Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival

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The Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival or Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival takes place every June on the waters and shoreside of False Creek in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It is among the oldest and largest dragon boat festivals held outside Asia, having its roots in 1986 at the Expo 86 world fair, and is one of the few outside Asia that holds a festival during the traditional time, around the period of the summer solstice (the other non-Asian festival celebrating at this time being held in Toronto, Canada, an even larger festival in terms of the number of participating crews). As the title sponsor changes, so does the name of the festival and associated branding.


When Vancouver celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1986, Expo 86, a world exposition themed on transportation, was organized for that summer and held on the shores of north, east and south east False Creek stretching from Granville Bridge east to Science World. For that same year, Vancouver's Chinese-Canadian community, under the leadership of the Chinese Cultural Centre, organized a volunteer committee to introduce the traditional annual Chinese Duanwu Festival (summer solstice) to Canada, as a kind of cultural outreach program to share a lively aspect of Chinese culture with the city's increasingly multi-cultural population.

Trips to Hong Kong were made by Centre volunteers as early as 1984 to investigate the feasibility of bringing back authentic teak wooden dragon boats. The City of Vancouver Centennial Commission endorsed the plan for an inaugural festival as a recognized part of the set of official civic anniversary festivities. While there were hundreds of other sanctioned grassroots centennial projects created that year, only Vancouver's dragon boat festival races continue into the present day.

"Dragon boat festival" was the term colonial Europeans used to refer to the annual observance when they first witnessed the boat racing spectacle in Asia in the 19th century. However, the festival is not known as long zhou jie (literally, dragon boat festival) in China. Duanwu is an ancient term that relates to the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere.

The community dragon boat committee contacted the Hong Kong Tourist Association (now the Hong Kong Tourism Board) who had been organizing the 'Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival – International Races' since 1976 as a kind of sport tourism property. With the financial assistance of three key corporate sponsors with connections to Hong Kong's business community (Cathay Pacific Airways, Sing Tao media and Empire Stevedoring), they arranged to have six teak wooden dragon boats along with sets of paddles, drums, steering oars and lau san or ceremonial parasols built in Hong Kong to the local design pattern of the Pearl River Delta region fishermen of southern China and shipped over to Vancouver in time for Expo 86. These boats were on display afloat and tied up at the Marine Plaza zone throughout the world's fair when they were not being used for team practices, competitions or ceremonial purposes in support of the Hong Kong Pavilion that summer.

The Chinese Cultural Centre (CCC) of Vancouver was responsible for sourcing dragon boats, paddles, drums and other equipment from Hong Kong, raising the funds necessary to host the first authentic dragon boat festival in North America in June 1986, recruiting volunteers and teams, securing sponsors and trophies, and inviting prominent community leaders to become honorary patrons of the festival and organizing the first races and festival. It was under the chairmanship of Dr. Wallace "Wally" Chung, head of the general surgical division of the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Medicine. Dr. S. Wah Leung, immediate past CCC chair and then-dean of the Faculty of Dentistry at UBC, served as the chairman of the dragon boat festival committee. This committee eventually evolved into the CCC Dragon Boat Association (CCC DBA, or DBA for short), a not-for-profit society which maintains the fleet of 9 teak dragon boats, after 3 more were purchased and imported.

Mason Hung, senior vice-president of the International Dragon Boat Federation from the 1990s onwards, and Product Development Manager with the HKTA, came to Vancouver as a consultant to the first-time race committee. He shared the Hong Kong Festival's Rules of Racing for adaptation to and use on False Creek, which like Hong Kong's regatta sea course, was subject to tidal current conditions. These competition rules were originally developed for the Hong Kong Festival International Races in co-operation with the Hong Kong Amateur Rowing Association, who supplied experienced, qualified racing regatta officials to convene and officiate at the competitions. Eventually, these initial rules of racing were overhauled by a Vancouver race committee member who had advanced knowledge and experience in international paddlesport and rowing competition standards. A set of these rules is held by the Vancouver Public Library. These rules have been modified over the years by the race organizers to meet emerging needs, such as longer distance racing formats.

The CCC race committee's volunteers organized instruction and training sessions on boat handling for the entered teams, almost entirely novices who had never paddled prior to the first festival, out of the False Creek Community Centre – which was also the home of the recently started False Creek Racing Canoe Club.

Besides being used for the first ever sport dragon boat race in July 1986 on False Creek, the six dragon boats were also paddled ceremoniously on False Creek to celebrate traditional (and ancient) Chinese culture – not sport – as part of the festivities to mark "Hong Kong Day" at Expo 86 in mid-July.

After festival events in 1986 and 1987, the popularity of dragon boat racing began to grow very quickly within Vancouver. Initially there were around 30 teams competing, but this number continued to grow each year such that by the early 1990s the number of teams exceeded 100.

In late 1985, the CCC invited community leaders who had commercial, business, social and cultural ties to China and Asia to serve as honorary patrons of the fledgling dragon boat movement. Among them were Honourable David See-Chai Lam and Milton Wong, who would later re-brand the Vancouver Dragon Boat Festival as the Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival 1988, the year of the fourth annual dragon boat festival on False Creek.

