Where the Dragons Sleep
Dragons are often thought of as mystical creatures which guard castles and evildoers in western fables, but this is a far cry from the historical presence of dragons in Chinese folklore. Here, dragons are powerful and auspicious (lucky) creatures which have command over sources of water. They are the symbol of countless emperors and appear on dynastic flags throughout thousands of years of history. In modern times, the Chinese people more frequently consider themselves the descendants of dragons, which is a tribute to their appreciation of the mythical creature. And if you can imagine these descendants riding on the back of long, scaled, immortal creatures barreling through the rivers and open seas, then you are ready to be a spectator of one of China’s oldest traditional festivals: “Dragon Boat Festival ” or Duānwǔ Jié [端午节].
But our story of the Dragon Boat festival in Macau is not simply a tale of mythical creatures, but one of a Chinese court official named “Qū Yuán,” or “Wat Yuen” in Cantonese. His patriotic tale took place during the Warring States period (475-221 BC) and was cemented into history with his suicide. Devastated by corruption at that time, and the loss of his state’s capital, he protested by jumping into the Miluo river of Hunan province. A tribute to his eloquent poetry and love of country have been memorialized by this public holiday since the 1940s and is celebrated with Dragon Boat races every year.
Alive @ Van Nam Lake!
The 2011 Dragon Boat races were held on June 4th this year and were fascinating to watch as it was my first time. Since I had been in China since 2005, I was determined to make sure I witnessed this exciting race! The thrill of this event was enough to keep a permanent smile on my face in the sweltering hot summer sun. Teams of employees, managers, and tourists alike were lining themselves up for hours in preparation for a few minutes of intense rowing. The stadium seating was mostly covered up and kept the swarms of hungry fans from getting boiled by the sun. It was 10am, and when the fluffy clouds weren’t blocking the sun’s rays, you could count your sweat in cups rather than drops.
The steel staging used for the seating areas allowed the fans, who supported their corporate teams with matching colors, to be hoisted up several meters from the original rows of seats. At this height, we could see each lane of boats from a more arial viewpoint. Luckily, for those who couldn’t find a seat, there was large outdoor screen showing off the contest digitally. Macau’s local television station filmed all of the excitement, as the beat of a drum could be heard across this dragon infested lake. A TV announcer unloaded a constant stream of Cantonese commentary which sounded more like a typical Hong Kong equestrian race than anything else. Without a doubt, the dynamic relationship of “man plus beast” was equally present here, as the dragons swerved and winded their way across the lake.
Although this was a traditional holiday, you would be forgiven for being drawn towards the casinos and luxury shopping areas of Nam Van Lake. Within direct view of the spectator areas are the Wynn, Grand Lisboa, and MGM casinos, which certainly brings a time-machine experience to this classic sporting event. A short walk down the boardwalk leads you to a banking district offering Portuguese-inspired restaurants and high-end shops such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
In the opposite direction, you’ll find the spectacular Macau Tower, offering one of the tallest bungee-jumping platforms in the world, and facilities hosting numerous festivals and conventions year round. One of my favorite events at this venue is the International Food Festival, which celebrates the diversity of Macau through various ethnic dishes. Every November it coincides with the Grand Prix races which require the city streets to be blocked off for three to four days. Cars and motorcycles whip through the city streets like something out of a playstation game. It’s really an amazing experience in one of the most densely populated cities in the world!
Food for the Dragons
As the Duan Wu Jie tradition dictates, a ceremonial dish called zòngzi, or sticky rice dumpling, is prepared in homes around China. It contains meat chunks and egg yolks wrapped in bamboo leaves. Finally, a twisted vine tightly wraps this seasonal snack to make it ready for cooking. When the Zongzi are finished steaming, the result looks like a rectangular, dark green, jungle grenade! Except when you pull the cord on this treat you’ll be engulfed by the natural aroma of pork, eggs, and spices. Unlike other peculiarly-flavored Chinese holiday foods, such as Moon Cakes, this dish appeals more to an international palate. Plainly put, you’re more likely to enjoy this dish than politely spit it out! (Even if you don’t have local friends in Macau, you can still find Zongzi at local convenience stores like 7-11 or Family Mart.)
Where does the tradition of making Zongzi come from? According to legend, the local people went to the river in which Qu Yuan sealed his own fate and found fish approaching his body. In order to protect him from being consumed by marine life, the people threw Zongzi to distract and feed the fish. With them feasting on the sticky rice dumplings, his body could be safely and properly taken out of the river for burial.
All in all, a visit to Hong Kong or Guangdong Province wouldn’t be complete without a one-day excursion to this little outpost of Portuguese influence. Macau is certainly a dynamic, quaint Chinese peninsula with a great mix of past and present. It will always be a treasure chest of Chinese culture waiting to be discovered by guests like yourself.
And when you arrive and visit the old alleys and historic nooks, you’ll swear you saw a dragon slipping past you down a cobblestone street. You’ll see its tail go ‘round a corner and disappear again. But, don’t go chasing it very far. You won’t be able to catch it… but you won’t need to either, because you’ll already be face to face with the warm people of Macau; descendants of the dragon.
Ben Piscopo is the author of AsianLiving.me, a blog dedicated to unveiling the secrets of healthy Asian traditions. Teaching and living in Asia since 2004, he has a deep respect for ancient cultures and the traditions that can improve the lives of our generation. He also operates an online academy for ESL students and a community of experienced online teachers called EFET.info.
- Happy Dragon Boat Festival – Kunming, China (travelpod.com)
- Penang International Dragon Boat Festival Day 2 on Sunday 12.06.2011 (lspeng1951.wordpress.com)
- Linking the Dragon Boat Festival to Rice Cakes (ilookchina.net)