Dragon boats fly to finish as part of annual festival

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Nestled on the southern side of Phalen Lake and Park last weekend were multicolored kites tearing through the sky, kimono-clad dancers flirting with a crowd and dragons darting through water.

This colorful scene marked the 10th annual Dragon Festival, in which the University’s China Center participated.

The State Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans created the festival to celebrate and increase awareness for Asian culture in the Twin Cities area. The festival featured live entertainment, activities, gift tents and dragon boat races, the most popular attraction.

Elaine Dunn, Dragon Festival executive board secretary, said nearly 9,000 people attended the two-day festival, a majority of whom were not Asian. It is the largest of its kind in Minnesota, she said.

“The festival is marketed as a family entertainment event,” Dunn said, “and people come to it from as far as Duluth.”

In 2004 the China Center participated in the boat race portion of the festival, where it won first in its division. It did not participate in 2005’s festival.

This year the center operated a tent with activities such as Chinese calligraphy and “jianzi,” a form of Chinese Hacky Sack. Its rowing team, the Fat Pandas, was the runner-up in its division.

James Polga, administrative assistant for the center and boat team captain, said while some teams get competitive, the Fat Pandas were out just to have fun.

He said the center’s decision to participate in the festival was a matter of being part of a larger community, and that the festival would benefit the center and its mission.

The center works as a liaison between the United States and China, aiding study-abroad and hosting seminars to encourage a better understanding of China.

One of the center’s missions is outreach, said Jennifer Wu Dunn, a Fat Panda team member.

“Going to the festival is one way to fulfill our mission and thank our friends,” she said.

Wu Dunn said her team members picked the name Fat Pandas because they wanted something Chinese that would avoid name duplication with the 21 other teams competing, which boasted names like Scales and Tales and the Target Red Dragons.

The 20 members of the Fat Pandas raced Sunday in a traditional dragon boat intricately carved to represent a dragon. The boats were uniquely painted with animal themes and resembled oversized canoes.

The Fat Pandas cruised Lake Phalen in two boats; one resembled a monarch butterfly and the other a black and white cow.

The festival committee assigned a boat to each team along with a stern, a person who helps guide the 30-foot vessel.

Family and friends of the team members lined the lake to cheer them on.

Laura Zhang shouted “jia yu” with her friends at her husband, who was a team member and is a master’s student at the University. As the Fat Pandas sped to the finish line, people shouted the Chinese phrase, which Zhang said means “quicker” or “faster.”

The Fat Pandas raced in three heats during the festival tournament and were crowned runners-up in their division, besting all but a team from American Home Mortgage.

Dunn said putting the festival together is hard work, but the numerous volunteers and corporate sponsors help tremendously.

“(The festival) is in its growing stages, and we’d like to get to where we actually support a cause,” Dunn said.

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