off evil spirits with drums and distracting hungry fish with glutinous rice balls.

But today, you don’t have to be in Asia to marvel at the incredibly coordinated rowers racing to heart-pumping drum beats or to enjoy yummy zhong zi. We’ve gathered a list of some of the biggest and most popular dragon boat celebrations happening in North America this summer where you can join in on the festivities and get a taste of the East close to home.

  1. Vancouver, Canada (June 11 & 12)
    The Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boast Festival is exactly what one dreams of in a traditional cultural festival, where Taoist priests awaken the dragon spirit in a ritual to kick off the two-day affair. After securing bikes with a free lock, you can shop a marketplace of artisanal goods and snack on global bites. Big-screen enthusiasts will enjoy the new film program, which includes an inspiring story of a local, visually impaired team.
  2. Portland, Oregon (June 11 & 12)
    The Portland Rose Festival Dragon Boat Race is much more than the battle of authentic Taiwanese dragon boats. While you’re smack dab in the middle of Portland’s renowned Rose Festival, catch the Rose Show of 4,000 breathtaking blooms the day before the races. All weekend, you can get an up-close look at the elaborate parade floats marching on Saturday morning, then retreat to the beer garden to cool off.
  3. Boston, Massachusetts (June 12)
    What better way to experience New England’s summer weather than to watch 50 teams shooting down the Charles River? The Boston Dragon Boat Festival is a playground for crafts lovers, with participatory workshops like making zhong zi, folding Chinese origami paper into butterflies and boats, and decorating opera masks. Give the creative juices a break at a traditional lion dance, yo yo show, and cultural dances from all over Asia.
  4. Ottawa, Canada (June 17-19)
    Tim Horton’s Ottowa Dragon Boat Festival is a great budget solution for family fun. The lively children’s area is full of carnival favorites from magician acts to balloon sculptors, with a reptile showcase for the brave-hearted. For the grown ups, a beer garden makes performances from stars like Steve Page, former Barenaked Ladies band member, all the more enjoyable. We especially love the green initiatives like the recycling program, water bottle stations, and bike parking.
  5. Toronto, Canada (June 25-26)
    Distinct from other Asian-centric festivals, the Toronto International Dragon Boat Festival will highlight Latin American and Caribbean ethnic backgrounds in its food, crafts, workshops, and performances this year. For sights, the ferry ride to Centre Island itself offers great views of Toronto’s skyscrapers. We love a good cause, and this year’s 180+ teams are gathering pledges to fund medical research and to send children with diabetes to summer camp.
  6. Denver, Colorado (July 30 & 31)
    There’s no arguing that Denver takes its racing seriously. The Colorado Dragon Boat Festival launches with a 75-foot dragon dance and a team parade in ethnic costume. Following the kick off, the festival features both lightning-speed races on Hong Kong boats and flag-catching races on Taiwanese boats. If the competition gets your pulse racing, work it off at a martial arts demonstration or calm down at a meditation.
  7. Queens, New York (August 13 & 14)
    Think a sporting event would be hard to find around NYC? Think again. The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York boasted over 170 teams last year. Located in Flushing, a neighborhood known for its Asian cuisine, the festival has served up traditional fare like dumplings, shaved ice, and bubble tea. If you’re lucky, you can snatch up some food freebies to enjoy while watching traditional dances and crafts demonstrations.
  8. San Francisco, California (Sept. 17 & 18)
    The San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival almost seems like a full-blown carnival–only free. Keep the kids and your wallet happy while making chopstick dragons, riding the choo choo train, or going rock climbing. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for Kara’s Cupcakes, a cult favorite for sweet-tooths, as you catch acts like the acrobat show, ribbon and fan dance, and wu shu performance.

These are only a handful of the celebrations happening this summer. Many others are held at fun locations like Banff National Park in Canada and Disney World in Florida. To see a more comprehensive list, check out http://dragonboatnews.com/news.html.

Know another can’t-miss dragon boat festival? Tell us in the comments section below.

Christine Wei is a freelance writer who grew up in Taipei, Taiwan and spent her formative years drinking boba milk tea right from the source. When she’s not suffering bouts of wanderlust or breathing in more calories than she should, she also edits Mochi Magazine, an online publication for Asian American girls. She loves good food, good company, and happy endings.

Photos: Above, Brian Yen/My Shot; Below, Rakesh Chandode/My Shot