By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
Quieter and longer lasting, dragon boat racing of the East — featuring boats with colorful dragon heads on their bow — has some similarities with drag racing in the West. The purpose of both activities is to find out who can reach the finish line in the shortest amount of time.
Approximately 5,000 people gathered at Thea’s Park, near the Foss Waterway in Tacoma, to support their favorite teams and celebrate unity among Asian cultures. For the first time, they cheered for six youth teams at the Sixth Annual International Bon Om Tuk Dragon Boat Festival on Aug. 8. This year’s theme was, “Raising for Change, Come See Our Community in a New Light.”
“This is the first year we brought out the juniors,” said Chanda Sovan, president of the Asian American Dragon Boat Association (AADBA). In regard to increasing youth development and awarding scholarships, she said, “Our overall goal is to see a positive change in our community. We want everybody to know that we are moving towards positive change in the community.”
The Khmer Krom Dragon Junior boat team took home the championship trophy in the youth division. All 25 team members — including one dragon boat drummer who is responsible for setting the timing of paddling strokes by beating a large drum — paddled their boat down the 500-meter course with a winning time of 2 minutes, 23.16 seconds.
The team formed in 2008. Laurence Lam is the team captain and Hien Lam is the team manager.
Other youth teams include The Kirkland Spitfire Junior, Tsunamis Nagas, Team Xtreme Junior, Spitfire Sake Junior, and Wasabi Kraken, a team from Portland, Ore.
Team Xtreme won the mixed/co-ed division, and the Khmer Krom Dragons won the open international mix division.
AADBA took over the planning for the annual festival, replacing the Cambodian American Support Network. The organization raised approximately $5,100 from parking donations and sales from t-shirts and various beverages.
“We would like to see more involvement from local businesses as well as corporations who want to foster family-unity, family-time events, and, essentially, Bon Om Tuk is a family event,” Sovan said.
AADBA Vice President and Race Director Kosal Nam has been involved in the Cambodian community since 2001. He hopes future festivals will include more neighboring communities. “We do want to open it to outside communities like Portland and Canadian teams to make it a more competitive event and race,” he said.
Sovan added, “We want to make it a focal point, a destination for a lot of our sister countries to come out here and just participate with us.”
In regards to long-term goals, she said, “I’d like to see our organization build a multicultural center which will include a banquet center, an education center, and a sports center that allows the youth to have a place to go.”
Daravuth Huoth, honorary consul of the Kingdom of Cambodia, was the event’s guest of honor. Ron Chow, a State of Washington Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs commissioner, conveyed greetings from Gov. Chris Gregoire.
“The number one goal of the AADBA is to provide youth programs centered on teamwork, educational scholarship programs, and leadership skills,” said guest speaker Captain Mike Miller of the Tacoma Police Department. “[Valuing diversity] is one of the goals of the AADBA, to strengthen relationships among different ethnic and cultural groups, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and
community leaders on a local, national, and international scale.”
“Team members gain confidence and camaraderie by succeeding and accomplishing an important mission through working with others who share in the same vision and goals,” he added.
Keynote speaker and Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma said, “Over the last few years of joining you for this annual event, I have learned that ‘Bon Om Tuk’ means [festival of] ‘boat races,’ and that is the big attraction for today.”
“It’s a time to celebrate the cultural connection to water and all aspects of life — food, agriculture, spirituality, and economic prosperity,” said Baarsma, who is also a former dragon boat paddler.
“If you paddle at the same time and you’re synchronized, then, pretty much, you will move the boat faster,” admitted Nam. “Hopefully, the juniors will learn teamwork.”
The sport began more than 2,500 years ago and is a three-day annual Cambodian tradition held on the Chaktonul River in Phnom Penh. Similar festivals can be found throughout other Asian countries such as Thailand, China, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. ♦