Dragon Boat Festival races to popularity in Atlanta

Updated: 2012-10-02 02:25

By Trevor Williams (chinadaily.com.cn)

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Hearing Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunigan's Southern drawl welcoming an ancient Chinese sport to his small Georgia community had a jarring effect.

At an event where orange-robed Buddhist monks mingled with college students and business types watched Cambodian dances from their corporate tents, it was a reminder that the cultural fusion embodied at the Atlanta Dragon Boat Festival is uncommon.

"I call it the best hands-on multicultural event in the region," said Gene Hanratty, a consultant with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in New York who helped start the event 17 years ago with 10 teams competing in borrowed boats.

Aside from those with Asian heritage, few Americans can point to the origins of the 2,500-year-old sport. For most, the story of a defiant Chinese poet throwing himself into the Miluo river to protest imperial corruption is likely as obscure as the legend of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree to the average Chinese.

But ignorance was no barrier for 7,000 people who gathered at north Georgia's Lake Lanier Sept 8, many driving from hours away to join one of 72 teams of up to 24 paddlers propelling colorful, dragon-headed boats across watery lanes nearly three football fields in length.

For Hanratty, the event coordinator, it's part promotion for Hong Kong, which remains the festival's perennial patron. But it's also about bringing the Asian community together while educating others about an ancient pastime with modern relevance across China and Southeast Asia.

"Dragonboating is to China what baseball is to America. It originated there and holds quite a bit of significance," Hanratty said.

Still, the event's success stems from even broader appeal.

Fortune 500 companies like Pepsico, Home Depot Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc. see it both as a marketing opportunity and a way to build camaraderie among their employees, said Jackson Chang, a key promoter of the festival.

"If you look at team building inside the company, it's more work-related. There's really no bonding to produce that productivity inside the office," said Chang, who grew up attending dragon-boat races in Taiwan. "You have to bond with the person sitting next to you and in front of you in order to paddle and make the boat go faster."

Qingdao, China-based Hisense Group, which has a distribution facility and research center in nearby Gwinnett County, upped its sponsorship this year after seeing value on both sides.

"This helps build our brand locally, shows our support of the community and is fun for our associates. It is more of a community-involvement and team-building benefit for us," said JoAnne Foist, who leads the company's marketing efforts in North America. The appliance and electronics manufacturer is looking to more than double television sales in the United States to $400 million by the end of 2013.

Other participants had even more serious motives. In a field of collegiate clubs, smaller companies and teams that race competitively around the world, some were paddling for their lives.

The Steel Magnolias team banded together in 2004, joining a flood of breast cancer survivors who began paddling in the 1990s to help a Canadian doctor prove that forbidding exercise after breast surgery wasn't medically warranted.

For 62-year-old Nancy Crawford, who has raced with breast-cancer teams in the Philippines, Turkey and New Zealand, dragon boating represents freedom, both from illness and the constraints that come even during recovery.

"You do have quality of life; you don't have to just sit around all the time. You can do whatever you want," said Crawford, who was recently released from her doctors and in October will celebrate 10 years since the surgery that removed her cancer.

For patients who weren't so fortunate, the Atlanta Dragon Boat Festival offered a ceremony of remembrance, with survivors tossing pink flowers in the water.

Only for their honor will Crawford look back on that dark chapter in her life. For the most part, she prefers the symbolism of paddling ahead.

"We look forward in life. We don't look back, because we have had our cancer and don't want to go back there again."

More information, including final standings and times: www.dragonboatatlanta.com.