Feature Story

Dragon Boat

International Analogy

In India, Vallamkali is a Snake Boat used to protect food offerings from river pirates during the Onam Festival, in order to give thanks for God’s miracle at Aranmulla temple. The Snake Boat race was derived as a commemoration of this special event.

Traditional dragon boats consist of the head, body and tailbone, together with additional peddles and a rudder. Large-sized superior timbers are preferred for their construction. A whole piece of juniper serves as the main component for the dragon head, which exudes anima and vibrancy. Camphorwood, a sacred wood, is used for the boat’s whole body for long term moth-proofing and moisture-proofing. Parts of the dragon boat crafted separately before being joined with wooden needles and and so it takes around 6-7 days to assemble a single boat. In accordance with mystical customs from the past, the first day of construction has to be carefully selected, while workers must undergo fasting, bathing, incense-burning and worshipping before work commences. Accompanied by drums and flags, colouring and calligraphy completes the process of making a flawless boat.

See more: Tai O Dragon Boat Water Parade

The highlight of the Dragon Boat Festival in Tai O is the "Deity Parade" (“遊涌”). This custom was listed on the Third National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011. The tradition started from a miracle that happened after Tai O was stricken by a plague hundreds of years ago.  In an attempt to wipe out the epidemic, statues of deities from temples of Tai O were placed on "sacred sampans", towed by dragon boats and paraded along the Tai O water channels. This miraculously ended the epidemic by placating the “water ghosts,” and the custom has remained in place until today. 

On May 4th and 5th of the Lunar Calendar, three fishermen's associations, "Pa Tang Hong" (扒艇行), Sin Yu Hong (鮮魚行) and Hap Sum Tong (合心堂), organise the religious "Deity Parade". This is divided into four parts:

  1. On the morning of May 4th, the association members visit four temples, Yeung Hau (楊侯廟), Kwan Tai (關帝廟), Tin Hau (天后廟) and Hung Shing (洪聖廟), and carry the deities’ statues back to their associations' hall for worship.
  2. Several procedures are then followed the next morning. The first step is "picking greens" (“採青”). The association’s members row the dragon boat to Po Chue Tam (寶珠潭), behind Yeung Hau Temple to pick fresh grasses on the hillside to put into the dragon's mouth.
  3. The next step is the "Deity Parade", during which a small boat from each fishermens' association containing the deities' statues is towed by a dragon boat parading along the Tai O canals. Gold and silver paper offerings are burned on the boats along the way, while the residents of nearby stilt houses burn incense sticks to pay their respects to the dragon boats passing by, praying for the safety and happiness of Tai O households.
  4. In the afternoon, the deities' statues are escorted back to the temples, in a sequence known as the "Deity Farewell". At night, everyone gathers for a celebratory feast, marking a perfect end to the festival.