Nearly 2 decades in, Kansas City's annual Dragon Boat Festival is still racing along Brush Creek
The Jackson County Legislature passed a resolution to declare June 10 as “Dragon Boat Festival Day." The annual event at Country Club Plaza began in 2005, and is the only one in the world that takes place on a creek.
Brush Creek will put teams of professionals and other competitors to the test this weekend as Kansas City’s annual Dragon Boat Festival returns to the Country Club Plaza.
For at least one crew, the waterway will become a lab of sorts — with leaders evaluating their teamwork and collaboration skills.
Chris Jurief, a fourth-year resident with the KU Medical Center pathology unit and leader of one of the teams racing June 10, said the event teaches valuable lessons that can help lead the future pathologists on board his boat to better results in health care settings.
“It’s really important for us to communicate well with one another and with other physicians, and be able to depend on each other in different roles in the lab for the best work environment, but also for the best patient outcomes,” Jurief said.
“We have to be able to trust one another and rely on one another in the boat in hopes that we won’t make each other fall into the nasty Brush Creek,” he continued. “In the same vein, we need to be able to rely on each other to do our part in taking care of our patients.”
The Annual Kansas City International Dragon Boat Festival is set to begin 10 a.m. Saturday at the east end of the Country Club Plaza. On Monday, the Jackson County Legislature passed a resolution to declare June 10 as “Dragon Boat Festival Day” in the county.
“This is really an opportunity for us to showcase Chinese culture to the community, to help people to understand Chinese culture, and to learn something about Chinese culture,” said Joan Pu, vice president of the Society for Friendship with China, a local nonprofit organization that began organizing the event in 2005.
Participating teams — many of them sourced from organizations, companies, and universities across the region (like KU Medical Center) — will race row boats along Brush Creek, Pu said, noting that Kansas City’s Dragon Boat Festival is the only one worldwide to take place on a creek.
Traditionally all boats would race at once, but because of space restrictions, teams compete head-to-head in a round-robin style tournament, which Pu said gives them an opportunity to race a minimum of two times and a maximum of seven.
In addition to the boat races, the festival will feature plenty of entertainment, Pu said, including traditional forms of Chinese dance and painting, a Tai Chi demonstration, children’s activities, and a flash mob dance.
Rowing to raise funds
Beyond providing Kansas Citians a chance to deepen their understanding of Chinese culture, the Dragon Boat Festival allows participants to build camaraderie within their organizations and raise scholarship funds for students in Kansas City and China.
The Society for Friendship with China has raised money in previous years to help build computer labs and libraries in rural Chinese elementary schools, Pu said.
The organization also provides scholarships to female students in China, she added, as many girls are not allowed to attend school unless they come from wealthy families.
Additionally, Pu noted, the Dragon Boat Festival raises money to provide Chinese students with college scholarships, specifically focusing on students who might otherwise be overlooked.
“We provide scholarships to college students in Xi’an, our sister city,” Pu said. “Our aim is B-level students, not A-level students. If you’re a grade-A student, you’ll always get something. But B-grade students try their hardest but are not good enough to get scholarships in China, so we give scholarships to them.”
Locally, scholarships are given to students with UMKC Enactus, which fields a team for the boat races annually.
Erin Blocher, faculty advisor for UMKC Enactus, said the dragon boat race helps the students build skills — such as problem solving — that will be necessary for the team’s success in other areas.
“It is really amazing, because in order to row that boat, they have to figure out and solve a lot of problems really quickly,” Blocher said. “I think all these things have a real translation to what the team is trying to do day-to-day when it comes to their entrepreneurship projects.”
Origins in the depths
The Dragon Boat Festival is one of three most significant festivals in China, Pu explained, along with the Lunar New Year and the Autumn Festival, which Pu compared to Thanksgiving.
The event’s history in China dates back more than 2,000 years, beginning with the story of Qu Yuan, a poet, diplomat, and minister who was exiled by the emperor.
After the emperor’s army the capital of Yuan’s state of Chu, Yuan committed suicide by drowning in the Miluo River.
Local residents raced out in boats to save him, or at least retrieve his body (which is said to form the origin of dragon boat races).
When the attempts to reach Yuan failed, his would-be rescuers threw sticky rice, or zongzi, into the river so fish would eat that instead of Yuan’s body.
As a result, a key component of the Dragon Boat Festival involves eating rice wrapped with bamboo leaves, Pu said.
Today, the Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated annually in China and many other countries across Asia and the rest of the world.
In the context of modern American culture and society, Pu hopes that Kansas City’s event will provide residents with an opportunity to better understand their Chinese neighbors, and to realize the similarities between different cultures.
“By learning about the people and the culture, it will help establish friendship at a person-to-person level,” Pu said. “Especially in the past several years with the [increased] Asian hate, this will really help people to understand that these are just different people with a different culture, but still peace-loving people.”