Wake County

Triangle’s Asian community launches Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival is part of Asia Fest at Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, which celebrates Asian culture.
The Dragon Boat Festival is part of Asia Fest at Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, which celebrates Asian culture.

The region’s Asian community showed off its diverse cultural and food heritage Saturday at the first Triangle Dragon Boat Festival.

Teams in colorful boats with dragon-shaped heads paddled on Symphony Lake, martial artists snapped boards and dancers moved gracefully along a stage at the Koka Booth Amphitheatre. The festival is something organizers and elected officials hope will become a yearly North Carolina event.

“This is another crown jewel in what makes North Carolina the best place on the face of the Earth to live, start a business and raise your family,” said N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, one of a dozen state and local officials at the event.

Dragon boat festivals have become more common in the state as the Asian population has increased. Organizers of the Charlotte Asian Festival and Dragon Boat Festival, which held its 15th annual event in May, say they typically draw 4,000 to 7,000 people.

Lily Chan, president of Asian Focus, a nonprofit group that helps Asian Americans and which hosted the Triangle festival, said they wanted to emulate the Charlotte event. She said they met their goal Saturday of having 3,000 to 4,000 attendees.

“Raleigh being the capital, and having such a large Asian population, it was a shame it didn’t have its own festival,” Chan said. “Our whole purpose is to bring people together.”

In Wake County, which recently celebrated reaching its millionth resident, Asians make up more than 6 percent of the population, according to census figures.

Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht noted that Asians make up the town’s largest minority group.

“Every day in Cary, Asians contribute to our businesses, to our citizen advisory boards and to our neighborhoods where we live, work, play and raise a family,” Weinbrecht told the crowd. “The Asian influence in Cary is tremendous and we’re all better off for it.”

To help bring out the crowd Saturday, the central piece of the festival was the dragon boat races.

‘Ultimate team sport’

A dragon boat has 20 rowers paddling to a pace set by a drummer. The goal is to beat the other boats to the finish line.

“It’s the ultimate team sport,” said Sophia Su, 27, of Raleigh, co-captain of the Raleigh Dragon Boat Club, one of the 12 teams Saturday. “You have to work together.”

Unlike Su’s team, many of the squads on Saturday had limited experience. For instance, many of the members of the team sponsored by Merck, the Durham-based pharmaceutical company, were at their first competition. By volunteering, Merck agreed to donate money to breast-cancer research.

“It was awesome,” said Cat Meier, 40, of Durham, a member of the Merck team, after finishing her first race.

The dragon boat racers, like the crowd, were a mixture of different races and ethnic groups who came for the competition, the entertainment on stage and the food. Chan said they made sure to promote the event to more than just the Asian community.

“It’s nice to see people of different cultures here together having a good time,” said Elizabeth Guthrie, 54, of Cary.

Austin Lowry, 32, of Raleigh combined two distinctly different Western and Eastern traditions on Saturday. Lowry brought his family to the races before heading to Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh for some tailgating and then the football game between N.C. State and Florida State.

“It was pretty cool,” Lowry said of the races. “It was something different to do.”

The race brought back memories of growing up in Laos for Monday Thirakoun, 42, of Raleigh. He said he might try to organize a Laotian team for next year.

“It’s a great event,” Thirakoun said. “This way, people try different foods and see different cultures.”