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Of Dragons and Tradition: The Dragon Boat Festival in Singapore

Singapore’s multitude of cultures means there’s always something exciting going on! This July, why not join in and soak up the energy and verve of the Dragon Boat Festival? Delicious rice dumplings and exciting river boat races await!

The Origin Story

The Dragon Boat Festival is also known as the Duanwu Festival, a name which originated in the fact that the Dragon Boat Festival is held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month on the Chinese calendar. This long, hot day is perfect for spending by the riverbank or on the river, if you so choose – but this is no sweet, gentle, lovers’ festival. No, the Dragon Boat Festival has its roots in a darker place.

During the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty, there lived a minister who was also a famed poet named Qu Yuan. Renowned for his deep patriotism and love for China, he was eventually exiled to present day Hubei, China due to the political climate of the time. Qu Yuan is said to have written a lengthy poem lamenting the capture of his homeland by an enemy general and committed ritual suicide by wading into the Miluo River with a heavy rock to drown himself.

As Qu Yuan was beloved by the common people, they sailed out onto the river in droves, beating drums and breaking up the river surface with oars to scare away river creatures. They also threw triangular rice dumplings known as zong zi into the river to prevent his body from being eaten. This eventually gave rise to the two traditions of the Dragon Boat Festival: dragon boat racing, and the eating of rice dumplings.

Dragon Boat Races

In Singapore, these traditions are alive and well. The Singapore Dragon Boat Association organises dragon boat races every year at Bedok Reservoir. This year, the Singapore Dragon Boat Festival will be held over the weekend on 11 and 12 July so come on down and experience the exhilarating drumming and rowing action for yourself. Bedok Reservoir is not only the place to visit for watersports such as kayaking and (of course) dragon boating, but it’s also the site of the Forest Adventure Tree Top Course for those who prefer to traverse an obstacle course on land. The nearest MRT station to Bedok Reservoir is Bedok MRT Station (EW5) on the East West (green) line.

If you're not in Singapore that weekend, there are other races throughout the year. The major ones are the MR500, Sava Sprint and the DBS Marina Regatta. You can also drop by the Kallang Water Sports Centre where training sessions are held, usually weekly.

Zong Zi (Rice Dumplings)

Singapore is full of foodies, so what’s a festival without traditional food? Although there are places that sell zong zi all year round, it’s during the month leading up to the Dragon Boat Festival that you’ll see more and more stalls and even Chinese restaurants start selling triangular dumplings wrapped in dark green bamboo leaves. Known as zong zi, these dumplings are made with glutinous rice and contain various types of stuffing. One of the most popular types in Singapore is the meat dumpling, also known as bak zhang in the Hokkien dialect. These dumplings usually contain a piece of deliciously fatty pork belly, a chestnut, peanuts and a piece of mushroom, all liberally seasoned with soya sauce, salt and sugar. Another perennial favourite is the nonya zhang, which has the fillings all cubed and mixed for a more uniform texture. The nonya zhang also has added sugar and spice, including candied wintermelon, for a truly unique sweet and salty taste. Traditionally, part of the rice would be dyed blue with petals of the beautiful blue pea flower, but it is not uncommon for food colouring to be used instead nowadays.

There are many other variations of zong zi, including plain versions meant to be dipped in sauce, so don’t be shy to ask what the difference between them is!

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