One of my favorite festivals in Taiwan is Dragon Boat - I like it because it reminds me a bit of the atmosphere around a good Forth of July celebration back home, even though the two holidays are celebrated for completely different reasons. The warm weather, the unhealthy food vendors, the carnival atmosphere, the people out and enjoying the day - it's a good reminder that we're all the same around the world, even if we come out to celebrate different holidays. A kid with a balloon and cotton candy watching fireworks or playing carnie games in the USA is no different from a kid with a balloon and cotton candy watching dragon boat races and lion dances (and playing carnie games) in Taiwan.
And because I'm still a kid at heart in so many ways, I love it.
There's also the fact that while dragon boat is a holiday in China, it's hard to find actual races. They do exist, but they're not as common or popular (they seem to be more popular in Hong Kong, actually).
Every year (except for the years when we travel) we find a different place in Taiwan to check out the races. Our first year we were in Penghu, which was cool although there wasn't much of a festive feeling and the races were far out in the harbor. The next year we went to Erlong, near Jiaoxi in Yilan County. One year we missed the races in Hong Kong, but last year we went to Bitan to see them in Xindian.
This year, we ventured out to the aptly-named Longtan (龍潭) in Taoyuan County but not far from Xinzhu, with a large temple holding court over the dragon-named lake - an event we all agree has been the best so far.
It's not really so much about the races for us - we don't even know who is competing most of the time - but the atmosphere around it as we're shouting "Go Red!" or "Go Team Blue!" despite having no idea which team represents which group or organization (groups such as schools, clubs, companies, churches, temples and aboriginal tribes will often form a team and enter).
Despite the concrete jumble of buildings encroaching on the lake, it is a scenic place to watch the races and you can see the goings-on fairly up-close, with the temple in the background.
Longtan is also famous for its Hakka population - the big draw being lots of restaurants serving Hakka food. Our lunch was good - a bit mediocre by Hakka standards, but then there's no such thing as bad Hakka food, methinks, and in wider comparison I would say it was quite tasty.
Longtan is also famous for peanut candy (花生糖) - we bought assorted candies from the famous Longqing (龍情) peanut candy company as well as Chiwei (知味), which makes a coconut peanut candy that I like as well as a dried tea-leaf covered candy that I am fond of. Now we are the proud owners of a ton of caramel-covered peanuts, which threatens to destroy my continued attempts to eat healthier!
Longqing is right on the lake, so it's easy to visit if you ever pass through Longtan (worth it on a non-festival day mostly for the Hakka food, temple and peanut candy), and Chiwei is on the main drag out of town heading towards Zhongli (中壢).
For those not familiar with the history of dragon boat racing, the story is that an official and famous poet named Quyuan who lived during the same period of Chinese history as Confucius and possibly Sun Tzu (of the "Art of War" fame) drowned himself in Hunan province as a protest against corruption. The people tried to save him, beating drums and doing other things to keep evil spirits away. I always thought that people beat drums on Dragon Boat so the rowers could row in time, but it may also be related to this myth. After it was clear that Quyuan could not be saved, people threw rice into the water to keep his spirit from feeling hunger. Because dragons were eating the rice (okaaaay), they started wrapping them up in triangles - the origin of today's leaf-wrapped zongzi, or sticky rice dumplings. I like the meat, peanut and mushroom ones although many kinds are sold.
Side note: I once met a woman in the wet market near MRT Yongchun who made so many zongzi in her life, she said, that she'd worn down the skin on her fingers and as such no longer had fingerprints. She showed me her hands and indeed, she had no fingerprints...I do believe her story, but I have to say...wow.
So now, to commemorate the death of Quyuan, but mostly to go out and have fun as the summer starts rolling in, dragon boat races are held every year. Which, come on, most of us celebrate Forth of July for the same reason...you get a few patriotic sorts who really do celebrate the founding of the United States but really, most of us are in it for the fireworks, picnic blankets and corn dogs).
One thing that you can see in Taiwan is a "flag grabber" at the end of the boat who grabs a flag to determine the race's winner. This is done in parts of the world with large Taiwanese populations (such as Vancouver), as well.
One thing we noticed in Longtan was that instead of drum beats for the boats, there was a drum but they mostly played well-known Western songs such as the James Bond theme, Mission Impossible, Flight of the Bumblebee, something by the Beach Boys and El Cumbanchero. When the aboriginal team was racing, they played aboriginal music (the stuff that goes "oh hei-oh hai oh-ah") which struck us as...well, probably well-intentioned but imagine if a Chinese team had been competing and they'd played some sort of fakey Chinese music (ding ding ding dong dong ding)...which, come to think of it, they probably would do.
Anyway, enjoy some more photos from the day...including the giant roast pig above, the giant balloon orb with legs below, and more!