PAWTUCKET – An amazed Alan Ket sits on a bench above the steep bank of the Blackstone River as three colorful dragon boats glide over the choppy surface of the brackish river, drum beats pounding and the sounds of oars slicing through the water.
“This is so cool,” says Ket, who lives in New York City and has never seen a dragon boat up close.
Ket, his wife, Andrea, and their baby daughter, Aya, were in Pawtucket on business for the weekend and were looking for something to do on their down time. Ket says he and his wife saw a story in the local newspaper previewing Saturday’s 14th annual Rhode Island Chinese Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival, one of the highlights of the month-long Pawtucket Arts Festival, and thought they’d check it out.
“We didn’t know what to expect. It’s great,” says Ket.
Thousands of people packed Festival Pier off School Street to watch the competitive dragon boat races and take in the accompanying cultural festival, which featured, among other things, Chinese music and dancing, arts and crafts and food.
Since its inception by the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council (BVTC) in 2000, the Rhode Island Chinese Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival draws thousands of spectators each year for the race competition, as well as the festival, which celebrates the Chinese culture through arts and crafts, music, dancing, food, a “Chinese dumpling eating contest” and other family activities.
The races began when the BVTC used wooden dragon boats shipped from Hong Kong and gifted by local businessman Louis Yip. In 2003, the BVTC received the gift of six fiberglass dragon boats from the government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) that are now being used for the event.
Bob Fasha, 75, of Pawtucket, has been coming to the event since the beginning, content to just sit along the bank and watch the boats paddle by. “I come every year,” he says. “Usually I’m sitting here fishing, but today I’m enjoying watching the dragon boats.”
The Taiwan Day Festival is co-sponsored by Taipei Economical & Cultural Office in Boston, which represents the interests of the Republic of China (Taiwan) in New England. Its service areas cover five New England states, including Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
“We are delighted to share in this fun tradition with our friends from across Rhode Island, and especially in Pawtucket,” said Anne Hung, director general of the Taipei Economical & Cultural Office. “Through the race and festival we have seen the friendship between the peoples of Rhode Island and Taiwan grow closer with each passing year, thanks to the wonderful support of the community.”
At the organization’s tent, there were long lines of people waiting to sample the wide variety of Taiwanese food, including tea leaf eggs (eggs soaked in spicy tea for three days), egg rolls, sun cakes, bubble tea and Taiwanese buns.
“These are all traditional snacks in Taiwan,” said Grace Li, who volunteers with the Taipei Economical & Cultural Office.
The festival’s opening ceremony kicked off at 10 a.m. with a mesmerizing dragon dance in which three sets of costumed dragon dancers made their way up separate aisles that led to the main stage and podium, where the speakers included Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, and U.S. Congressman David N. Cicilline, to name a few.
“I am so proud of the Pawtucket Arts Festival and the annual Rhode Island Chinese Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival, which are so important to building our community and building our culture,” Grebien said. “I really commend these efforts to bring pride back to our city and to focus on what’s really important in life.”
The Pawtucket Arts Festival was drawing big crowds at other spots in the city yesterday.
Over at the Armory Arts Center on Exchange Street, the Arts Marketplace featured a dazzling array of fine art and handcrafted items by over 50 professional artists from throughout New England.
This exhibition and sale, which continued Sunday, featured music, steamroller printmaking demonstrations by the Ink Monkeys, and food truck vendors parked outside.
Running concurrently with the Arts Marketplace was the XOS Exchange Street Open Studios, a unique opportunity to catch a glimpse of some 60 artists at work as they opened the doors to their studios at 10 Exchange Court, 163 Exchange Ct., 59 Blackstone Ave., and 65 Blackstone Ave.
Stationed in the middle of all of these cultural events was the city’s first food trucks festival, “Food Trucks on the Blackstone,” sponsored by the Rotary Club of Pawtucket. Vendors offered a wide variety of gastronomical delights along Roosevelt Avenue, as well as near the Armory on Exchange Street. A beverage tent offering beer, wine, soft drinks and water was located on Roosevelt Avenue.
Also taking place Saturday was the new In-Ovation Festival at Slater Mill, where musicians, artists and performers were showcased for most of the day. Among the diverse lineup were the Duke Robillard Jazz trio, the Maui Nighthawks and the Eastern Medicine Singers.
Capping off the Saturday night fun was First Lights: the Pawtucket River Bridge Lighting, which took place at Taft Street and Roosevelt Avenue and featured a huge block party, food trucks and refreshments. The event celebrated the inaugural lighting of the new Interstate 95 highway bridge.
On Sunday, Slater Mill brought back its annual Labor and Ethnic Heritage Festival on its grounds by the Blackstone River from noon to 5 p.m. Performers included members of Magnolia, the Greg Abate Quartet, Zimmerman, and more. Admission is free.
On Wednesday, the cultural vibe continues as the award-winning Gamm Theatre offers a free performance of two one-act plays, “A Number” and “Far Away,” by British playwright Caryl Churchill. Showtime is 8 p.m. Ticket vouchers are available in-person at the Gamm Theatre box office, 172 Exchange St., starting today (box office open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Limit two tickets per guest.