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Thousands turn out for Flushing’s dragon boat race

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Thousands of visitors from all over the city came out in droves to Flushing Meadows Corona Park this weekend to witness what some call Queens' most popular sporting event.

The 18th annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival celebrated Chinese culture and traditions with a variety of events, shows and games that appealed to people of all backgrounds. For two days, the park was transformed into an Asian village complete with kites, balloons, music and food.

"I think the thing that draws me is the name 'dragon boat,' " said first-time visitor Will Raynolds, 26, of Washington Heights, Manhattan. "It's an interesting [boat] and it seems to draw in a diverse crowd."

Despite some rainstorms Saturday, crowds still hung on to see the competitive races that featured more than 150 teams, including one sponsored by TimesLedger Newspapers. Many of the riders, who competed for medals, cash and airline tickets, worked extra hard to make it across the lake to the finish line for every meet.

Michael Wu, 37, who raced with the nonprofit Organization of Chinese Americans, said he and his team loved paddling downstream to fans' cheers.

"It was a good adrenaline rush. We've been practicing for two months every Saturday and we all get into it," said Wu, whose team finished second in the 250-meter race.

The races were not the only contest going on during the festival. Dozens of visitors took part in several games, such as the very popular dumpling-eating contest.

The winner broke records by chowing down on 66 dumplings for the $1,000 prize.

"I had 11 dumplings and it was fun," said contestant May-Mei Lee, 23, of Borough Park, Brooklyn. "The Dragon Boat [Festival] is great because it is good to bring out the community."

The festival is the modern-day celebration of one of the oldest holidays in China, dating back more than 2,000 years. It commemorates the death of Qu Yuan, a poet and Chu kingdom minister. Legend states Qu Yuan was disgraced by a corrupt prince and committed suicide in the Mi Lo River after he was banished from his land.

Fishermen loyal to the minister tried to save him, but could not find his body. As a memorial, villagers would throw rice into the river to "feed" Yuan and race specially designed boats with dragon heads on the front to honor his death.

"It's a way for people to build camaraderie," Wu said of the races.

Several performers reenacted those ancient Chinese customs on a large stage with concerts and martial arts presentations. The shows amazed the crowd, particularly non-Asian visitors, who had never seen or heard of the shows before.

Allen Lau, 30, of Flushing, who has come to the races for the last 10 years, said he has seen a growing crowd of non-Asians come out to the festival and was proud that his culture is reaching a new audience.

"That's the beautiful thing about it. It's a sport that anyone can participate in and enjoy," he said.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

Posted 6:39 pm, October 10, 2011
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