By Dorothy Chin Gerding
Every year around this time, my father and mother gather themselves up and make the pilgrimage to Boston for supplies to make Jung, and celebrate a surprisingly unique holiday, Tuen Ng Jit or Double Fifth festival (thus named because it takes place May 5th of the lunar calendar). As with most Asian holidays it involves food and festivities, and in this case the very colorful and exciting dragon boat races. What makes this festival so unusual is that it is not celebrated on the same day in the all the Asian communities, and it is not originally a religious or government holiday, but a holiday based on a tragedy in history.
The history: My mother told me the story, when I was still in pigtails and satin pajama outfits, about the death Qu Yuan (278 BC). Qu Yuan was a beloved poet and advisory minister to King Huai of the state of Chu (One of the warring states in China). The legend varies from province to province, however most best know him as a social idealist who committed suicide in protest of government corruption. The king had not heeded Qu Yuan’s warning, that a neighboring state would in invade them, but instead supported opposing advisors and exiled Qu Yuan. As history goes the state was invaded, the capital captured, and in his depression upon hearing the news, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River.
The birth of the dragon boat races: You may wonder what does this have to do with Jung go and Dragon boat races? In his exile, Qu Yuan had become very famous and well liked. So when the local villagers learned Qu Yuan’s intentions, they raced out in their boats to save him-now considered the birth of the Dragon Boat Races. Unfortunately his body could not be found, so the local people then made balls of sticky rice (known as Jung) and dropped them in the river in hopes that the fish would eat the rice instead of Qu Yuan’s body…and that’s why we have Jung, my favorite part of any holiday, the food.
Traditions: With each holiday, traditions are set and passed down from generation to generation. This year was my turn to learn to wrap Jung, the delightful bundle of sticky rice with some tasty fillings–some are plain, sweet, and savory (salty). Depending on the country and region, your Jung will vary from wrapping, fillings and even shape, but all will have the yummy sticky rice base. Since my family is originally from the Southern, Cantonese speaking China, we like the savory ones–which may include salted duck eggs, Chinese, sausage, pork belly, dried shrimp, chestnuts, and the occasional shiitake mushroom wrapped in bamboo leaves. I can still smell them boiling in the vat on the back porch. This year’s batch yielded fifty wonderful bundles. Some of my mother’s friends will make hundreds to distribute to friends and family, to remind them of who they are and where they came from.
The Boston Dragon Boat Festival Even though this year’s holiday has passed, you can still celebrate the holiday by attending the Dragon boat races in Boston on June 14th and 15th. The Boston Dragon Boat Festival is the oldest of its kind and takes place annually on the banks of the Charles River in Boston and Cambridge. Thirty to forty teams from across the United States and Canada compete over a 500-meter course, paddling in sleek, colorful 39-foot Hong Kong style dragon boats. I look forward to cheering on a boat, having a Jung with friends and family, and maybe just maybe I will see you there.
If you miss this festival on the Charles, Little Rhody has their own Rhode Island Chinese Dragon Boat races–September 6th this year in celebration of Taiwan day. Races are held on the Blackstone River off the School Street pier in Pawtucket from 8 am – 5 pm. Join the thousands who attend each year for great competition, fun, and to learn about Chinese culture.
- Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities & Recipes
- Celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival
- Awakening the Dragon: The Dragon Boat Festival