It will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time in Singapore that the annual Dragon Boat Festival (also known as the Dumpling Festival or Duan Yang, which translates to Upright Sun or Double Fifth) is also a celebration of food. Eating, is of course, something of a national pastime (and one that I was very keen to embrace from the get-go!). But do you know why the Dragon Boat Festival that we celebrate today is so intricately linked to dumplings?

There are a number of legends around the origins of the Dragon Boat Festival. These include dragon worship, in which the racing took place out of reverence for the dragon and the dumplings represented an offering to the Dragon King. Alternatively, it might have been part of the harvest of winter wheat, during which offerings were made to spirits and deities in hope of a good harvest.

My favorite story that links dumplings and dragon boat racing is that of Qu Yuan…
It all dates back to ancient China in the state of Chu, as the Zhou Dynasty came to an end and a power struggle broke out between the different families, vying to establish their own kingdoms. Minister to the Zhou Emperor, Qu Yuan, a wise scholar, advised the Emperor to avoid conflict with the Qin Kingdom. Having fought against corruption in the court, Qu Yuan was well loved by the people but unpopular with the other officials, who encouraged the Emperor to disregard his advice and send him into exile.

After a number of years away from the kingdom, which he spent traveling and writing poetry, he learned that the Zhou had fallen to the Qin. He was so devastated by this news, he drowned himself in the Mi Luo River.

His popularity among the people was such that they wanted to protect his body. The fishermen jumped into their long boats and began scaring away the fish by beating their oars against the water and banging drums. Meanwhile, the women of the village made rice dumplings (zongzi or zhang) which they threw into the water for the fish to eat, keeping them away from Qu Yuan’s body.

Zongzi or zhang is a delicious treat made of glutinous rice, traditionally wrapped in bamboo, lotus or banana leaves. Filled with anything from savory favorites such as pork belly, salted eggs or sausage to the sweeter, dessert-style which favors bean paste, dates or nuts, there’s a filling to suit even the most discerning palate.

And so, dragon boating and dumplings joined together to form a tradition in this delicious cultural celebration. The festival now occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month of the traditional Chinese calendar (where its alternate name, Double Fifth, comes from), which is June 18 this year. If you’d like to see the action unfold, races will take place at Bedok Reservoir on July 7 and 8, or catch the teams practicing regularly at the Kallang River.

Would you like to give dragon boating a try, but don’t know where to start? Don’t be shy, give the American Dragons a call! There’s no need to be super-fit to join for some fun paddling. Reach out by email: sgamericandragons@gmail.com or via the American Dragons Singapore Facebook page and one of their team members will get back to you with all the necessary details. They have practices in the early weekday mornings, land training sessions in the evenings, plus weekend practices throughout the year. So, there should be a time to suit any schedule.