Christine Ho had been practicing Thai boxing for five years when she hit a plateau and started “getting bored.” In search of a new physical challenge, the 39-year-old director of custom publishing at Hachette Filipacchi in Hong Kong (and former editor-in-chief of Elle Hong Kong) signed up for dragon boat racing, the ancient Chinese traditional sport. The native Hong Konger had watched Dragon Boat Festival races in the past and knew about the sport’s intensity. “I’m fascinated by all things powerful,” she says. Dragon boat races date back more than 2,000 years as a Chinese ceremony to celebrate the summer rice planting and to venerate the dragon water deity.
In Chinese folklore, there’s another story: In 278 BC, during the Warring States period, popular statesman and poet Qu Yuan tied himself to a rock and walked into the Miluo River, in today’s Hunan province, to drown himself when he learned of an impending invasion. When the local villagers found out, they rushed to their fishing boats to save him while beating a drum to scare the fish away from his body. Every year since—or so the story goes—there’s been a Dragon Boat Festival to mark Qu Yuan’s death. In 1976 the Hong Kong Tourist Association helped turn the practice of informal local races into the international modern sport it is today by holding the first-ever world dragon boat racing competition. Ten boats—nine from Hong Kong and one from Japan—competed.
Over the past three decades, the sport has grown around the world. Hong Kong now boasts hundreds of teams, and more than 60 other countries host their own competitions. Even the newly anointed Duchess of Cambridge, Catherine Middleton, was a dragon boat racer in London until she had to leave her team in 2007 for security reasons. Dragon boats are thin, long boats with a dragon’s head on the bow. Most of today’s boats in Hong Kong are still made of wood but some races use synthetic-fiber ones. The boats used in international competitions hold 22 people — 20 paddlers, one drummer and one helmsman — and races are usually 200 to 500 meters.