Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Indigenous Boats as Propaganda (Dragon Boats in Rhode Island)

Funny how just about anything can be put to use to make a political point. Offshore drilling causes an environmental disaster, and one of America's most popular idiots, a proponent of offshore drilling, claims that it proves she was right all along. Another idiot consistently argues against civil rights in detail, then stands in front of the Great Emancipator's statue to make the point before an audience of bigots that they're all for civil rights in theory. Sigh.

(Click any image to enlarge it.)
And so it goes, alas, with indigenous boats. Last weekend I attended the 11th annual Rhode Island Chinese Dragon Boat Race and Taiwan Day Festival on the Seekonk River in Pawtucket. There were six identical dragon boats, donated to the event organizers by the government of Taiwan, a few major Taiwanese corporations, and a couple of Rhode Island companies.

A large booth sponsored by the Taiwan government introduced attendees to some elements of the country's culture and handed out literature, some of it explicitly political. Although I did not ask, it appeared that representatives of the People's Republic of China were neither invited nor welcome to participate. Indeed, there was a Falun Gong booth, which pretty much assured the PRC's non-participation should they have been otherwise inclined. It all seemed like the event was designed by Chinese expats in Rhode Island to promote the Taiwan government to the non-Chinese in attendance. Not that there's anything wrong with their motivations -- it's just demoralizing to see something so apparently noncontroversial as an ancient boat type being used for political purposes.
Underneath their colorful decorations, the dragon boats in Pawtucket looked somewhat industrial.

Okay, enough politics. The six identical boats are 50 feet tip to tip, 58" in beam, and weigh 1,500 pounds. They appeared to be made of fiberglass and, in spite of their lovely, colorful decoration, looked somewhat clunky and barge-like. They seat 20 paddlers plus a steerer, a drummer, and a "flag catcher." This latter individual is the foremost person in the boat, and his job is to grab a suspended flag at the finish line. Not only does this keep the steerers focused on going straight and not interfering with their competitors, but it also provides officials with a second visual cue in case of close finishes.

I was told by one racer that most race hosts in the U.S. provide identical boats and paddles for all teams. (He also said that some hosts have narrower, faster boats than I saw in Pawtucket). This is nice, as it makes it purely a skill competition among paddlers and takes technology and money out of the equation.

The race was a 300 meter sprint, straight, one-way. (One of the event organizers insisted that it was a mile, but with winning times of about 1 minute 45 seconds, I had to force myself into polite mode in order not to contradict him publicly.) Other dragon boat races in the U.S. may be as short as 250 meters or as long as 2 km.

Bow decoration...
...and stern.
Steering oars. Note also how close the seats are. The paddlers are packed in pretty tight, making good coordination and a good drummer essential.
Bracket ("fixed oarlock"?) for the steering oar on the starboard quarter. It appeared to be made of stainless steel.
Steering oars in place on the starboard quarter.
I enjoyed the variety of logos on the team "jerseys." These guys looked pretty serious...
...but these guys didn't.


  1. Good rant, Bob!
    I'm proud of you.


  2. Political Dragon's!!! everything seems political now!!! aarrgh!!

    I want a go in one anyway!!!! Any vids of the event? Who builds these boats?

  3. Hi Bob,
    I think I see what you are getting at, although one man's politics is another man's history. (And dragon boats are historic). Participation in the event by the People's Republic of China, bearing in mind the history and current situation between it and Taiwan, would surely have meant even more politics. Don't forget,that had it not been for the establishing of the PRC, Taiwan would not have existed as a separate state. It is probably a fair assumption that at least some of the expat chinese population of Rhode Island you are referring to moved from China to escape the activities of the politicians in the PRC. So, in the minds of those people, the history of their families, their country and their people are very important, still under threat to this day, and likely to influence what they say to the American public, who, I believe, need all the information they can get about the outside world. So perhaps, what you witnessed was a broader lesson in history, and if so hopefully other people who were there had the same experience. ie. a positive one.

    True, the history is very uncomfortable, but using the dragon boats as an interesting way to get some of it across seems legitimate. I wasn't at the event, so admittedly, can't really tell either way, but I simply hope that this comment helps improve poeple's understanding in a small way.

  4. Yeah amazing that an event sponsored by a governmental body would have any politics in evidence. Gasp.

  5. Doryman: Thanks.
    Helford River Expeditions: I don't know the builder and don't know if anyone took videos. You might try the major Rhode Island news channels for that, or search YouTube.
    Mindblame: Thanks for your intelligent perspective on this. I believe you're right about the history and the persisting connections of the event-sponsor expats, and about their sincere motivation here.

  6. The style of dragonboat in RI is similar (identical actually) to those used in Portland OR's annual Rose Festival Dragonboat Race. This particular design originates (was manufactured) in Taiwan and is most likely based on dragonboats appearing on Song Dynasty (so circa 1000 CE or 11th Century roughly) silk scroll paintings depicting the annual dragonboat race.

    It is not a "flag catcher" but rather a flag grabber, a common mistranslation from Taiwanese mandarin chinese in to (American) English. You catch a bus and catch a cold, but you grab a flag at the end of a Taiwanese style dragonboat race. Again, flags are depicted in the Song Dynasty paintings, in the absence of photo-finish camera technology. Judges merely had to determine which lane flag was pulled or grabbed first in order to determine a winner.

    The government of the Republic of China (aka Taiwan) routinely $pon$or$ cultural events featuring things Taiwanese as part of its overseas outreach to promote itself and commercial and economic interests abroad. So similar to Portland OR's Taiwan-donated boat races, Vancouver Canada has a "Taiwanese" cultural festival underwritten by the ROC. Dragonboat racing is part of the program there as well.