Forgotten Icon: The Disappearing Art of Dragon Boat Building

Danish author Isak Dinesen once said that the cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea. The Dragon Boat Festival manages to combine all three.

This is one of Hong Kong’s top festivals – and it’s easy to understand why. Drums that once beat to keep demons away now keep taut dragon boat racing muscles in line. Rice dumplings were once thrown into the water to keep fish away and stop them devouring the drowned body of beloved poet Qū Yuán (278 BC); today, they are enjoyed with dark soy sauce and sugar. Hong Kong has managed to blend traditional Chinese history with modern competitiveness and a pinch of colonial influence to make the Dragon Boat Festival something unique.

Dragon Boat fever grips the city at the beginning of June. Races proliferate around Hong Kong’s beaches and harbours. Cultural pride, honour and team spirit are driven into the South China Sea as each athlete plunges their paddle in perfect harmony. Drummers build up the crowd’s excitement as sweat, tears and sea come together to propel the dragons forward.

With athletes on the front line, it’s easy to forget the people behind the dragons themselves, where Hong Kong’s history as an important harbour played just as much a role in building the dragon boat into the recognisable model we see today.

“No dragon boat was ever identical,” says Chan Ki, the owner of Sun Hing Shipyard. “The sifu (master) would imbue each boat with his own special skills. A little improvement here, a little change there.”

As a twelve-year-old working in his father’s Shau Kei Wan shipyard in the 1950s, Chan remembers craftsmen building dragon boats for the Stanley races. There were 12-foot-long teak planks stacked high, heavy and thick. Wood carvings and dust filled the salty air, while tung oil sat in barrels, waiting to coat the wood.

As with fishing boats, dragon boats were made from teak, which is adept at handling moisture. Dragon boats stay out of the water for most of the year, and they shrink slightly on dry land. But when they are plunged back into the sea, the joints swell up, which strengthens the boat and closes any gaps.

“Building a dragon boat always involves a big division of labour,” says Chan. Different craftsmen would work on various parts. Wooden furniture makers carved the dragon’s head and tail. Ship builders worked on the body. Every part of the boat is designed with purpose. The keel in the centre forms the dragon’s back. The belly is W-shaped to suction onto the water and stabilise the boat. The iron wood stiffener is tied together with rattan ropes to keep the dragon ready to race.  

dragon boat master

Chan Ki shows the different types of wooden planks used in ship reparation

Traditionally, boat making in Hong Kong was limited to fishing boats. The expertise of fishermen and villagers was a more rudimentary form of woodwork. When the British arrived and set up huge dockyards to build and maintain their ships, they brought Western shipbuilding techniques with them. “My father would hire those workers from the Western docks to work on the dragon boats as their skills were more refined,” says Chan.

Every dragon boat comes to life with the keel in the centre forming the dragon’s back. The belly is W-shaped to suction onto the water and stabilise the boat; the iron wood stiffener is tied together with rattan ropes to keep the dragon ready to take flight.

Chan’s father specialised in medium-sized boats of about 38 feet, whereas large dragon boats such as those used in the Aberdeen Dragon Boat Race can measure up to 90 feet and carry 48 paddlers.

dragon boat

Every dragon boat comes to life with the keel in the centre forming the dragon’s back

Most traditional wooden dragon boats are placed into the water two to three weeks before racing commences. In Aberdeen, athletes intensively train in medium-sized dragon boats in the months leading up to the Tuen Ng Festival, then several teams combine to race in one long dragon boat on the actual day.

Nowadays, it is almost impossible to find new wooden dragon boats made in Hong Kong. With the decline of local fisheries and the ever increasing price of raw materials and manual labour, most of the dragon boats now used in Hong Kong are built in the Panyu district of Guangzhou.

Chan knew that to survive in this business, he needed to diversify. He worked at his father’s shipyard until he was 24 years old, studying English and completing high school in the afternoon. When a company called Supercraft bought his father’s shipyard he went to work for them. “They were British and specialised in private yacht building,” he says. “I was the store keeper there, which meant I had to learn about every single component of a ship; I was aware of every detail.”

A craftsman taking a break at the workshop

Chan is now an expert in leisure yacht maintenance. He and his family are examples of how Hong Kong’s shipbuilders have had to reinvent themselves over time. “My two sons work in yacht sales now, following in our ship building footsteps in a different way,” he says. But ship building itself is dying out. “The high cost of wood” — up to HK$3000 HKD for a single 12-foot plank — “and labour means that even the classic junk boats that everyone enjoys on the weekends are no longer being built. The ones you see now are the last generation,” says Chan.

