Boston’s annual Dragon Boat Festival took over the Charles River Sunday for its 40th anniversary, drawing over 30,000 people to Cambridge for a day filled with food, festivities, and fun.
Founded in 1979, the celebration is the first and oldest such festival in North America. It was originally conceived as a small neighborhood event — the brainchild of Boston Children’s Museum staff members Marcia Iwasaki, Nancy Sato, and Leslie Swartz who were all present at Sunday's events. Today, the festival is the largest Asian American cultural event in New England, according to current Boston Dragon Boat Festival President Gail Wang.
“Our aim is to connect Asian communities, to celebrate Asian culture in the Greater Boston area through food, performances, arts and crafts, and, of course, to promote dragon boat racing,” Wang said in an interview Tuesday.
Beginning at 8 a.m., hundreds crowded the John W. Weeks Footbridge to spectate lively dragon boat races. A record 76 teams of over 1500 paddlers from across the country, representing schools, museums, banks, and cancer survivors, paddled along the Charles River in colorful 39-foot-Hong Kong-style dragon boats (above). The Boston Dragon Boat Festival has grown significantly since its 1979 inaugural races when its first-ever long boats were borrowed from Boston public schools and decorated by local schools and artists, Wang said.
Spectators along the Charles River ate zongzi — traditional Chinese rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves — in between races (above). The food holds significance in the over 2000-year-long tradition of the ancient Chinese festival, as both the dish and festival memorialize Chinese poet and political leader Qu Yuan who lived from 340 to 278 B.C, according to the event's website.
The Cambridge event also showcased a variety of cultural performances from several Boston-area Asian organizations, including a traditional Chinese dance by the Needham-based Artisan Dance Academy.
Wah Lum Kung Fu and Tai Chi Academy students traveled to Cambridge from Malden, Mass. to perform a dragon dance and demonstrate martial arts (above). The group comprised students of all ages from preschool to high school.
As the festival’s frenzy continued throughout the almost 80-degree day, vendors at stands and in food trucks lined up along Memorial Drive to sell Asian snacks and drinks to hungry and parched festival attendees. Offerings included Satay chicken skewers and lo mein from Royal East Restaurant as well as boba milk tea from the Tea Station food truck (above).
For decades, the festival has attracted a diverse audience across all ages — from Harvard students to Tsinghua University Alumni dragon boat racers — for a weekend of cultural celebration and spirited competition, Wang said.
“Our event has always had a focus on family,” Wang said. “I think it’s really amazing this ancient Chinese tradition has so much life today and can motivate and encourage people of all different walks of life.”