Splashes and drums could be heard along the shores of Lake Phalen as the boat race began at the 11th annual Dragon Festival on Sunday.
An estimated 9,000 to 10,000 visitors and the city of St. Paul experienced Asian culture last weekend. Representatives from the University’s China Center also attended the festival, welcoming 37 faculty members from China University of Mining and Technology to Minnesota.
Visiting faculty member Meng Fanrong, who raced at the event, speaking through a translator said the festival showed the strong connection among Chinese people all over the world.
“Among Chinese people, no matter where they are, in China or in United States, they have some national identity Ö when they unite together as a team to compete with others,” Fanrong said.
China Center administrative assistant James Polga said the visiting faculty members might have never participated in a dragon boat race in China because the sport is taken seriously there and requires so much training.
“That’s funny they come all this way to be in a custom of their own country and do it here in St. Paul,” he said.
Dragon boat racing dates back 2,400 years, and there is an ongoing effort to include the sport in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
The China Center’s boat crew was comprised of 20 members, including University students and six visiting faculty members from China.
The Chinese faculty members are in Minnesota as part of a five-week training course.
“They learn how to teach their classes in English in whatever field they’re in,” Polga said. “(They’re here) to learn English and about the U of M and our large public education system for colleges.”
The festival is visited by a wide range of people. A survey conducted by the University of Minnesota Tourism Center said 60 percent of the visitors to the 2006 festival were white, while 30 percent were Asian.
“(The Chinese faculty) can come out to the event and see diversity at that event,” Polga said. “It’s not just Asian people, it’s everyone. It’s a real diverse crowd.”
Another visiting faculty member He Fengyou said through a translator that the event’s large and diverse turnout shows how Chinese culture has expanded to the Midwest, the “heartland of American society.”
Evelyn Lee, chairwoman of the festival’s executive committee, said the dragon boats have drawn more interest in the event.
“We were approached by several people at the festival that want to race next year,” she said. “Also, (St. Paul) Mayor (Chris) Coleman seems interested to have (a boat) from the city.”
Lee said the event is a way for those who are unfamiliar with Asian culture to learn and participate in different events.
“I think people began to realize that Dragon Fest is something special,” she said. “Not only does it unite the Asian Pacific community, but it’s also a venue for people to get to know us and for us to get to know them.”
Elaine Dunn, secretary of the festival’s executive committee, said the event includes all members of the Asian community.
“I think it’s just so much fun to see Asians getting together to celebrate at the same time,” she said. “Not just ‘I’m Chinese ÖThai Ö (or) Cambodian.’ We’re all Asians, and that’s kind of this year’s theme.”
Dunn said the boat races are also a team-building opportunity for those who participated.
Human resources and industrial relations graduate student Yanjie He agreed with Dunn.
“Mainly we do it for the teamwork,” he said. “I can’t swim Ö I was not scared, but I think it’s really fun.”
Shirley Wang, human resources and industrial relations graduate student, said Chinese students participate in a lot of events around the Twin
Cities, not just Asian-related festivals.
“I know a lot of activities in Minnesota, the Taste of Minnesota and fireworks on Independence Day, we all participate in these activities and we really enjoy it,” she said. “It’s fun to have a lot of lakes in Minnesota; I love Minnesota.”