Dragon Boat Racing Is New Asian Women's Tradition

The 2,300-year-old male-only Chinese sport of dragon boat racing has a distinctly feminist cast in its latest incarnation. Women rowers say the annual Boston race expresses not only athleticism, but also ethnic pride and Asian American feminism.

Kristina E. Kim

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)-Seated in the prow of a long, slender, dragon-headed boat with a drum between her knees, Kristina E. Kim uses a single wooden drum stick to pound a deep, steady beat to the strokes of her 16 rowing teammates-all of them Asian American feminists.

Kim, the captain of the Asian Sisters in Action, or ASIA, team, named for the same Boston-area feminist networking organization joined by all team members, knows it is her carefully timed drum beats that keep her teammates' strokes in sync.

With boats organized by the Asian Taskforce Against Domestic Violence and the Boston Women's Fund slicing through the water behind them, the ASIA team quickens its pace, turning individual rows into a single powerful motion as team members plunge their wooden oars into the Charles River.

Known for their activism and community work with various women's and Asian American organizations in Boston, for the moment, the women on the water share one common goal: to be the first team to pull their 39-foot boat across the finish line and claim the trophy for the women's division at Boston's 22nd Annual Dragon Boat Festival. The fastest paddle up to 80 strokes a minute, about 15 miles an hour.

“It's not about being the fastest, it's about being the most together team and being able to create a cohesive action on the water,” said Kim, 29, a graphics designer who started racing five years ago with ASIA. Her team took first place at this year's event in June.

There's Competition, but Also a Sense of Community and Sisterhood

Like feminists in other cities, Asian American feminists in the Boston area have worked in different groups, from city agencies to nonprofit and grassroots organizations, in order to fight against gender, race and class discrimination on multiple fronts. Issues include rights for lesbians of color, affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods, immigrants' rights and domestic violence.

ASIA, founded 20 years ago, is the oldest Boston-area organization dedicated to Asian American women's issues and is considered a center of political and social gravity for many feminists in New England. And Asian Sisters in Action members drew on their passion and determination to organize the first all-women's dragon boat team for the Boston Dragon Boat Festival.

“Even if there's a strong sense of competition, there's also a strong sense of community between the female teams. And there's certainly a sisterhood and familiarity,” Kim said.

Perhaps with good reason.

A 2,300-year-old Chinese sport traditionally practiced by exclusively male teams, dragon boat racing for women was introduced in the Charles River in the first Dragon Boat Festival in 1979.

Organized by three female staff members of The Children's Museum, one of them Caucasian and two Asian American, Boston's Dragon Boat Festival in its modern incarnation has always included female-only teams rowing in boats symbolizing dragons. In Chinese mythology, the dragon is the embodiment of strength, wisdom and power-and for women, the empowerment symbolism is clear.

Rowers Mostly Asian Americans, Plus African Americans, Latinas, Caucasians

This year, nearly 100 women of different races and ethnicities participated in the women's racing division. Most were Asian American but many others were African American, Latina or Caucasian.

Teams like the Dragon Divas and Rising Phoenix rowed over a 500-meter stretch of river, cheered by 30,000 spectators.

For many of the event's Asian American female competitors in particular, the festival has come to serve not only as an annual gathering point for women athletes, but also as an expression of ethnic pride and Asian American feminism.

“It's about showing our strength and building our strength because it breaks the stereotype of Asian women as weak or submissive or servile,” said 43-year-old Cheng Imm Tan, a rower with Rising Phoenix, the team organized by staff of the Asian Taskforce Against Domestic Violence. It took second place.

Tan also founded and leads a nontraditional all-women's Chinese lion dance troupe, Gund Kwok, which performed during the festival. She is director of the Boston Mayor's Office of New Bostonians, a city agency that helps design social service programs for the region's ethnic immigrant communities.

Despite All-Male Tradition, Women Also Can Own Dragon Boat Racing

“Even if dragon boating is a traditionally male sport, by having a women's division in racing, it gives us a sense that we can own it too,” she added.

Kim, reared in her Chinese American family in Minnesota, said the race is not just a sporting event for her.

“It's a tradition, and that appealed to me very much. It's about celebrating my own cultural heritage-and as I get older, that's becoming more important to me.”

According to Chinese legend, dragon boat festivals originated to commemorate the poet and statesman Qu Yuan, exiled from his homeland by Chu Dynasty ministers who refused to adopt the political reforms that he advocated. He also had predicted that China would be invaded if its rulers failed to embrace reform. His warnings were unheeded; China was invaded. Devastated, Qu leapt into the Mi Lo River in southern China in 278 B.C.

In a failed rescue attempt, local fishermen raced onto the river in boats, beating the water with their paddles and pounding drums.

Today's summer dragon boat races reenact that 2,279-year-old failed rescue of an honorable statesman.

Dragon boat racing is a growing sport. The Boston races attract seasoned rowers and more and more athletes are joining women's, men's and co-ed teams. Organizers of the Toronto Dragon Boat festival, North America's largest race with some 250,000 in attendance, say women's participation in recent years has increased by 15 to 20 percent a year. Three years ago it added a women's division for all-women teams.

Among the women who have made a determined effort to attract more female rowers is 37-year-old Carmen Chan, founder of Boston's five-year-old Dragon Divas rowing team.

Aiming to Give Underrepresented Groups the Chance to Join

“When I told my family I was organizing a women's dragon boat, they were just amazed. But there's a lot of pride, and they're very proud,” said Chan, the former director of the Asian Taskforce on Domestic Violence, now a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization working on affordable housing.

She still remembers her girlhood fascination with her grandfather's dragon boating around Hong Kong's islands. “It was just amazing. It really got me interested. ... After I got involved myself with rowing, I knew I wanted to see more women row because I had so much fun doing it.”

Broadening the opportunity for underrepresented groups to participate in community events was also part of the objective of the Boston festival's original founders.

“Every major ethnic community had its own festival in the city back then, but the Chinese festivals were still so separate,” said Nancy Sato, 48, a former multicultural specialist at The Children's Museum and a founding member of ASIA.

Speaking of her museum colleagues who established the festival, she continued, “We wanted to promote a better understanding of China and the Chinese community and to create a space where all people, and not just those of Chinese descent, could get together.”

Montreal's Two Abreast Team Composed of Breast Cancer Survivors

“Dragon boating makes you feel like you can celebrate your life. It's a very life-affirming activity,” said Robin Hornstein, 44, the captain of the Montreal-based Two Abreast team, whose members are all survivors of breast cancer.

Another member of the Montreal team, Pier-Pascale Boulanger, 29, spoke of the challenges faced by women athletes in training.

“There's something special about an all-women's team-because it's women who have to drop the kids off at school and then run to work, then pick up the kids, and drop them off at a sitter's before going to practice.”

A single mother who's also working for a graduate degree at Montreal University, Boulanger added, “Being able to do all that, that's the real sport.”

Anita Chan is a free-lance writer in Boston and a graduate student in MIT's Comparative Media Studies Program. She has written for the Village Voice, A. Magazine and The Newark Star-Ledger, covering ethnic-community and race-related news.

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Toronto Dragon Boat Festival: