Three children enjoy shaved ice

Colorado Dragon Boat Festival: Connecting the community through culture and competition

Did you know there are more than 30 Asian ethnicities in the Denver area? There are not just Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Indians (South Asians) here. There are many other identities that fall under the Asian American Pacific Islander label: Cambodians, Lao people, Mongolians, native Hawaiian, Burmese, Pakistani, Filipino and more.

Hong Kong style row boats speed through the water

Photo by James Dimagiba

And the easiest way to celebrate the many flavors of Asian in the state is to attend the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival.

The Colorado Dragon Boat Festival (CDBF) has been bringing the diverse Asian and Asian American Pacific Islander communities together to celebrate their culture in dragon boat races, displays, demonstrations, performances and of course, food.

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts is going to be at the festival, so come and look for our booth!

CDBF was the dream of a trio of founders in the local Asian American community: Ding Wen Hsu, John Chin and Howie Solow. (Solow is Jewish American from New York, but he is a kung fu shifu, or master whose students perform the colorful dragon dance to open the festival.) They loved the local Chinese community’s traditional culture, including the exciting sport of dragon boat racing. So they assembled an operations committee and formed a non-profit to host a dragon boat festival here in Denver. Sloan’s Lake Park was chosen for the event because its lake was long enough for a racecourse, and the park afforded the real estate to bring in vendors in a marketplace, room for a food court, and various locations for a main performing arts stage and secondary sites for martial arts, cultural demonstrations and a children’s area.

The first festival was held in 2001, with just 16 race teams for a one-day event and a handful of Taste of Asia vendors (who ran out of food by mid-afternoon), attracting 16,000 spectators. Over the two decades since, CDBF — expanded to two days — has become the largest dragon boat festival in the country in terms of attendance, with over 120,000 people at its pre-pandemic peak, and 50 teams competing in two divisions. This year is the first in-person festival since 2020. CDBF’s mission is “to build bridges of awareness, knowledge, and understanding between the diverse Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and the general public through cultural education, leadership development, and athletic competition.”

A woman leans over the edge of a boat to pick up a flag

Photo by James Dimagiba

Dragon boat racing didn’t start out as a competitive sport.

Over 2,000 ago, Qu Yuan, a court poet and adviser was banished by his king who was falsely told the poet was giving bad advice. Qu Yuan wandered the countryside writing patriotic poems that would become classics, then drowned himself in the Mi Lo River. His fans raced out in boats to try and save him, then beat drums to keep the fish from eating his body and threw rice to feed his soul. The act of racing to search for his body in boats gradually became the cultural tradition of dragon boat racing, held on the anniversary of his death every year.

Over the centuries, the sport evolved with teams using two types of boats that feature elaborately painted dragon heads and tails. Both types have a drummer who keeps time to exhort the team to paddle in sync for speed. The “Flag Catching” boats, which CDBF used exclusively at first, are deeper and heavier, and the race is won when a flag catcher climbs onto the head and reaches out to grab a flag placed at the end of the course. The faster Hong Kong style boats are longer, lighter and lower to the water. The winner of each race is determined by a judge at the end of the course.

The spectacle of dragon boat racing is unique and has been considered as an Olympic sport, with races and festivals held around the globe. We welcome back the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival on July 23 and 24 at Sloan’s Lake Park, and also welcomes back Denver’s diverse Asian communities to showcase their cultures. DCPA is proud to participate this year!

Colorado Dragon Boat Festival
July 23-24, 2022 • Sloan’s Lake Park

Photos above by Gil Asakawa