Laura McFadden, flag puller for Team Security Service One, pulls the flag in a race with Team Seas The Dragon! during the 2014 Colorado Dragon Boat Festival at Sloans Lake Park. (Denver Post file)
When the robed monk blesses the dragon, the festival will have begun.
It’s a tradition known as “Awakening the Dragon,” and it’s been an annual feature of the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival since its inception in 2001. Before the competition begins, Buddhist monks will bless the dragon boats while special guests “dot the eyes” of the racing vehicles.
The spiritual ceremony helps kick off the festivities, which will take over Sloan’s Lake Park from 10 a.m. on Saturday to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
For 17 years, the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival — the largest of its kind in the nation — has been a source of pride and cultural preservation for thousands of Asians across the Rocky Mountain region.
“The Asian communities in America were very siloed, and the festival was a way to bring all Asians together,” said festival director Jennifer Nguyen. “This is a place where Asians can gather together and learn about their culture, both traditional and contemporary.”
Jianying Shifu, left, a monk from the Chung Tai Zen Center, uses paint and a brush for the eye dotting ceremony at the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival in 2012. (Kathryn Scott, The Denver Post)
Nguyen takes pride in the inclusiveness of the “all-Asian” event, which keeps alive a wide variety of distinct practices and rituals, from traditional dance performances to a spicy ramen-eating contest. Motel6 recently named the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival one of the top six quirkiest summer festivals in the United States.
Organizers expect more than 100,000 people to attend the festival, which will feature nearly 80 vendors and organizations, 27 Taste of Asia food options, and live performances on five themed stages, from magic to music to martial arts.
Forty teams will compete in the namesake activity, dragon boat racing, a 2,000-year-old traditional Chinese paddling sport that combines art and athleticism. The sport has two basic divisions: Taiwan-style, or flag-catching; and Hong Kong-style, or competitive racing, which uses lower and faster vessels without flag catchers straddling the boat head.
The two-day festival will host 52 races for competitors converging in Colorado from across the globe. The Okinawa Summer Dragons, a diverse mix of 20 women who first raced in Japan in 2007, will compete in the Hong Kong-style competition.
Karin Van Gorden is a guest relations tour representative at MillerCoors, a sponsor of the festival, and captain of the Coors dragon boat team. Seven years ago, she had never stepped in a boat, let alone a canoe. When a colleague asked her to join the company boat at the 2010 festival, she decided to pick up a paddle.
“I like new challenges,” she said. “It’s a real workout. And there’s a whole technique. It’s all about being in sync with the boat. If you’re fast but not in sync, you won’t go anywhere and you’ll tire out.”
The 20-person Coors boat hits the water only a handful of times each year — two practices, and then all-day competition on the first day of the festival. Still, Van Gorden says she’s noticed marked improvement over the years, even if the competition remains light-hearted.
The Colorado Dragon Boat Festival will take over Sloan Lake this weekend. (Provided by the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival)
“People want to win for sure, but if we don’t win no one’s hard on themselves or unsportsmanlike,” she said. “It’s all really fun.”
After the dragon-blessing ceremony, the festival will kick off with an Olympics-style procession in which the competing racers will represent their sponsoring organizations and communities.
Participants belong to more than 40 Asian ethnicities and nationalities within metro Denver. The panoply of identities represents a unique strength of the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival, said Tom Kazutomi, a Japanese-American immigrant and chair of the festival’s board of directors.
“This organization is working to illuminate the different cultures within the greater Asian community,” he said. “We try to be cognizant of the fact that there are many Asian communities.”
Since his involvement with the festival began in the early 2000s, he’s witnessed an evolution from an emphasis on traditional culture to a more inclusive and dynamic showcasing of contemporary cultural integration.
That shift reflects larger demographic shifts taking place across the metro region. Over the past 10 years, the Mile High City has sustained one of the highest urban growth rates in the country. Denver has around 24,000 Asian residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Denver is very diverse, and it’s continuing to grow and expand,” said Nguyen. “There’s nothing like this out there. It showcases both athletic competition and traditional performances and culture. It merges two worlds into one. People really care about the community and want to learn more, to be connected.”