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All you need to know about Dragon Boat Festival in Singapore

A colourful festival that's all about dragons, poets and rice dumplings

Cheryl Sekkappan

Dragon Boat Festival or Duan Wu Jie is one of the biggest celebrations for the Chinese. Typically held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, it originates from southern China –beginning as a way to worship the river dragons and evolving into a commemoration of the celebrated 'people's poet' Qu Yuan. 

In Singapore, you know you're in the thick of Dragon Boat Festival when Chinese relatives start preparing rice dumplings. This is also the time when dragon boaters take to our rivers and channels for epic races set to the beat of drums. Dragon Boat Festival will likely be a more muted affair once again this year, but we take the time to look back on its origins and traditions. 

RECOMMENDED: Where to buy rice dumplings for delivery and takeaway in Singapore

The legends

The river dragon

In Chinese culture and mythology, dragons are auspicious symbols associated with strength, power and prosperity. Particularly in ancient times, they were believed to dwell in water bodies and to have control over river, seas, floods, the weather and water in general. On the lunar calendar, the fifth day of the fifth month tends to coincide with the summer solstice when rice seedlings are transplanted. To ensure good weather and bountiful harvest, it is said that the southern Chinese would make offerings to the river dragons during this time. 

Qu Yuan

The legend of the poet and statesman Qu Yuan is one that most Singaporeans will be familiar with. Once a trusted advisor to the king Lord Huai in the Warring States era in China, he fell out of favour to due political machinations by opponents – and was banished. In despair, he jumped into the Mi Luo River and died. 

One version of the legend says that the common folk threw rice dumplings in the river to prevent the fish and shrimp from devouring Qu Yuan's body. Another version describes fishermen beating their paddles to scare away the man-eating fish. Either way, dragons and rice dumplings have found a permanent place in the duan wu jie festivities. 

Celebrations in Singapore

Rice dumplings

The primary dish or snack you'll find on Singaporean Chinese's tables during Dragon Boat Festival is likely the bak zhang or rice dumplings. Across dialect groups, bak zhang made by stuffing glutinous rice with various sweet or savoury fillings before wrapping it in bamboo leaves and steaming it. Cantonese dumplings have Chinese smoked sausage, beans and salted egg yolk; Hokkien dumplings are typically seasoned with five-spice powder and stuffed with marinated pork, mushrooms and chestnut; and the Nyonya bak zhang has minced meat with a distinctive blue pea-coloured tip. 

Have some fun with the family making your own bak zhang – getting the wrapping right certainly takes some skill. Otherwise, check out the best places to buy rice dumplings for delivery and takeaway in Singapore

Dragon boat racing

Head down to spots like Kallang River or Bedok Reservoir and you might catch Singapore's dragon boaters practising on the waters. Like the fishermen who sailed dragon-shaped boats during the summer solstice to appease the river spirits, dragon boating today is carried out in slim and colourful dragon-painted boats.

Boaters aren't racing to save any drowned ministers these days, but they nevertheless draw on great strength, skill and coordination during these competitions. In Singapore, annual races are held over two days in July at Bedok Reservoir, Kallang River and the Gardens by the Bay Marina Channel. It was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, but there are hopes that the race can proceed this year on July 10 and 11. 

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