2010 Dragon Boat Race

It’s hard to believe that the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival is celebrating its 17th year this July. Time has truly flown by!

When the volunteer group of Operations Committee members came together to put on the first CDBF in 2001, we felt like we were throwing a big party to celebrate the Denver area’s rich and diverse Asian communities.

It turned out to be bigger than expected: We thought there would be about 7,000 people to check out our Marketplace and Performing Arts Stage and root for teams in the ancient sport of Dragon Boat Races at Sloan’s Lake Park. Much to our shock, 16,000 guests enjoyed the one-day event, and most of the five (only five!) food vendors that day ran out of food before the end of the day, even after running back to their restaurants and warehouses multiple times to re-stock. Westword named CDBF Best New Festival in the next year’s “Best of Denver” issue.

The next year, we had 30,000 festival guests. In 2003, when the Rocky Mountain News named us the Best City Festival 50,000 spectators turned out. In 2005, we expanded the festival to two full days, and for the past few years we’ve had over 100,000 people celebrating Asian culture and athletic competition with us. In 2014, we reached a peak audience of 125,000 guests over the weekend!

We’ve earned other awards along the way too. We were given the 2011 Mayor’s Diversity Award from the Denver Asian Pacific American Commission, and in 2013, CDBF was honored with the Denver Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Arts & Culture. We were up against truly impressive nominees such as Phamaly Theatre Company, Denver Gay Men’s Chorus, Denver Women’s Chorus, Mexican Cultural Center, Cortney Stell and Swallow Hill Music Association. So we were doubly moved to have gotten such an honor.

The Dragon Boat Races have grown with the festival too. That first year, we had 16 teams. The following year, there were 32 teams. This year, we’re planning on 52 teams competing. Along the way, we’ve added a Youth Division, and also added Competitive Race Divisions when we purchased two Hong Kong style boats, which are lower and faster in the water, and don’t have a flag catcher like the Taiwan-style boats we’ve had from the start. In 2010, we purchased two of our own Taiwan-style boats too, by popular demand. Last year we purchased a fleet of six Hong Kong-style competitive boats, so we can feature two styles of dragon boat styles in both competitive and recreational races.

The Competitive races have attracted teams and paddlers from across the country, and eventually, will be an international draw for our festival.

(Click to view the slideshow! Note: if you’re at work, turn the volume down before starting — the CDBF theme song, "Dragon Boat" by performer Dwight Mark, plays along with the photos.)

The races make the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival Denver’s most unique summertime free family event, but we also take our mission — to build bridges of awareness, knowledge and understanding between the diverse Asian Pacific American (APA) communities and the general public through cultural education, leadership development, and athletic competition — very seriously.

Our Asian Marketplace has been, from the very start, a wonderful place to shop for gifts, artwork, novelties and fashion that reflect culture from across Asia and the Pacific. The two Taste of Asia Food Courts showcase some of the area’s best Asian restaurants as well as the culinary talents of organizations and individuals who prepare a weekend’s worth of dishes for your enjoyment. You won’t just find typical Chinese or Japanese food either. You’ll find Thai, Korean and Vietnamese cuisine, and you can sample Hmong and Filipino food at the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival. It’s truly like eating your way across Asia without ever leaving Denver!

The festival’s five Performing Arts Stages reflects our mission to showcase both traditional Asian and contemporary Asian American talent from within our communities. We’ve showcased Hmong folk dances or traditional Thai dances over the years, but we’ve also featured the rock of Wendy Woo or the country-rock and blues of Dwight Mark. We’ve also proudly showcased Hype 303 on the Main Stage, and we’ve also highlighted urban arts in our popular Cultural Unity stage. In 2012 we also launched a Band Stage where we can feature Asian American rock, blues, pop and jazz bands.

We’ve always worked hard to showcase as many cultures as possible, so you’ll learn about the Gamelan music of Bali, the traditional hula of Hawai’i, and authentic Chinese Shaolin kung fu, the most traditional of martial arts.

From the first year, we’ve had an area dedicated for kids called Dragonland, where volunteer organizations such as the Denver Art Museum and the Girl Scouts teach kids activities from origami to cutting out dragon masks, and help them learn about Asian culture. This year we’re also adding a Dragonland Stage that will feature children’s performers and storytellers to educate while they entertain.

Educating the general public about the richness of Asian cultures and teaching that there are many different and wonderful Asian communities even in Denver, each with its own history and heritage, has been an important element of the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival from the beginning.

In 2003 we created Gateway To Asia, which is just what it seems: a portal into Asian culture that offers more intimate performances (for quieter dances or musical sets than on the main stage), along with demonstrations for traditions such as Japanese flower arranging to Chinese calligraphy, or Thai fruit carving to Hawai’ian lei-making. In 2007 we added an exhibit area in Gateway to Asia to showcase local Asian communities, manned by representatives of those communities wearing traditional dress and inviting visitors to learn more about that country’s heritage history, and browse through the artifacts and displays.

Since then we’ve introduce festival-goers close-up and personal, to the cultures of the Hmong, Philippines, India, Hawai’i, Mongolia, and in 2010, Taiwan and South Korea. This year, we’ll focus on the Philippines.

We’ve also added a Martial Arts Stage in Gateway To Asia, to showcase the area’s best authentic martial arts schools of all types, from kung fu and karate to taekwondo.

One of the most popular and talked-about areas of the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival debuted in 2007: The Cultural Unity Urban Arts Showcase stage. It’s where you can find DJs and B-boys and girls (breakdancers) showing off incredible moves all weekend, as well as spoken word artists and martial arts. If you’ve never made the connection between hip hop culture and Asians, you must not see the hugely popular MTV show, "America’s Best Dance Crew," which always features many groups that are made up of all or mostly Asian American dancers. Hip Hop is a cross-cultural phenomenon, which is why it’s so important for CDBF to include it as a prominent part of our annual event.

Amidst all this education you’re soaking in at the festival, we want everyone to first and foremost, have FUN! Our first decade was better than we could have ever hoped for, and we look forward to many more years of sharing our Asian and Asian American communities’ cultures with all of Colorado!

Here’s a video that celebrates the first decade of the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival:


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