Dragon Boats in the Diaspora: America’s Coolest Dragon Boat Festivals!

Updated for 2024!

It might be the coolest holiday that you’ve never heard of. Or maybe it’s a major event that your family looks forward to each year. Either way, the Dragon Boat Festival is a time-honored Chinese tradition that’s made a major splash– literally– across the USA. It’s often called the fastest-growing water sport in the country!

The holiday involves teams of people racing long wooden boats decorated with dragons in local rivers, drumming, and delicious sticky rice balls! It’s been a national holiday in China since 2004, but was celebrated long, long before that.

How did it get started?

Nobody is sure how the Dragon Boat Festival started. Different regions of China share different legends and accounts of how the tradition began. Some say dragon boat races started as a military exercise. Some say it began as an ancient tradition in which people asked dragons to watch over their rice crops in a legendarily ‘unlucky’ time of year (the 5th day of a 5th month was considered to be bad luck). Other tales say it commemorated various different people who drowned in the river.

But the most famous story behind the Dragon Boat Festival involves a famous poet and politician named Qu Yuan. A highly influential official in the Chu administration, he advised the emperor to form an alliance with the state of Qin, which was growing extremely powerful and might conquer the Chu. The emperor found this suspicious and exiled Qu Yuan. Unfortunately, the emperor realized his mistake too late. The Qin conquered the Chu state and Qu Yuan drowned himself in despair. According to some legends, people rowed out in boats to try to save him. Some say they dropped food into the river so the fish would eat them and not Qu Yuan’s body. Others say that Qu Yuan became a river spirit and people left food offerings to him, but water dragons always got them first. Either way, this started the tradition of making sticky rice balls for the festival!

When to celebrate?

In China, the Dragon Boat Festival takes place on the (unlucky) 5th day of the 5th month on the Chinese calendar. In 2024, people in China and around the world celebrated on June 10th. That said, American dragon boat races don’t always take place on the same day– some occur later in the summer. You might still have a chance of attending a Dragon Boat Festival this summer, and they all feature their own local traditions! Let’s explore some of the exciting festivals around the country.

Photo by Mad Ball on Flickr

The Boston Dragon Boat Festival

The Boston festival was the first Dragon Boat Festival celebrated in the USA, and it’s still one of the biggest! It commemorated its 45th anniversary this year. Over 20,000 people turned out on the Charles River on June 9th to watch 60+ teams of racers. In addition to racing, the crowds enjoyed traditional performing arts like Chinese classical music, martial arts displays, Taiko drumming, and dance ensembles from a variety of Asian cultures. Plus, kids tried their hands at arts and crafts like paper lanterns and calligraphy!

Chicago Dragon Boat Festivals

Now here’s one you can still visit! The Chicago International Dragon Boat Festival takes place on July 27th this year! Rather than racing down a river, this 11th annual festival takes place on Busse Lake in the Ned Brown Preserve. Why is it called an “international” festival? Canadian teams compete alongside Americans in this popular race! Festivities include a retail marketplace and a food truck bazaar.

This isn’t the only Dragon Boat Festival in Chicago! The Chicago Chinatown Dragon Boat Race for Literacy occurs on Saturday, June 22nd at Ping Tom Memorial Park on the Chicago River. It supports a good cause, too! Ever since the year 2000, proceeds of the race support schools around Chinatown, buying books for students and funding literacy programs. We look forward to seeing what the 2024 race is like!

Kent Nishimura, The Denver Post

Colorado Dragon Boat Festival

Watch out for dragons sailing through Sloan’s Lake Park in Denver! The Colorado Dragon Boat Festival will take place on July 27 and 28! With over 150,000 attendees and 180 vendors and performers, this festival is a big deal. In fact, it may be the largest in the USA. Festivities include the Colorado Dragon Boat Film Festival, the only all-Asian film festival in Colorado, and live performances on 3 different festival stages.

Society for Friendship with China

Kansas City Dragon Boat Festival

Eleven local and international teams will compete in the Kansas City Dragon Boat Festival on Brush Creek this June 15! Xi’an, China is one of Kansas City’s Sister Cities, and Chinese and Asian-American culture is on full display here. A delegation from Xi’an will do a martial arts presentation, local children will perform traditional dances, and booths will showcase Chinese culture and offer free children’s activities. The festival’s dragon boats themselves were gifts from China!

Save Our Sisters Miami

Miami Dragon Boat Festival

If you fancy visiting a Dragon Boat Festival but don’t have any free time this summer, the Miami festival is perfect for you. It’s not happening until October 26! Proceeds will help support Save Our Sisters, an organization that introduces breast cancer survivors to dragon boat racing. Even if October is still hot in Miami, guests can enjoy a health and wellness village as well as a food truck bazaar and cultural expo.

Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York City

Some say New York is the cultural capital of America. Whether or not that’s true, it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t have their own Dragon Boat Festival. The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York began in 1990 and is still running in Flushing, Queens! This year’s race will take place on August 3-4. International coaches will run a special clinic for competitors in the weeks leading up to it. With over 180 teams and 40,000 spectators, it’s one of the country’s biggest festivals. In recent years, performers include a steel orchestra, the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York, the Shaolin Temple Kung Fu Association, a wandering storyteller, and more!

Portland Rose Festival

Portland Dragon Boat Festivals

Ever since 1989, dragon boats have raced down the Williamette River in Portland as part of the city’s epic Rose Festival. Over 60 teams participated in this year’s race on June 8 and 9! From parades to garden shows to street festivals, the Rose Festival is one of Portland’s biggest events, and the dragon boat race plays a major part. Couldn’t make it this year? Portland holds another dragon boat race this September 7th and 8th!


Washington, DC Dragon Boat Festival

The 19th annual Washington DC Dragon Boat Festival took place on May 18 this year. Around 50 teams raced along the Potomac waterfront in the nation’s capital! With ceremonies including an “eye-dotting ceremony” to awaken the dragons and a traditional lion dance, the race was as much an opportunity for cultural education as friendly competition. The festival capped off the city’s Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage month celebrations throughout the month of May!

Have you ever attended a Dragon Boat Festival in your own city? Have a favorite not on this list? Tell us about it!

Interested to learn more about Chinese culture and language? NeuLingo offers one-on-one virtual Mandarin Chinese lessons for students in grades K-12!