Opinion: Dragon Boat Festival Falls Short

By Tiffanie Tri

The Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival is a celebration of the traditional sport of dragon boat racing. The festival website says that it is "part of a larger Chinese cultural tradition that goes back 2,400 years." So why aren't there any Chinese artists in the festival's music lineup?

2018HorizontalPoster-1024x376.jpg

Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival is a not-for-profit organization that survives on public funding. It receives funding from the government, including Canadian Heritage's Building Communities and Heritage program which is designed to increase opportunities for local artists and heritage performers to be involved in their community through festivals and events. It is also designed to allow local groups to commemorate their local history and heritage. As part of the program's eligibility criteria, applicants must "encourage local community engagement through activities that promote, celebrate and preserve local performing and visual arts or local heritage".

Sure, Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival presents the work of local artists, with several Ottawa-based artists in its lineup. However, there is little attempt to present the work of heritage performers. Only one act in the lineup includes an Asian musician: Birds of Bellwoods bassist Kintaro Akiyama.

Not only does Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival fail at presenting opportunities to heritage artists, the gender diversity of the festival lineup is also appalling.

Only two of the 18 acts are fronted by women and only seven of the 18 acts are not all-dude acts, with the majority of these non all-dude acts being mixed acts, some of which have only one female artist embedded in a group of dudes.

dragonboat-lineup-image.jpg

Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival lineup pictured without the all-dude bands.

But back to the original question: Where are the Chinese artists in a festival that supposedly celebrates Chinese culture? This is a part of a larger conversation and problematic habit of Western society "picking and choosing" what it wants to accept or not accept from other cultures. Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival exemplifies this behaviour by paying lip service to Chinese culture (a paltry description about Dragon Boat Tradition on its website) while shutting out Chinese artists.

Given that it receives public funding to build heritage and “inclusive” community, the Festival should look for Chinese and other Asian artists to feature on their lineup.

It should also include heritage artists that perform traditional Chinese music, dance, sports and activities. Not only do I believe that the citizens of Ottawa would be interested in learning about Chinese culture, but given that Ottawa has such a vibrant Chinese community, there is no shortage of Chinese artists and cultural activities that could be included.

The greater danger of activities like the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival is that they benefit from cultural traditions of an ethnic community without any real inclusion of culture or heritage. This leads to the co-opting and erasure of the culture and heritage of the community these festivals are supposed to be celebrating. Representation matters.

At the current rate, Dragon Boat Festival is more likely to be associated with white, male indie rock bands than Chinese culture. If the Festival wants to benefit from Chinese culture, it's time to step up and truly support and showcase Chinese heritage and culture.

Representatives from Dragon Boat Festival could not be reached for comment.


This article appears in the May 2018 edition of Ottawa Beat newsprint, page 7.