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Hundred-year-old dragon boat water parade takes place in Tai O today (with photos)

     The Tai O dragon boat water parade, a religious activity with more than 100 years of history, is being held today (June 6) by three fishermen's associations in Tai O to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival.

     To coincide with the implementation of the New Senior Secondary Curriculum, the Hong Kong Heritage Museum teamed up with the Education Bureau, the South China Research Center of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the Joint Association of Traditional Dragon Boats in Tai O, Hong Kong, to organise a field study tailored for secondary school teachers today with an aim of promoting this part of Hong Kong's intangible cultural heritage.

     The Secretary for Home Affairs, Mr Tsang Tak-sing, who was invited to officiate at today's ceremony entitled "Traditional Dragon Boat Water Parade of Tai O cum Celebration of Application for Inscription on the Third National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage", noted that the dragon boat water parade held today had double meanings.  He said that today is not only a day for holding this annual festivity but also a day to celebrate the inscription of the Tai O dragon boat water parade onto the Third National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

     Speaking at the ceremony, Mr Tsang said that the dragon boat water parade in Tai O is not only unique in Hong Kong but also an example of rare living heritage found in southern China.

     "This activity has become a community-wide event that plays a key role in sustaining neighbourhood relationships, making it valuable intangible cultural heritage in Hong Kong," Mr Tsang said.

     He added that the Home Affairs Bureau submitted to the Ministry of Culture (MoC) in September 2009 an application for the Tai O dragon boat water parade, the Cheung Chau Jiao Festival, the Yu Lan Ghost Festival of the Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community and the Tai Hang fire dragon dance to be inscribed on the Third National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

     "Following months of thoughtful evaluation and scientific study by experts, the final list has just been endorsed and I am gratified that the four submissions from Hong Kong were all included on the national list of intangible cultural heritage," Mr Tsang said.

     Mr Tsang also noted that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government recognises the importance of preserving intangible cultural heritage and has been paying great effort to enhancing public knowledge and recognition of the importance of preserving such cultural resources. The Government has adopted a multi-pronged approach in implementing the safeguarding measures, which cover in-depth research, education, promotion, application for inscription and transmission. A territory-wide survey of intangible cultural heritage in Hong Kong is being conducted with an aim of drawing up the first inventory list of intangible cultural heritage in Hong Kong. The survey is expected to be finished within the first half of 2012. An Intangible Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee was also established in 2008 for soliciting expert advice on the work of the survey and safeguarding measures on preserving intangible cultural heritage.

     The Tai O dragon boat water parade falls within the category of "social practices, rituals and festive events" defined by the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage promulgated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It is a unique example of living heritage in Hong Kong. In view of its significant historical, social and cultural value, it is one of the four local items nominated for inscription on the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage - the first time Hong Kong has applied to the MoC for such recognition.

     It is said that Tai O was hit by a plague more than 100 years ago and, in an effort to drive out the epidemic, local fishermen paraded along the local waterways on dragon boats, towing behind them deity statues that they had borrowed from temples in the area. The plague ended, but the custom, known as the dragon boat water parade, has been maintained to this day.

     During the annual Dragon Boat Festival, three fishermen's associations, namely Pa Teng, Sin Yu Heung and Hap Sim Tong, organise a religious activity known as dragon boat water parade. On the morning before the festival, members of the associations row their dragon boats to visit four temples, Yeung Hau, Tin Hou, Kwan Tei and Hung Shing, and carry the deity statues back to their associations' hall for worship.

     On the day of the festival, members of Pa Teng row the dragon boats to Po Chue Tam behind Yeung Hau Temple, where they pick fresh grass on the hillside to put inside the dragon's mouth in a ritual called "Picking the Greens". In the old days, a "Drinking Dragon" ceremony was also hosted by association elders to cast out evil spirits, during which a few drops of rooster blood were mixed with Chinese white wine and then sprinkled on the dragon's head, tail and body. However, this ceremony has not been performed since the Government introduced its ban on the keeping of live chickens.

     The dragon boats then set out on the parade or "Gods' Parade". A small boat that carries the deity statues is towed by a dragon boat along the local waterways. Gold and silver paper offerings for departed souls are burned in the water along the way, while the residents of the stilt houses also burn joss sticks to pay tribute to the passing dragon boats. As entertainment for gods, the dragon boats engage in a race after the parade. In the afternoon, the associations host a send-off ritual in which the deities are transported back to the temples. Then everyone gathers at night for a feast to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival in what is always a jubilant highlight of the year.

     Fishing is no longer a flourishing industry and many Tai O residents now work in the city, but the three dragon boat associations joined forces in 2008 to form the Joint Association of Traditional Dragon Boats in Tai O, Hong Kong, and make a concerted effort to continue this great event.

     The Tai O dragon boat water parade combines a diversity of elements, including fishing ecology and economics, production technologies and religious and ceremonial rituals, as well as the role of the fishermen's associations, to reinforce an important system of community life. It remains to this day a community-wide event that plays a key role in sustaining neighbourhood relationships.

Ends/Monday, June 6, 2011
Issued at HKT 13:12


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