CENTRAL PARK — After soaring kicks, a quick boat ride around a lake, and a little incense, the dragon was awoken with a dab of paint to its eye as part of a traditional ceremony formally starting the 22nd annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York.
The festival, in honor of the year of the Water Dragon, kicked off with an awakening ceremony Thursday at the Bethesda fountain and the Central Park Lake, in anticipation of the festival on Aug. 4-5 at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens.
The competition and celebration next month will involve traditional Chinese food and entertainment along with dragon boat races hosting over 170 different crews, according to organizers.
"It is a festival that celebrates the multi-ethnic and multicultural spirit that makes New York great," said the city’s parks commissioner Adrian Benepe in a brief address before the ceremony. "Of all the events that happen in parks, this is right at the top. It’s a spectacular event."
Dragon boats are long, colorful, and skiff-like, with a fake dragon’s head at the prow and a tail at the stern. They contain 18 rowers, a steersperson, and a drummer.
The boats stem from third century B.C. China when an outspoken and beloved poet Qu Yuan drowned himself in a lake to protest the emperor’s policies. Shocked, locals jumped into their boats and rowed out to save him, beating drums along the way to ward off fish and water dragons they feared may eat the poet.
The races today resemble the rescuers' flight. But before the race, the dragon within the boats must be awakened, explained David Archer, head of marketing for the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, a Queens nonprofit that hosted Thursday's event along with other Chinese cultural organizations.
To do so, a monk blessed the boat with water and incense and then dabbed some black paint on the eyes of the dragon head at the boat’s prow.
"It brings good luck and prosperity not only to the people who do it, but also the area involved," Archer said.
Organizers expect as many as 50,000 people to attend the August festival and more than 2,500 people from throughout the United States to participate in the races.
The festival is also meant to celebrate Chinese culture. Along with the awakening ceremony Thursday, representatives from several of the festival’s major sponsors including the Hong Kong Economic Trade Office and HSBC bank took a brief ride around Central Park’s Lake in one of the dragon boats.
Four shaolin martial artists also gave a brief demonstration of their skills with whirling kicks, glistening swords, and a deafening whip demonstration.
"Through this event, the Chinese community in New York will know they’ve gained acceptance," said Henry Wan, chairman of the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York. "Now, they are part of the American experience."