For the 1988 festival, a food fair featuring cuisine from around the Asia Pacific was featured along with several days of performances and entertainment at the former Expo 86 site, the Plaza of Nations. Known as the Asia Pacific Festival, this event property folded after a few years. However the mold for a colourful, family-friendly annual event format each June which combined a shore-based land festival featuring entertainment and international food selection with two days of non-stop dragonboat racing was cast and continues to this day. The model originated in Hong Kong and spread to not only Vancouver, but also to Toronto and Ottawa, all of which showcase on the order of 150 to 200 crews of 25 competitors over a weekend of exciting boat races.

In the summer of 1988 Wong and Lam agreed to spearhead an effort to build up the annual Vancouver Dragon Boat Festival into a more elaborate affair on land the following year, with volunteers of the CCC Dragon Boat Association continuing to operate and fund the race regatta on False Creek. The property was re-branded as the Canadian International Dragonboat Festival as if the Vancouver festival were the principal race for the entire nation, though as noted above, Toronto also hosts a large dragon boat festival.

This internationalization effort involved inviting and hosting dragon boat teams from overseas to compete at Vancouver's False Creek festival regatta. In 1989 – the very first year of the dragonboat festival billed as "Canadian International" (with a women's team from Australia and a men's team from Great Britain) - and over the next few years until funding ran out, teams flew over from Indonesia, Japan, England, Germany and Australia to compete against continental teams from Canada and the USA.

However, with cash sponsorship revenues falling far short of total expenses in the initial Canadian International year, the CIDBF Society, a not-for-profit corporation, operated under a deficit starting in its early years and for decades to come. Eventually, the number of overseas teams participating on False Creek dwindled. So, 'international' came to just mean 'from the USA' with occasionally teams from beyond North America.

Due to the establishment of the IDBF multi-national world championships system for national and for club crews, starting from the mid-1990s, overseas teams no longer flew in to compete in Vancouver in as great numbers as in the past. However, in 1996, 10 years after the Vancouver's original race, the 1st IDBF World Championship for Club Crews was convened on False Creek during the festival. (Ten years afterwards, in 2006, Toronto hosted the 5th IDBF WCCC.) The Vancouver international races of 1996 marked the first time ever for a state-sponsored dragonboat team from China to compete outside Asia. Also attracted were crews from Australia, New Zealand, Germany and England. The USA and Canada rounded out the contenders.

This North American west coast dragon boat festival was created not for the pursuit of amateur athletic sport excellence per se, nor for promoting traditional Chinese culture per se, but rather as a meeting place for increasing numbers of Vancouver's culturally diverse population to learn about intercultural harmony and understanding – among both the more recently arrived immigrants of the past 50 years and those who immigrated to British Columbia more than a century ago, such as BC's earliest arrivals from Scotland, England, China, and India.

Nowadays, Vancouverites and visitors alike are attracted down to the festival's waterfront site to experience a variety of ethnically themed food, cultural entertainment, fine arts and children's programming, all of which reflect Vancouver's cultural diversity, together with exciting boat races. The festival and races over the past 25 years have developed into one of Vancouver's most anticipated annual family summer events, attracting some 150+ teams of 25 people ranging in age from high school students to 'grand dragons' in their 60s, 70s and even 80s.

Venue & Regatta Course

The initial races for Expo 86 were held on the water just to the west of the Cambie Street Bridge, using the grassy green space of False Creek Slopes (on the south side of the creek) for the land festivities. Subsequently, a race course of 6 lanes of 640 metres in length (i.e. the same distance as in Hong Kong's Tsim Sha Tsui harbour) was surveyed to the east of the Cambie Street Bridge.

The number of lanes was gradually increased to 9 as the number of boats available for racing increased and as the number of teams grew from the initial 18 in 1986 to 100 in the early 1990s to 150+ in this decade. The distance was eventually reduced to 500 metres from 640 metres in keeping with the development of international standards by the IDBF, which races 250m, 500m and 1000m and long distance circuit races.

The land portion of the festival, with its docks interfacing False Creek for exchanging crews, has also varied over the last 2 dozen years. Venues include the Plaza of Nations on the north shore, Science World on the east shore and, today, Creekside Community Recreation Centre on the south shore.

The False Creek race course, being an inlet of English Bay and the Strait of Georgia of the Pacific ocean is subject to twice daily tidal streams or tidal currents. The water can be flowing in the same direction boats race (similar effect to a tail wind: shorter time required to go from the start line to the finish line), the opposite direction (similar effect to a head wind: longer time required to go from start to finish), or there is no current during slack tide. Consequently, the published race result times are meaningless for comparing boats in different races since the boats are not handicapped to correct for head or tail current effects. Since times are not offset to account for either the varying rates and directions of the racing waters, published times can be misleading. Furthermore, at lower low tide, the outside lanes, especially closest to the north shore can become very shallow relative to the deeper centre lanes, which disadvantages teams who draw the most northerly lane under these conditions. However, racing tactics and strategy can be more challenging due to the varying racing conditions throughout the day, as compared to racing on a still water regatta course.

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