While the Sarawak Regatta was started a long time ago during Brooke reign, the dragon boats only made their debut on the Sarawak river in 1952.
Originating from the Pearl River Delta region of China’s southern Guangdong province, the dragon boat dates back 2,000 years.
Every dragon boat has a drummer who leads the paddlers with their rhythmic drum beats.
According To Kao Lun-wei, there were two dragon boats that rode the waves of the Sarawak river during the 1952 Kuching regatta; one was green while the other one was red.
They provided a colourful spectacle for the crowd and served to introduce the local Chinese into water sports.
“Properly used, the dragon boat races are run on the fifth day of the fifth moon in the Chinese lunar calendar, corresponding this year to the 28th May; but it was agreed by the promoters that it would be an excellent thing to join in with the rest of the paddlers,” Kao stated.
Explaining about the legend behind dragon boats, Kao wrote, “The great beasts of China, heraldic, mythical and potent are tigers, dragons, kilins and lions. Dragons are the incarnation of the spirit of the waters, of the clouds, seas and rivers. It is the emblem of the power of the emperor (having five claws in place of the usual four). The tiger is the king of beasts (having the character wang meaning king on his forehead) and presumably being a land animal is not a good term with the dragon.
“As the dragon is the king of the waters, it is not surprising that he should be taken for the shape of a ritual boat”.
The dragon boats at the then Kuching Regatta
According to Kao, time was kept by the beating of a drum and gong in each boat. The drums for the Kuching Regatta in 1952 were brought especially from Singapore.
As for the gongs, Kao said they were unable to buy the correct type of gong in time, and hoped to get some from Hong Kong later.
The dragon boats were launched at Pengkalan Batu with an eye-dotting ceremony just like how it has been done in these recent years.
Instead of the chief minister like today, the ceremony was carried out by a Chinese priest.
Kao pointed out the launching ceremony was not done like in the olden days. “One reasons for not performing the ceremony was that it would have cost the Dragon Boat Society about $400 in sacrificial pig, incense, crackers and priest’s fees.”
Present-day dragon boat races
However, it was not mentioned if the two dragon boats had won any race during the Kuching Regatta in 1952.
Fast forward to the 21st century, the dragon boat race in Kuching has gone a lot bigger with participants coming from all over the world.
For 2019, there were 14 countries participating in The Sarawak International Dragon Boat Regatta including United Arab Emirates and United States of America.