Chapter Nineteen

Dragon Boats



The Rains arrive, May 26th 1954

Last week the emergency began. For weeks on end the weather had been dry and dusty and the early spring rains had failed. Only a few feet of water remained in the reservoirs and the city water supply had been restricted to two hours in the morning and two in the evening. Old water buckets, basins, bowls stood everywhere storing the daily ration. The large restaurants were surviving well but, in the overcrowded tenements, the shortage of water had become acute. In camp, all water to lavatories and baths was cut off. Special washing parades were held on the sea beaches, where the lads were able to remove the worst of the daily grime and to cool off. It had been a sweaty fortnight, dust everywhere and no sign of rain.

Last night, at last, the monsoon began, first a shower, then another, and today a steady downpour. I was riding in a bus when the first drops fell. The coolies in the streets put down their burdens and stood smiling at the sky, old women peered out from the arcades, lifting their hands to the sluicing rain. Soon the gutters were swirling with dirty, frothing water washed off the roofs and down the clogged drains of countless tenements. Where clearer water flowed, little shoeshine boys ran along, splashing their bare feet in the gutters laughing and teasing one another. The gross Indian gentlemen, who recline in rattan chairs outside the doors of banks and jewellers shops nursing their rifles on their knees and looking far from protective, grinned expansively as the rain blew into the arcades upon them. The bus conductor shot up the window and laughed; “Ah – a good thing this, eh?” People, like etiolated flowers, were taking on a new lease of life. There was something organic about their joy – and something very inadequate in my own reaction. I was annoyed because I had left my mac behind!




The festival, June 5th 1954

The calm of the evening was disturbed. At first I could not perceive why, then it dawned on me, the strange sound of a distant drum and a light danging of metal on sounding brass hung in the air. Following the evocative sound I went out on to the balcony outside my room. Out in the bay beyond Stanley village lay a long, cigar-shaped craft. As the drum beat, so the long, thin ship went gliding across the water, a dragon boat at practice. Above its prow the dragon raised its proud head while, along its length, gay pennants fluttered in the breeze. In the centre stood the drummer behind his drum and the crew paddled to his rhythm.

Chinese native craft are among the most beautiful small boats I have seen. Whether it be a great junk with ribbed lateen sail, full spread like a great bat’s wing, its shadow spread before the sun on silver waters; a sampan bobbing along with the big-hatted oarsman sculling away side to side over the stern; or this mysterious ship gliding along like an alligator head held high and tapering tail raised above the water; all these boats seem closer to nature than any other. It is as if the builders have for centuries striven to mould their ships to the landscape, not taking advantage of nature as we do in our glossy, streamlined yachts, but simply conforming to her way – the Tao of ships merging with the Tao of sea, bay, and mountain.

Down in the city the town had that air of gaiety about it peculiar to festival time. Tables were set in shop entrances, loaded with food and drink offerings to the gods. The black-clothed women were burning candles and joss sticks before the Door God shrines and others were carrying paper dragon boats to be burnt as an offering to an ancestor. Yet the festival actually commemorates a sorrowful story which Yannang related to me on the top of a tram.

Chu Yuan was a virtuous minister in the state of Chu (400 bc) who, as a result of court intrigue, had been exiled to a country area, remote from the capital. From this distant perch, he observed the political manoeuvres of the various neighbouring states and he could see that the powerful Chin, under a pretence of friendship, were preparing the overthrow of his homeland. Chu Yuan was also a great writer, the founder of a school of prose poetry but, for all his eloquence and wisdom, he had no control over the unrolling of affairs. He poured out his grief in a book, A Conversation with a Fisherman, which was to become a classic. One day, walking beside a river, he saw his reflection in the water. How worried, how tired he looked, how useless his life had become. He leapt into the stream and drowned. The villagers, who loved him well, raced their boats to the spot but to no avail. Although they sprinkled food upon the water to keep the fish from eating his body, he was gone forever. On this day of commemoration, boats are still raced and food is spread on the water, in appreciation of his undying spirit.

The rite is in origin more ancient still. It began as a cult of water deities who ruled the lives of fish and fishermen alike. The scattering of rice on the waters propitiated the spirits of the drowned who, having no graves, had become wandering and malevolent ghosts. Since dragons are the controllers of water and rain, the boats are shaped like dragons to ensure the arrival of the rains. The races symbolise the dragons’ contest in the skies manifest by the vast clouds, thunder and downpours that characterise this time of year.

The dragons were certainly doing their stuff. For three days rain had poured continuously on the colony and the races themselves were held in a downpour. So much so that, after the races, the ever practical Chinese decided that it was unnecessary to scatter any rice at all this year!

