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Annual Boston Dragon Boat Festival This Weekend

Races, crafts, food, live performances along the Charles River

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This weekend the Charles River will be filled with dozens of elegant dragon boats for the 38th Annual Boston Dragon Boat Festival. The two-day event, which commemorates the death of the revered Chinese poet and patriot Qu Yuan (ca. 340–278 B.C.), began as a small neighborhood effort and is now the area’s largest festival of its kind, drawing more than 20,000 participants and spectators each year. The festival’s goal is fostering friendly competition and celebrating the region’s multicultural heritage. Admission is free and open to the public.

On Saturday, viewers can watch the time trials races and on Sunday the race. While the races are going on, there will be various cultural performances, Asian-fusion fare, and a chance to try your hand at some traditional Chinese arts and crafts.

Dragon Boat Festivals are celebrated around the world on the fifth day of the fifth moon on the lunar calendar (typically late May to mid-June). The tradition is believed to have begun more than 2,000 years ago when Yuan drowned himself in the Milou River as an act of political protest. According to legend, passers-by paddled their boats out to try to save him, but realizing they were too late, vowed to commemorate his spirit by racing on the river each year. Today, Dragon Boat Festivals, held in hundreds of cities around the world, preserve the tradition. In 1979, Boston became the first North American city to host a Dragon Boat Festival, and today the festival is the largest Asian-American cultural event in New England.

The eponymous dragon boats—long, narrow vessels decorated like dragons—are guided by a drummer who sits at the front of the boat so the paddlers can synchronize their movements to the drum’s beat. This year, 71 teams are scheduled to participate, including two from Boston University. Each boat is allowed a maximum of 20 paddlers to row the 500-meter course. Teams are seeded on Saturday, with time trials, beginning at the MIT Pierce Boathouse, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., and compete on Sunday, beginning at the Weeks Footbridge, near Harvard University, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Find a map of the race course here.

The Cambridge side of the river will see a number of festivities Sunday: performances by dancers from the Cambridge Center for Chinese Culture, yo-yo shows and traditional Chinese music courtesy of the Greater Boston Chinese Cultural Association, and a special performance by Boston-based Yazhi Guo, widely considered to be the best suona (a wooden reed instrument) player in Asia.

Between performances, festival-goers can take in arts and crafts, tai chi, opera, and lion dance workshops and demonstrations. Previous years’ activities have included Chinese watercolor painting and calligraphy demonstrations, face painting, and a chopstick challenge, where players race the clock to see how many marbles they can pick up with chopsticks in 30 seconds. Food vendors like Bon Me, Eggroll Cafe, and Tea Station will sell Asian cuisine.

The Dragon Boat Festival is tomorrow, Saturday, June 10, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Sunday, June 11, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., on the banks of the Charles River. Time trials will be held Saturday and the competition and festival Sunday, on the river’s Cambridge side. Admission is free, no tickets necessary. Find a complete schedule of events here and directions and a race map here.

Liz Vanderau can be reached at vanderau@bu.edu.

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