Did you know that this city is the reigning champion of the world? Machong Everbright Dragon Boat Club took the honors in Ravenna, Italy at last year’s international championships. But now the tradition is fading from its golden era.
Boat maker Feng Huainü, 85, has reason to be blue. Before 2013, Feng produced ten or more boats a year before the traditional festival for Chinese Dragon Boats with thanks going to each town needing a lean rowing machine for the annual races, but that figure last year was zero. This year business picked up a bit. He made six, far from satisfying Feng. “The business in recent years has gone downhill”, he said.
The tradition of dragon boat racing in the festival has reportedly lasted for 300 years. The events usually last for one month, which is called “The Dragon Month,” starting from the boat racing in Wanjiang and ending in those in Machong, coupled by various food carnivals and shows.
However, last year, the races, the star festival attraction, were cancelled in many of Dongguan’s towns as an official festival celebration. Just weeks before the festival dates, June 20 to 22, there was no word to whether or not 2015 will be the same, but that doesn’t stop the sentiments from rising.
A Wanjiang Propoganda Office official, would only say that “it’s probable” that the races will be cancelled again. In 2013, this district by the East River manned 26 teams, one each from its 26 villages, to compete in a 1,000-meter race, while crowds of proud villagers cheered them on. Xiaoxiang Village withstood rival villages through qualifying heats, semi-finals and finals to take the championship.
In 2014, the races were replaced by boat shows, as dragon boats floated along the rivers for spectators, inspecting them at six stops where the dragon boats and the rowers were welcomed with firecrackers and food.
By the end of May, many towns, including Machong, Hongmei and Shatian, said arrangements had not been made and that they didn’t know exactly when that would change, saying only that it would not be very different from last years’ events. Machong said there would still be some races, but they are being organized by the Chamber of Commerce instead of the local governments.
Another official speaking, again on condition of anonymity, explained that the cancellations were due to high expenses from the races, saying that preparing the month before the races costs RMB 300,000. There are 70 paddlers per boat and the cost includes their wages, uniforms and meals.
The boats built for racing are used only once, meaning the villages and towns must buy a new one each year to compete. What’s more, the villages rent a motor boat as escort, an additional RMB 1,000 per day. And since the cancellations, villages haven’t needed to drill, another savings.
Following Beijing’s new leadership and its Anti-corruption Movement, it’s not unusual to see local governments following trends set by National policy, which has led to the cutting of budgets for local festivals.
Most directly affected are the builders of the boats and artisans that carve the customary dragon heads. “There are few new boats these years, so there is little business,” said Chen Zhijian, a dragon head maker with most of his business in Zhongtang Town. Last year when the races were cancelled, he made ten heads, which is a huge decline from the more than 40 carved in 2013. “In 2013 every village in Wanjiang held competitions, bringing business of more than 20 dragon heads just from Wanjiang,” Chen said. He could earn RMB 1,000 from one dragon head, equaling a loss of over 30,000.
“The changes affect me a lot,” complained dragon boat builder Feng Huainü, who was commissioned by only Shatian, Zhongtang and downtown Dongguan this year. He says he misses the peak times of two decades ago.
Chen Zhijian said that people have chosen fiber instead of wood to build the boats, which can reduce the cost as much as RMB 10,000.
Average Dongguaners, speaking of the changes, miss the festive atmosphere brought by the races. Mr. Chen, a local man in his 20’s, said that the cancellation would dampen the spirit of the festival and that he hoped to continue watching the races in the future.
Mrs. Zhu, a 37-year-old women living in Nancheng, understands the reasons for the cancellations. “The cost is huge because of the training and the towns have to give bonuses to the athletes if they win the races,” Zhu said. On the other hand, she worries that the tradition may gradually fade away. “The boat shows are nice, but they are not as attractive as the races, and might cause a decline in public interest.”
Feng has been building the floating exhibits of Dongguan heritage for 70 years, but he can still picture in his mind a time when the dragon boat races were in a golden era. “Business was the best 20 years ago,” he said, “when most of the towns including Shilong, Zhongtang, Machong and downtown held dragon boat races.”
But as technology developed, the production process became less labor intensive. “When I was young it was really painstaking to build the boats with just your hands and some simple tools, now we don’t need an axe to chop the wood, the electric tools are very helpful,” Feng said as he watched his grandchildren building the boats.
Average Dongguaners, speaking of the changes, miss the festive atmosphere brought by the races.
As the local media reports, a builder named Mr. Huo explained that changes in materials took place over three different periods. Before 1912, people mainly use exported wood from Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. From 1912 to the late 1990s, pine was used, which reduced the weight. In recent years they’ve used an even lighter cedar, which allows higher speeds.
Dongguan local scholar Yang Baolin said, “Dragon boat racing gained popularity before the Tang Dynasty.” As he explained, the anecdotes of dragon boat racing and eating zongzi (sticky rice and pork filled reed leaves or bamboo leaves) were put down in the County Annals of Dongguan (Dongguan Xian Zhi), which was written about 400 years ago. The traditions of racing have greatly developed after the opening up period and cultivated the business of dragon boat rice and dragon boat making in the city.
Last year, the dragon boat racing in Wangjiang was listed on China’s list of Non-material Cultural Heritages. Hopefully that won’t be its highest accolades for the future of this proud local festival.