Louis Jonlee’s Dragon Boat team didn’t come all the way from New York City to Lake Lanier just for fun.
The 20 wetsuit-attired members of Team DCH thrust their paddles into the waters at the Lanier Olympic venue at Clarks Bridge Park with practiced precision, leaning into the strokes with a synchronicity that produced few splashes and a winning margin of two boat lengths over the closest competitor in an early afternoon 200-meter heat.
Jonlee’s group of seasoned paddlers was aiming for the winner’s trophy at Saturday’s 14th annual Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival and looking to collect all-important points they hope will earn them a trip to China to represent the Eastern United States in an international Dragon Boat competition.
As usual, Clark’s Bridge facility, which served as host to the 1996 Olympic rowing and canoe-kayak events, drew raves from visitors.
"The venue’s beautiful," Jonlee said.
Saturday’s festival drew more than 50 teams from across the Southeast and an estimated turnout in excess of 5,000 people. At least two-thirds of the spectators were of Asian decent, from Malaysian to Vietnamese to Laotian.
"It’s great they can all come together and get along and have a better understanding of each other instead of focusing on the differences," said Jonlee, a Chinese-American born in Puerto Rico who speaks with a distinctive New York accent. "One thing they can agree on is good sportsmanship, win or lose."
Saturday’s event brought Far East culture to the forefront in Hall County, where only 2 percent of the population is of Asian decent. The food, music, dance and religions of the multifaceted Asian community were well-represented by a large crowd of visitors that pumped dollars into the local economy.
Most spectators came from Gwinnett, DeKalb and other metro Atlanta areas. Asian student organizations from the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Emory and other colleges participated.
State Rep. Charlice Byrd, D-Woodstock, who is half Chinese, said that the state’s growing Asian population stimulates the economy and "raises the bar for education."
"And we know how to have fun," she said.
"We may speak different languages and have different traditions, but today we are united as one in the spirit of community."
The 2,000 year-old Dragon Boat custom originates from Hong Kong but has variations across the world, from Swan Boats to Snake Boats. At the bow of each dragon boat, a drummer sits on a narrow wooden chair and exhorts teammates by beating a large drum as they paddle.
"It’s a little bit of cadence, a lot of motivation, and a lot of holding on until the finish," Dragon Boat Charleston drummer Noreen Powers said.
The success of The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival of Atlanta has outgrown the parking. Festival director Gene Hanratty said organizers already were looking at using a shuttle system for next year.
"I think this is the best hands-on cultural diversity event in the Southeast," Hanratty said.
As teams battled each other on the lake, the battle against breast cancer was an underlying theme Saturday. Each $600 team entry fee was donated to breast cancer research, and many breast cancer survivors participated in the races.
Strong corporate sponsorship, publicity and word of mouth means the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival is only likely to grow in coming years, officials said.
"We can’t wait to come back next year," Hanratty said.