Thousands of Cambridge residents, tourists and volunteers gathered at the 43rd annual Boston Dragon Boat Festival on Sunday to celebrate the traditional Chinese holiday through lively festivities and boat races on the Charles River.
Established in 1979, the celebration is the first and oldest dragon boat festival in North America. The event, which was revived after the pandemic hampered in-person efforts for two years, drew more than 20,000 visitors, according to Gail Wang, president of the Boston Dragon Boat Festival.
Wang said she was “pleasantly surprised” by the strong attendance after the festival resurrected for the first time since 2019.
“It’s just this feeling of being back to normal,” Wang said. “Going back to the beautiful site and seeing people enjoying the festival – it’s just very moving.”
Forty-eight teams took part in the boat race this year, down from last festival’s record of 76 teams. Each team, made up of 16 to 20 paddlers, competed for a spot at the National Dragon Boat Racing Championships, which will be held in New York in August. Teams rowed 39-foot-long dragon boats in a 500-meter race on the Charles, cheered by crowds above the John W. Weeks Footbridge.
Shutong Fan, who took part in the race for the first time as part of the University of Science and Technology of China team, called the festival “very impressive”.
“So many people are interested in our Chinese culture,” Fan said.
Attendees enjoyed food truck fare and zongzi – traditional Chinese rice wrapped in bamboo leaves – while watching the boat race. The dish and festival commemorate the death of 3rd-century BC poet and political leader Qu Yuan as part of a 2,000-year-old Chinese tradition, according to the festival’s website.
Throughout the afternoon, the event featured cultural performances from several Boston-area Asian organizations, including traditional Chinese, Korean, Thai, and Indian dances, martial arts demonstrations, and Japanese drumming. Taiko.
Samuel “Sam” Murdock ’23, who learned about the festival from a banner in the central plaza, said he “loves” the lion dance – a traditional Chinese dance performed for good luck.
“Lively, lively,” fellow attendee Adam V. Aleksic ’23 said of the event. “It’s way bigger than I expected.”
Volunteers organized cultural arts and crafts activities, including writing Chinese calligraphy, making paper lanterns and packing fresh zongzi.
Summer J. Smentek ’25 said she noticed the tents along the river, which led her to attend the event with friends.
“It was nice to check out the arts and crafts tables and, of course, to see the boats,” Smentek said. “I absolutely loved seeing the dancers and everyone performing.”
Wang said the festival’s mission is to promote the sport of dragon boat racing while uniting Asian communities in the Boston area.
“Forty-three years later and look at us – we have show and food vendors from many Asian communities,” Wang said. “Everything is coming together to support this event with communities everywhere.”