Kaohsiung Dragon Boat Festival

The fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar marks the start of the Dragon Boat Festival…

The noses of 10 dragon boats moored alongside each other under a bridge.
Dragons on standby. Photo: Zhen-Kang.

Taiwan’s three-day Dragon Boat Festival kicked off with a public holiday on Thursday 22 June.

I missed that first day, but saw plenty of races yesterday, followed by a tug-of-war this morning.

A sculpture of the word LOVE, alongside Love River in Kaohsiung.
Kaohsiung’s Dragon Boat Festival is held on Love River (愛河).

Some other cities host races at night, but Kaohsiung has a daylight schedule. This is good and bad, as the afternoon weather is beautiful but very hot:

Screenshot of the Taiwan Weather app, showing the conditions in Qianjin District, Kaohsiung, at 2:37pm on Friday 23 June 2023. It showed the weather was Clear and 32ºC, and feels like 36ºC.
32ºC (“Feels like 36º”) at 2:37pm.

Racing takes place on a wide stretch of the river close to Love Pier. One of the bridges affords a great view of the starting point:

Three dragon boats at the starting gate on Love River, Kaohsiung. It is a beautiful sunny day with calm water and a blue sky.
Three teams ready to go.

As each race begins, spectators yell out “jia you!” (加油), which means something like “come on!”, “you can do it!”, or “go for it!”

(Actually, it literally translates to “add oil”—which I learned you can also say when filling your scooter at the petrol station.)

Here’s the start of one of the races:


Each boat has a crew of 22:

  • 20 paddlers
  • 1 steerer at the back
  • 1 drummer at the front

Here are some more photos from the event:

The front of a Taiwanese dragon boat, showing a decorative dragon head and a crew member beating a drum.
The drummer—representing the dragon’s beating heart—leads paddlers’ timing and synchronization.
A steerer standing near the back of a dragon boat. The very end of the boat is decorated with a dragon tail.
The steerer stands at the back.
Two teams in a dragon boat race on Love River, Kaohsiung.
Teams represent universities, workplaces, fitness centers, and other organizations. There may have been (very roughly) 20 or 30 boats in total, with up to four in any given race.
Approximately 10 large dragon boats moored under a bridge.
Some boats—with much larger dragons—were on standy under the bridge. On the extreme right you can see one of the drums, wrapped in plastic.
The tails of approximately 10 dragon boats moored under a bridge.
The tails of the larger boats are all numbered.
A relaxed dragon boat crew paddling past spectators after a race.
Spectators clap and cheer for crews as they return from each race, regardless of who won.
People walking through a crowded outdoor market alongside Love River in Kaoshiung.
There was a food and craft market on the other side of the river…
Two lunch dishes on a street-side metal table, with metal chopsticks.
…But I joined a friend at a local restaurant instead. These delicious meals cost NT$100 (NZ$5) each.
A large synthetic tree trunk on a footpath, with a window cut in the front—though which the staff can serve customers.
Lunch was followed by “bubble tea puffs” from Sugoeat—a bakery that serves customers from inside a tree trunk.
Customers standing outside a take-away tea shop in Kaoshiung, Taiwan.
We also got iced tea, from a more conventional shop.

The next day, a tug-of-war

This morning I returned to Love River to watch the tug-of-war competition.

Two smaller boats—facing opposite directions—are connected with a rope. They try to pull the other team backwards to win:

Two teams competing in a dragon boat tug of war.
Teams paddle fiercely as the crowd yells “jia you!” These tug-of-war boats are smaller than the 22-person boats that raced yesterday. Each had an on-board crew of seven…
Person on a pontoon pulling a taut rope towards themselves.
…Plus one person pulling them from the pontoon.
Close-up of paddlers in a dragon boat tug-of-war competition in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Many of the paddlers are obscured by splashing water.
Sometimes a team wins in seconds; sometimes it takes a couple of minutes.
Amongst a crowd of spectators at the dragon boat tug-of-war competition, a man holds a flagpole with a large triangular flag comprising different patterns and Chinese characters.
Nearby, spectators carried flags that I hope to someday read.

People have raced dragon boats for over 2,000 years

There are various origin stories for Dragon Boat Festival, but the one I’ve consistently heard is of Qu Yuan, a famous Chinese poet. In despair at being banished from his hometown, he drowned himself in the Miluo River—on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month—in 278BCE.

Locals rowed boats out to save him; an action now commemorated by the festival. After failing to find him, they threw zongzi (sticky rice dumplings) into the river so fish would eat those instead of gnawing on the body.

Zongzi subsequently became an important part of festival culture.

Meanwhile, a Taiwan-specific festival ritual involves trying to balance an egg at this time of year. (In China, egg balancing is practised during Lunar New Year instead.) Success allegedly brings good luck for the year ahead.

This past week at Chinese class, we were given a minute to balance an egg upright on a table. I was unsuccessful. However, there was an upside: I received a frozen vegan dessert zongzi as consolation for my pending year of bad luck.