The Dragon Boat Festival, occurring on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, is almost here. Besides eating Zongzi (sticky rice treats wrapped in bamboo leaves) and drinking realgar wine, the focus of the celebration is on racing dragon boats. Yet even as the sport of dragon boat racing is widely popular, little is known about the actual production of dragon boats.
Shangjiao Village — located in Panyu District and one of the city’s oldest dragon boat production centers — has a reputation that has spread throughout Southeast Asia. Chen Hanhui Dragon Boats Factory, located in the village, today has fewer than 10 workers, but all are sophisticated and adroit craftsman when it comes to building the long boats. The factory was opened in the late 1970s, according to its manager, Mr. Yi. During the factory’s most productive period, more than 20 workers were engaged in making dragon boats as well as fishing boats.
Dragon boats are traditionally made out of teak wood from Myanmar. Teak is chosen for the keels of dragon boats because of its durability and resistance to decay and water damage. A dragon boat includes a dragon head, a dragon body, a keel and a dragon tail, along with oars and rudders. The production process begins with the selection, cutting, polishing and painting of the teak and ends with the installation of the dragon head and tail rudder. To make a dragon boat from teak, six workers are needed to work simultaneously for 20 days. More than 10 procedures are involved in the making of a dragon boat.
Nowadays, only a dozen workshops continue to make dragon boats. Production has slowed, even in Shangjiao Village. That situation is worrisome, because there are no worthy successors to carry the torch of the aging craftsmen who build the boats. But some people expect the waning industry to get a breath of fresh air, now that dragon boats have been included on the state list of intangible cultural heritage items.