Dragons, dumplings, and dances

Located at the South Side Riverfront Park, the Pittsburgh Dragon Boat Festival was a celebration of Asian culture and gave locals a taste of the culture and traditions of many Asian countries, including China, India, Japan, and Tuva. Held last Saturday, it combined various elements of food and entertainment to put on an interesting display that all members of the family could enjoy.

The event provided an opportunity for all the visitors to get involved first-hand in celebrating the festival by allowing people to paddle the dragon boats in the river. The boats were bright and colorful, with majestic dragon-shaped prows. Each boat could seat at least 20 paddlers and had a drummer that kept everyone energized with an upbeat rhythm. Visitors could sign up for a time slot and then experience paddling the boat up and down the river, just as the Chinese do.

The entire celebration was situated on the strip of park that banks the river. For this reason, all of the attractions were set up in a long line, culminating with the stage and seating area. Much like a marketplace, the visitors could walk down the path flanked by colorful booths and stalls. There were the usual, but still attractive, “get-your-name-written-in-Chinese-calligraphy” booths, along with stalls that were giving out colorful Chinese paper hats. There were a lot of booths for children involving story-telling and arts and crafts activities. Different Asian organizations in Pittsburgh, which were sponsoring the event, also set up stalls to display their solidarity with the mission to promote Eastern culture and make “East meet West.”

One of the most interesting portions of the festival was the area where different vendors were selling items from China and Japan. There were different objects for sale, including bright silk dresses, cute Japanese toys, beautiful jewelry, elegant parasols, red lanterns and paper dragons. “I really enjoyed seeing Chinese and Japanese culture being so well presented in the festival through the vendors and the food,” said Ting Lu, a sophomore biological sciences major. “I was especially excited to see parasols being sold because they reminded me of all the parasols my aunt in China collects.”

The event also gave everyone a taste of Asian cuisine, featuring a tasty mix of authentic Chinese food along with some American versions of Chinese dishes. People could sample sesame balls, sticky rice balls with red bean filling, dumplings both steamed and fried, different types of sushi, chicken on a stick, lo mein, and fried rice. There were also funnel cakes and snow cones for the children. “I was happy to see one of my favorite Chinese dishes zong zi [lotus wrapped sticky rice which can be salty or sweet], because it is usually very hard to find this kind of food in America,” Justin Yi, a junior mechanical engineering major, said.

The event also included various dance and martial arts performances. The stage events kicked off with a dragon dance, a Chinese dance that involves lifting a large, beautiful paper dragon on sticks, and moving it up and down. The events also included lion dances, a dance similar to the dragon dance in which the dancers mimic the movements of a lion while in a lion’s costume, Chinese and Indian folk dances, demonstrations of kung fu and karate, and vocal performances.

“I really liked the performances they put on demonstrating authentic Chinese dance, and I especially enjoyed the Japanese martial arts,” Yi said. The dance performances were very enjoyable as they featured teenage girls of Chinese and Indian origin, dressed in colorful costumes and dancing gracefully. Chinese dance is elegant and expressive, and the dancers use accessories like fans to enhance the dance. The traditional costumes that the dancers wore were especially beautiful. It was interesting to see the different positions in the martial arts of kung fu and karate, but what was more striking was that most of the performers were not of Asian descent.

This was a perfect example of the unity the Pittsburgh Dragon Boat Festival was trying to achieve. The students of SiFu Slaughter and Steel Dragon Kung Fu & Lion Dance School displayed many tactics and poses that wowed the audience. A performance that was new to the celebration this year was the Tuvan khoomei (Mongolian throat singing). Tuva is a small country located in the center of Asia, and has at times been a part of the Turkic, Mongol, Manchu and Soviet Empires. The origins of khoomei go back thousands of years into the past and are rooted in ancient shamanic practices. Testing the limits of vocal ingenuity, throat-singers can create sounds unlike anything in ordinary speech and song — carrying two musical lines simultaneously, or harmonizing with a waterfall.

On the whole, the event was enjoyable for those familiar and unfamiliar with Asian culture. It gave a chance for those familiar to experience what they like about the culture the most, and those unfamiliar to try something new. Although not everything was authentic, the entire environment was exciting, with red lanterns and decorations, sights and smells of delicious food, as well as the sound of the drum beats from the river. The entire festival displayed the enthusiasm that the Asians living in Pittsburgh possess in spreading their culture, and the willingness of the others to experience and enjoy it.

The legend More than 2000 years ago, the corrupt politicians of Chu, a Chinese kingdom, framed a poet and statesman named Qu Yuan and banished him from the kingdom. Grief-stricken, Qu Yuan used stones to weigh down his pockets and tried to drown himself in the Mei Lo river. In an attempt to save their popular hero, the fishermen took to their boats and began to search frantically for Qu Yuan. They beat their drums and gongs, stirred up the water with their paddles and threw sticky rice dumplings, called zong zi, into the river to try and divert the hungry fish from attacking Qu Yuan. Since then, the dragon boat festival is celebrated and the boats once again take to the water and search for the body of the beloved poet. The boats have dragons painted on them to ward off evil spirits, and they provide a constant reminder that leaders should always possess wisdom and benevolence.

The history behind the festival

The Chinese Dragon Boat Festival began in 277 BCE when a popular and patriotic Chinese poet, Qu Yuan, drowned. The festival's tradition of dragon boat racing stems from this event. People get into dragon boats, which are traditional Chinese boats powered by rowing, and race to save the poet. There is, of course, no chance of saving him, but the tradition continues in his memory.

Zong zi are a type of dumpling traditionally made by wrapping glutinous rice inside of bamboo leaves. There can be many fillings including dates, meat, and eggs. Dates are the most popular filling for the dumplings, which are usually steamed.

Dragon boat races are the oldest boat races in history. The boats hold around 20 people, and each person paddles to help win the race. Paddlers train intensely for the competitions. Each team includes paddlers, a steerer, and a drummer. Dragon boat races have become popular internationally and now have world competitions and championship races.