Story 10: Cultural Learning - Two Models

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The Dragon Boat Festival

Written by Leslie Swartz

In 1979, Japan program specialist Marcia Iwasaki, multicultural program specialist Nancy Sato, and I were working with different segments of the highly fractionalized Chinese community. I focused on the Taiwan-born, suburban, professional GBCCA. Nancy and Marcia focused on the working-class, southern Chinese families in Chinatown. We wanted to create an opportunity for the various Chinese communities to join in a cultural festival on neutral territory that would deliberately welcome everyone: all Chinese, all Asian-Americans, and all "other."

While doing some (pre-Internet) anthropological research on Chinese celebrations, I discovered the ancient Dragon Boat Festival, a popular public festival dedicated to third century BCE patriot poet Qu Yuan. During the Cultural Revolution (1965-1976) Chairman Mao had banned the Dragon Boat Festival for being feudal and superstitious, but it was still celebrated in Hong Kong and other Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. Nancy, Marcia, and I decided that Boston needed a Dragon Boat Festival, and by dint of dedication and hard work we made it happen.

In 1979 Greater Boston witnessed its first Dragon Boat Festival, held as part of the well-established June Cambridge River Festival on the banks of the Charles River. It was a cold, rainy, unmitigated disaster, but Marcia, Nancy, and I were undaunted. The following year, the Dragon Boat Festival was held at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade, a well-known riverside venue where the Boston Pops conducted its popular July 4th concert. On that warm and sunny June day, the event was a huge success, drawing thousands of people of all backgrounds. Chinese American community groups from all over Boston participated—by performing, offering arts and crafts workshops, or by helping to organize. The Boston Public Schools lent their four leaky, old long boats, and four different schools decorated them with dragon heads and tails. Spectacular and imaginative, the boats were a sight on the river. Runners and strollers rubbed their eyes, unsure of the dragon mirage on the water. The boats were beautiful—the races were an afterthought. Getting back to the dock without swamping was the only reasonable goal.

Although the Dragon Boat Festival was founded by three museum staff members and was always intended to belong to the community, the museum wanted their contribution to be recognized. Some community members wanted the festival run only by Chinese, and among the three of us, only one could claim any Chinese lineage. Committee members insisted that promotional literature feature Chinese leadership, even if the work was done by non-Chinese. Over the years Chinese community groups rotated in serving as the festival's fiscal agent. After Nancy and Marcia left Boston, and I left the festival, it continued sporadically until 1994, when I jumped back in, taking the museum with me. TCM served as the festival's fiscal agent from 1994 until 2009.

Today, the festival is managed by an independent nonprofit organization, flourishing on its own with a mixed board of leaders. TCM staff is still remembered as the festival's founders, as is the museum's longstanding role in supporting the festival. The Dragon Boat Festival engendered great good will and visibility for the museum within the Chinese community. The many dispersed Chinese American community groups, serving a now large and diverse Chinese American population, view TCM as a good partner and generous neighbor, and a terrific cultural intermediary.

The Dragon Boat Festival of Boston continues to be an annual event drawing 20,000 spectators and paddlers to the banks of the Charles River. It has become the largest Asian American event in New England. While there are countless dragon boat races in other locations, few are non-commercial cultural festivals. Boston's is not the largest festival by a long shot, but it is the oldest and still considered a model for festivals in other cities.

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