So as we watch athletes battle it out on the big day, remember the ancestry behind the curve of the dragon’s back. It is just as much a part of the city’s heritage as its legends and myths.

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A traditional Dragon Boat for all to see in Ap Lei Chau

Please note the following section was published in 2018. Dates and times are no longer accurate.

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Known officially as Tuen Ng, this year’s Dragon Boat Festival falls on June 18. Here are some of our favourite celebrations from around the city.

Tai O Dragon Boat Water Parade
30 May 2018, 8:00-14:00
Tai O , Lantau Island

In villages like Tai O on Lantau, traditional Tuen Ng festivities still have a ritualistic significance. The Tai O dragon boats sleep in a shed next to the Yeung Hau Temple, which is dedicated to Hau Wong, a god associated with the sea. Each year the eyes are painted onto the dragon heads, bringing them to life and transforming them into actual dragons. The statue of the god is taken out of the temple during the festival and is placed on a boat that is pulled along by a dragon boat as part of the village’s dragon boat parade. The gods from the three other temples in Tai O are also taken on the parade, which has been a local custom for over a century. Rather than race, the boats of the four fishermen’s associations parade around to ask the gods to bestow good fortune, favourable weather and safety at sea.

To get there, take the MTR to Tung Chung Station exit B, then take New Lantao Bus number 11 to Tai O; or take a ferry from Central Pier 6 to Mui Wo, then take New Lantao Bus number 1 to Tai O.

Hong Kong Dragon Boat Carnival & Beer Fest
22-24 June 2018, all day
Central Harbourfront

With food trucks serving local street food favourites and international fare, a beer fest, game booths and live music, this party is definitely not only about the dragon boats. Sponsored by Hong Kong Tourism Board and the Hong Kong China Dragon Boat Association, this international CCB Asia race spans the distance between Central Pier 10 and Citic Tower. Thousands participate in three days of intense racing which you can watch from both sides of the harbour. With Hong Kong’s famous skyline in the background and dragon boats drums pounding into the waves of the harbour, that cold beer will taste extra good.

To get there, take the MTR to Admiralty, Central or Hong Kong stations and follow signs to the waterfront.

Aberdeen Dragon Boat Race
18 June 2018, 8:00-18:00
Aberdeen Promenade

The Aberdeen dragon boat race is one of the oldest in Hong Kong, spanning over a century since local fishermen started the tradition. Aberdeen is known for having the longest dragon boats for racing, with 50 paddlers per boat. The flag ceremony to bless the boats and the athletes’ safety as well as the water splashing camaraderie is a special sight. If you want to watch from the bamboo scaffolding seats, you can book an admission ticket with the Aberdeen Dragon Boat Race Association.  

To get there, take the MTR to Ap Lei Chau station and take the frequent ferry across the harbour to Aberdeen.

Sha Tin Dragon Boat Race
18 June 2018, 8:00-13:00
Along the Shing Mung River, Sha Tin

Sha Tin now hosts one of the biggest races in the city. Sponsored by the Sha Tin Sports Association, participants spend the morning charging down the Shing Mun River between Banyan Bridge and Sha Yin Bridge, leaving you the entire afternoon to explore the cycle tracks, temples, museums and other sites nearby.

To get there, take the MTR to Sha Tin station and follow signs to the riverfront.

International Dragon Boat Championships in Stanley
18 June 2018, 8:00-17:00
Stanley Main Beach

The Stanley Dragon Boat Association and Sun Life sponsors one of the most prominent dragon boat races in the world. About 200 local and international teams fight to win in this relatively short race of 270m. The high intensity racing draws crowds of over 30,000 spectators, ensuring a party atmosphere on Stanley’s beaches.

To get there, take buses 6, 6A, 6X or 260 from the Exchange Square bus terminus, or bus 973 from Silvercord in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Lamma International Dragon Boat Races
13 May 2018, 9:00-18:00
Tai Wan To Beach, Lamma Island.

Now celebrating its 11th anniversary, the Lamma 500 International Dragon Boat Festival is one of the most challenging and competitive races because of its deep, fast-water course, set against the stunning tropical backdrop of one of the city’s highest peaks, Mount Stenhouse. A beachside party follows the action.

To get there, take a ferry to Yung Shue Wan from Central Pier 4. The walk to the beach from the pier takes around 20 minutes.

dragon boat master

The golden pearl of the Sea Dragon

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