Before the sun sets on Lake Merced, a 20-person boat crew is plying the water, paddling in unison. A drummer at the front pounds rhythmically while the steering leader, the “cox,” controls from the rear. The dragon boat seems to glide effortlessly across the lake, but these two-hour drills require tremendous power, dexterity, and endurance. Participation is not for the faint of heart.
Teen boys and girls from Community Youth Center (CYC) converge from sectors throughout San Francisco and Daly City, committing themselves to weekly practices, rain or shine, from February to November. The majority are Chinese, several from Chinatown. For many, being part of the team is a game changer. That powerful sense of belonging, the responsibility, and physical discipline keeps them away from unsavory activities that might otherwise do them harm. Stories of how dragon boat racing saved them from gangs, drugs, cutting and self-mutilation is not uncommon.
This sport points to roots in a legend that takes place in China over 2,500 years ago. Qu Yuan, revered poet and advisor to the emperor, threw himself into the river in despair over the invasion of his homeland, the Chu state. The villagers swiftly rowed out to the death scene in their boats while beating drums. To commemorate his passing, they held annual dragon boat races.
Today, dragon boat racing is an international sport for every race and ethnicity with teams from Canada to as far as Hungary. Dragon boat festivals are held around the world to watch the best of the best compete for trophies and cash prizes.
Meanwhile, the teens on Lake Merced are getting a head start. Unlike official school teams that require tryouts, CYC accepts everyone who applies. The practices, uniforms, and boat use are completely free. CYC, a community non-profit for 50 years, is open to helping all, but specifically targets high-need, at-risk Asian youth, providing an array of services from counseling to job readiness skills.
Henry Ha, CYC program manager, was one of those at-risk youth who found support. As an immigrant attending Galileo High School, he recalls there was little for him to do after school, and it would have been easy to get mixed up with the wrong crowd. That’s when the CYC staff encouraged him and others to start a dragon boat team in 2001. Since then, more than 1,000 youth have benefitted from CYC’s dragon boat experience. As a dragon boat coach, he knows each student by name and challenges them to attend every practice, rain or shine.
“This program fuels my passion and commitment to give back all that I've learned to the next generation,” says Henry. “It gives them encouragement to be their best, build up their self-esteem and confidence, and develop leadership. And, it provides them a lifetime of memories.”