PAWTUCKET — Douglas Hsu, the director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Boston, looked at the fleet of six new smaller and lighter yet colorfully-decorated dragon boats positioned on Festival Pier and couldn’t help but see the symbolism.
“Like the Ocean State and Taiwan, even though they are small in size, we are dynamic and vibrant,” Hsu said.
Hsu and many officials present at the pier on Tim Healey Way on Thursday morning celebrated the arrival of six vessels, which doubles Pawtucket’s armada to 12 total dragon boats, just in time for September’s 20th annual Rhode Island Chinese Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival.
The colorful crafts were donated by the Taiwanese government, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Boston and the Luke Charitable Foundation. The $200,000 cost associated with bringing in six new boats was defrayed by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, which raised $120,000 from government and private entities. Additionally, prominent local businessman Louis Yip’s Luke Charitable Foundation covered the $80,000 in costs associated with shipping the dragon boats to Rhode Island.
On Thursday, the flotilla sat stationary at Festival Pier, awaiting their maiden voyage in the waters of the Seekonk River during a special reception on Friday, Sept. 6 – one day prior to the Taiwan Day Festival.
The boats are 33 feet long and weigh 750 pounds each, a much lighter and sleeker model than the 50-foot-long and 1,500-pound crafts the city has been using in past years. The six new dragon boats are the first addition to Pawtucket’s fleet since 2004.
These six new, smaller, lighter, and more colorful floating creatures are indicative of the relationship between Taiwan and Rhode Island, as Hsu said they are each “a symbol of a renewed commitment to Rhode Island and a lasting relationship.”
Blackstone Valley Tourism Council President Robert Billington, who emceed Thursday’s presentation, recalled the history of the dragon boat races in Pawtucket, which started 20 years ago with the original fleet featuring two “angry” silver dragons that were hand-built in Hong Kong. The second generation of the fleet arrived 15 years ago with the addition of six 1,500-pound crafts.
But these latest boats were described by Billington as “happy, sleeping dragons” which will be awakened on Sept. 6 at a “grand parade” when the crafts will enter American waters for the first time ever, sailing south to north along the Seekonk River.
The dragon boat races are about more than celebrating Taiwanese culture and heritage – they also serve as a vital piece of economic development, as Billington said events such as the Taiwan Day Festival can “keep the riverfront alive.”
“This green space is just begging for opportunity...” Billington said from the banks of the river. “The purpose of the race is to continue to bring people together.”
Twenty-seven teams consisting of racers from Rhode Island, Boston, and Pennsylvania have already signed up for the Sept. 7 day at the races, and more are welcome to sign up in advance of the festival.
The boats were first requested by Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee during a 2017 visit to Taiwan. A delegation from Rhode Island, including McKee and Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien, accepted an invitation from the Taiwanese government to see the dragon boats while they were being built earlier this year.
McKee said he’s already assembling his own team to participate in the Sept. 7 races and referred to the annual event as something that offers significant cultural benefits for the community. In Rhode Island, he said, it’s important to link cultural experiences with the communities within the state.
“This festival does just that,” McKee said, describing the Taiwan Day Festival as “ahead of its time,” as it has been uniting people for 20 years.
“This is another example of how we can bring communities together and reach out through borders,” McKee said. “I’m very pleased to bring people to Rhode Island.”
Carlos Lopez Estrada, the deputy director of administration for Grebien, described the festivities happening next month as “Pawtucket’s signature event.” He said the dedication seen among the officials who endeavored to bring the new fleet of dragon boats to the city shows how people are working tirelessly to “make Pawtucket a better place to live.”
“All together, we make this event a signature event. No other place in Rhode Island has an event like this,” Lopez Estrada said.
The two days of events at Festival Pier, he said, will see thousands of people from Pawtucket and Rhode Island and visitors from across the country and world descend on the city to take part in a showcase of the “rich history and fabric” of Pawtucket.
Pawtucket Arts Festival Director Anthony Ambrosino said the spotlight will be on Pawtucket during the annual festival, particularly on Sept. 6 and 7 for two days of culturally and artistically important events.
“I dare you to see all of it on that day,” he said of the countless pieces of entertainment taking place. If someone is able to achieve that feat, Ambrosino said, they will surely have “one of the best days of your life.”
The Sept. 6 celebration is from 6 to 8 p.m. at Festival Pier, 100 Tim Healey Way in Pawtucket, and features music, an illuminated dragon boat parade, and the “awakening of the dragon” ceremony. The next day, Saturday, Sept. 7, from 9 a.m to 5 p.m. includes Chinese dragon boat races, Taiwanese cultural events, interactive games and activities, river cruises on the Explorer riverboat, food trucks, vendors, and a dumpling-eating contest.
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette