As a girl, Debra Sparrow would sit on the banks of the Fraser River, watching her father and brothers paddle a Coast Salish dugout canoe called the Seven Sisters as they prepared for races.
Canoe culture has been a part of the Indigenous Coast Salish Peoples’ ways since time immemorial, and the vessels’ racing heritage dates back more than 100 years. So when Ms. Sparrow was asked to participate in reimagining the look of the traditionally Chinese dragon boats raced at one of the largest festivals of its kind in the world, she immediately saw the symmetry.
“As much as we are different as people … we all come from that place in the water. Canoes, we needed them to get around and everything we did before we had cars,” said Ms. Sparrow, a member of the Musqueam Nation and an acclaimed weaver and artist.
After being disrupted by COVID-19 for two years, the Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival is returning on the waters and shoreside of Vancouver’s False Creek. This time, with new boats designed by artists from Indigenous, Asian and Black communities, organizers want the event to be a place for people to come together and share stories.
Dragon Boat BC, organizer of the festival, announced nine local artists – including Ms. Sparrow, Chepximiya Siyam, Chairman Ting, Kari Kristensen and Joslyn Reid – would be involved in designing 18 new racing boats around the themes of community connections, competition and culture.
The water sport is said to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, a fourth century B.C. Chinese poet and philosopher who drowned himself to protest against the political corruption of his day.
Dragon boat racing debuted in Vancouver during Expo ‘86. Dominic Lai, marketing and operations director for Dragon Boat BC, said the festival was proposed by the local Chinese community as a way to ease racial tensions that flared in Vancouver in the 1980s, when a wave of Hong Kong immigrants came to the city after the U.K. and China signed a joint declaration in 1984 setting the conditions for the transfer of Hong Kong to Chinese control. Six teak dragon boats, courtesy of the Hong Kong government, arrived on the West Coast to facilitate the event.
The racing at Expo was an overwhelming success, Mr. Lai said.
Mr. Lai said the organization wanted to update the festival while society is recovering and rebuilding from the pandemic.
This year’s edition of the event, which is also known as the Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival, will feature people of colour, female artists and queer artists. Mr. Lai said he hopes it can be a place to reflect the richness and diversity of the community.
“Because that’s exactly what dragon boat is; it’s supposed to be a reflection of our community,” he said.
To come up with her design, Ms. Sparrow envisioned being on the water, imagining how the paddles dig deep. When paddles churn the waters, tides are changing, and the swirls begin to happen. So an ancient swirl pattern, which can be found on Musqueam and Salish people’s bracelets and adornments, jumped into her mind.
Ms. Sparrow, whose work is sought after by many museums and institutions, such as the University of British Columbia, the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria and the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, WA, said it’s a positive experience to work with people from other cultures.
“Maybe sometimes, we as Indigenous people in Musqueam, Squamish… in the past, are more tending to keep to our own village. And now we’re on this path of coming out to share the beauty and the integrity and the work of our people and looking at creating those relationships,” she said.
For Katharine Yi and Sean Cao, who are members of Bagua Artist Association based in Vancouver’s Chinatown, their design was inspired by Qu Yuan’s poem “Crossing The River”.
In the poem, the author conjured up an image of himself dressing in jewels and precious gemstones, Mr. Cao said, noting gems symbolize high virtue and character and are perceived as good luck charms. Mr. Cao and Ms. Yi created a pattern for their boat that incorporates a digital painting of gemstones, jade and pearls that are connected by a five-colored strings – black, white, red, yellow and cyan – which are traditionally worn as bracelets during the festival, as a symbol to gain good fortune and drive away illness.
Mr. Cao said their work “carries a message of blessing and good intention for our dear dragon boat athletes.”
This year’s races will take place from June 25 to June 26. The new boats will be available for in-person viewing June 10 and 11.
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