Dragon boat races take place in many parts of southern China and the festival is one of which the communists approve. In Hong Kong there are races at Aberdeen, Cheung Chau Island, Kennedy Town, Tsun Wan and Tai Po. Yannang and I went to the races in Kennedy Town where the best boats of the colony competed under the gaze of the Governor and Lady Grantham, who afterwards distributed the prizes.

I had not seen Yannang for a fortnight as he had been working hard for his exams which fall at the end of next month. On seeing him, the rains began to work their magic on me also. The arid days at Stanley, the boring company in the mess, the men’s troubles, a bombadier’s divorce, were suddenly all behind me. Yet it was not as if we talked of anything of consequence. Wandering through the streets, dodging the showers, the pleasure of his company was sufficient.

We arrived early, understanding that the races would begin at two o’clock. They began at four. “Oh well,” said Yannang. “The Chinese sense of time is not always very exact!” However, there was never a dull moment. The finishing line lay between the two bamboo piers of the Chinese swimming sheds in Kennedy Town and the framework of each pier was already crowded with people, mostly wearing swimming costumes. The front row was in continuous turmoil as those behind pressed forward pushing those in front of them into the water. At the ends of the piers firecrackers were exploding with flashes and plumes of smoke and, beyond them, a motley collection of junks, sampans, launches and wallah wallah boats were drawn up, all flying great banners and streamers of bunting. As one large junk arrived ‘dressed over all’ firecrackers were being thrown from it in all directions.

The first of the long, narrow dragon boats arrived, forty barrel-chested Chinamen flaying the water with small paddles, each man plunging his instrument deeply into the water in dynamic movement. With twenty paddles to a side moving in perfect unison, the boat looked just like a great seaworm swimming. The illusion was even stronger when there was a slight inaccuracy in the timing and a wave of paddling passed down one side of the boat.

The dragon boat paraded gently across the front of the course and then, with the drummer beating a wild rhythm, it turned and dashed in towards the stands, the dragon’s head reaching out with gaping jaws like a voracious animal in pursuit of its prey. A fine spray flew out on either side and, lashed by the rain, it charged down the course half hidden in the smoke of a thousand firecrackers. Suddenly all the paddles were jammed into the water and, braking violently, the boat came to a halt, with the dragon head almost rammed within the bamboo frames of the sheds. One after another the boats arrived, each presenting itself with bravado in a charge along the course. In some of the boats the drummer stood in the prow rather than in the centre. Eventually all six boats were present.

The Chinese people are generally thought by Westerners to be silently inscrutable. Indeed, at British ceremonies in the colony, Royal birthday parades and so on, even though they turn up in crowds to watch the fun, they show little excitement or enthusiasm. And, indeed, what do these essentially British events have to do with them? But here the cheering and waving, the tumultuous firecracking, the atmosphere of mirth and frivolity brought with it a great sense of holiday.

The Governor arrived, the first bar of the National Anthem was played, the rain poured down, the nearly naked youths kept falling into and scrambling out of the waters and then, amid deafening explosions, the first race was on. The crowd cheered madly. The voice of the commentator became quite inaudible; his friends were cheering into his microphone. The smoke was so dense only the last quarter of the course was visible. Six boats came dashing through the spray, drummers gesticulating wildly, the crews flaying the water, each dragon head ferociously reaching out for victory. Amidst huge applause they jammed on the brakes, coming to a halt in a welter of churning water, sea snakes from an ancient time.

By now it was raining very heavily indeed and the stands were bobbing with hundreds of the black umbrellas the Chinese use against either rain or sun. Naturally those behind could see nothing so a great cry went up as one by one the brollies were grasped from behind and extinguished.

When it was all over, there was a typically Chinese chaos which everyone enjoyed hugely. The management had planned carefully so that everyone could get in but, at the end, because the Governor had to leave first, the exit became totally blocked. Governor or no governor, once a Chinese crowd moves there is no stopping it, so it began to flow around the side of the entrance to come face to face with barbed wire.

Among a people other than the Chinese this might have produced a catastrophe but, here, everyone roared with laughter and, in great good humour, came to a standstill and just looked at it. In a typically Chinese solution, the police promptly cut a hole through the wire and everyone poured through. By this time of course the Governor was on his way to tea and the entrance was free. Watching all this in heavy rain with my mac over my head, I found that two small boys had appropriated my sleeves and were using them as hats, grinning about in delight.

Back in camp I saw the dragon boat of Stanley return to the bay. Rolling on the swells of the Pacific the craft looked even more magnificent, the dragon head rising and falling on the waves, paddles working the dull, rain-smashed sea, dark green hills behind a glistening shore. The boat again seemed imbued with the poise and ferocity of a strange sea animal, manifesting the beauty and terror of the ocean.