Arts and Culture

The Story Behind Denver's Annual Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon boats on shore ready for the race.
Dragon boats on shore ready for the race. Colorado Dragon Boat Festival
Celebrate Asian and Asian-American culture this weekend at the annual Colorado Dragon Boat Festival at Sloan's Lake Park. The festival's main event includes boat races between rowing teams who glide across the lake in dragon-shaped boats, celebrating an ancient Chinese sport.

Since its debut in 2001, the CDBF has taken place at Sloan's Lake. The sport has grown largely over the years, going from sixteen teams during the initial year to up to fifty competing in two divisions. About 16,000 people attended the first year, and that number has grown to upwards of 125,000 people. It is hosted by Colorado Dragon Boat, a nonprofit dedicated to showcasing the growing and diverse Asian community to the public.
click to enlarge
Attendees from a past Colorado Dragon Boat Festival.
Colorado Dragon Boat Festival
“I came out here to Colorado, and noticed when I moved here that the diversity level is a little bit different than what I was used to,” says Sara Moore, executive director of the festival. "I couldn't really see any people of color in Colorado, and what I found was the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival. I started in December of 2017 and have been the executive director ever since. I am just really excited to be able to help put up these events, especially the Dragon Boat Festival that really promotes AAPI culture here in Colorado."

CDBF will have more than twenty food vendors in two Taste of Asia food courts, an Asian marketplace, an interactive children's area, more than 100 performances that showcase traditional Asian and Asian-American culture, and, of course, the boat race itself. Teams wishing to partake in the race must register online through its website. CDBF provides the boats for the competition.

“We are a grassroots organization that started the festival. We needed to provide the AAPI community with an opportunity for everyone to come together in celebration, and to really celebrate accomplishments and contributions coming out of the Asian communities here in Colorado, which back in 2001 and still today are often unseen and unheard. This was a way to lift up our voices and to really let Colorado know that we are here. We are small but mighty,” Moore explains.

Dragon boat racing dates back 2,000 years to ancient China. Legend has it that Chu Yuan, a poet and a loyal aide to the emperor, was disliked by the court, and when the emperor passed away, Chu Yuan was banished. In an effort to be noticed by the new emperor, he threw himself into the Mi Lo River. His followers went after him, banging drums and beating their paddles to keep the fish away from his body. Ever since then, athletes gather all over the world to commemorate his sacrifice for honor and justice.
click to enlarge
Dragon Boat Festival team during a race.
Colorado Dragon Boat Festival
“Back in 2001, it blew expectations out of the water," recalls Moore. We knew it was going to be a very significant and important event that is very much needed in Colorado. ... Here in the U.S., it is very niche. But in Asia, it is very popular and big. We were thinking of a way to bring people together, especially in the AAPI community and the general public, through food and friendly athletic competition.

"There are two different types of boats we have," she adds. "We have one called a flag catcher, with a giant dragon head and a dragon tail on it, where someone lays on top of the dragon head and catches the flag at the end of the race. We also have smaller, more sleek boats...and those are faster and glide right through the water.”

The nonprofit not only hosts the CDBF, but also does an annual Colorado Dragon Boat Film Festival, which occurred in March this year. The film fest aims to highlight and “promote the culture, contributions, and accomplishments of Asian and Asian Pacific American communities through film,” according to its website.

“The film festival started back in 2016, so it is one of our newer programs. But we are the only all-Asian and Asian-American film festival in Colorado, and we are currently partnering with Denver Film to help put up this event," notes Moore. "It is a four-day event where we have all Asian and Asian-American films that we showcase from all over the world representing Asians, whether that be with directors, actors, producers or anyone in the film industry. Not only do we show the films, but we pair them with different things. We had culinary experiences with one of our documentaries on food.

"We are really coming together as a community — both AAPI and the general public — to share the culture and storytelling,” she says.

Moore takes great pride in her work with the organization and emphasizes the passion she has for its goals. “Our mission is to build bridges of awareness, knowledge and understanding between the diverse Asian American Pacific Islander communities and the general public through cultural education, leadership development and athletic competition. For me, specifically, the AAPI community means quite a bit to me and my family. [My grandparents] have been such a huge inspiration in my life, to really just show that when we come together and learn about different cultures and different people's stories, we really are just one community. There can be love there,” she concludes.

Dragon Boat Festival, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, July 23, and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, July 24, Sloan's Lake Park, 1700 Sheridan Boulevard. Boat race begins at 8 a.m. both days; find out more here.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.