Thursday, September 11, 2014

Pawtucket Comes Alive with Dragon Boats and Chinese Folk Art at Rhode Island's Taiwan Day Festival

New England Fall Events_Dragon Boat Taiwan Day RI_dragon head
Dragon at the gate to the festival
Last weekend New England Fall Events had the pleasure of a day-trip to Pawtucket, RI to experience the Rhode Island Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival. This annual event, now in its 15th year, is a true gem on your fall events calendar.
Save the Date: This year's Dragon Boat Race and Taiwan Day Festival will take place Saturday, September 3rd, 2016  8:00am-5:00pm. Click for details
We had never been to this festival before--and we honestly didn’t know anyone who had--but we sincerely hope to change that because we’re inclined to call this the best kept secret in southern New England!

The festival itself is produced by the hard-working folks at the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and it is situated along the Blackstone River and accessed by the pier on School Street. 

New England Fall Events_Dragon Boat Taiwan Day RI_Festival
A overview park and tent in
front of the Blackstone River
We arrived just after 11:00am and the powerful drumming beckoned to us as we walked from the parking lot and made our way down towards the park by river. We could hear the enthusiastic cheers from the crowd in response to the action and even though we hustled quickly down to the tent, we were disappointed to learn we’d just missed the Lion Dance performance. If the cheers were any indication, this was a very special presentation and when we come back again, we’ll know to arrive early enough to see it first-hand. 

New England Fall Events_Dragon Boat Taiwan Day RI_Festival
Dragon Boat with a drum and paddles
We wandered through the festival to get a lay of the land. The great tent hosted a stage for a variety of performances, an area was set aside for some local vendors, and a food area was also cordoned off.

There is a pretty river walk studded with park benches which were perfect for enjoying the day or providing the perfect vantage point from which to watch the races.

New England Fall Events_Dragon Boat Taiwan Day RI_Race
The Dragon Boat races were
thrilling to see in action
Dozens of tents dotted the area along the boat launch which served as home bases for the various dragon boat teams. Each dragon boat team requires 19-23 members including a drummer, a flag catcher, and a steer-person. The drummer’s role is to establish the rowing pace for the paddlers and the flag catcher must grab the flag at the finish line—if the flag catcher misses the flag pull, the boat risks losing the race! The steer person is situated in the back of the boat--the stern--to help steer the course of the boat using only their paddle as a rudder.

We counted over 25 separate teams in the competition including the Pawtucket Special Olympians who raced against their coaches (and bested them!) and there were 2 heats followed by the final races. 

New England Fall Events_Dragon Boat Taiwan Day RI_Dumplings
Buddha Belly Food Truck held
their grand opening at the festival 
The races were spaced out every 12 minutes so it was easy to catch a race, meander through the festival, and return to catch another race or two.
Here's a video clip from one of the boat races.

We saw a local meditation studio showing people how to make beautiful origami lotus flowers as a free craft. There were only a handful of food vendors including Rhode Island’s classic Del’s Lemonade
We stopped by the Buddha Belly Food Truck which was celebrating their grand opening on this very day! We couldn’t pass up their tasty, steamy pork dumplings—it was the perfect “brunch” to start a day like this one.
New England Fall Events_Dragon Boat Taiwan Day RI_Chinese Folk Dance
The Peacock Dance by the Chinese
Folk Art Workshop of Boston

After the Opening Ceremony and welcoming speech, the much-anticipated performances from the Chinese Folk Art Workshop of Boston began. The youthful performers—mostly teens, some younger-delighted the crowd with 7 separate performances. 

The tent was properly packed despite plentiful seating and a large open area between the stage and the folding chairs. This open area was quickly filled in with more audience, especially kids, to watch the show from a closer vantage point.

New England Fall Events_Dragon Boat Taiwan Day RI_Chinese Folk Dance
Season in Bloom by the Chinese 
Folk Art Workshop of Boston
In short, these performances were breathtaking in their storytelling, their beautiful costumes, and their spirit. The emcee gave a short introduction to each performance and shared with us the traditional significance and symbolism behind each dance or musical performance—everything from beating away any negative energy (“Beating of the Drums”) to welcoming the arrival of spring (“Season in Bloom”) which brought a nice context for what we were about to enjoy.
Here are some videos we took of the performances:

Enjoy we did. Truthfully, we couldn’t help but gush over the performances on the day of the festival and in the days after. The lovely presentations were a true feast for the eyes and they were an outstanding way to learn about, share, and celebrate culture and history on this day. The many children in attendance at this festival were as enthralled as the adults and we sought out one of the Chinese Folk Art Workshop organizers before we left just to share what a special contribution their performers were to the success of this festival.
New England Fall Events_Dragon Boat Taiwan Day RI_Dumpling Eating Contest
Dumpling Eating Contest in full swing

After the seven performances, the stage was cleared and tables were brought in for the Dumpling Eating Contest. Only $10 to enter, there was fierce competition to win the incredibly generous prize—round trip airfare to Taipei, Taiwan! The dumpling eating competition was silly, fun, and rousing and the audience happily cheered on encouraging the contestants. 

The Rhode Island Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival has proven a highlight of the New England Fall Events adventures so far. It’s a fantastic, engaging, and educational cultural festival for people of any age and absolutely worth a trip for a unique (and free!) festival.

Tips for Attending the Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival
    New England Fall Events_Dragon Boat Taiwan Day RI_Buddha Food Truck
    Buddha Belly Food Truck
  • Although it is easy to watch the races from the pier, if you own a pair of binoculars we imagine it would be a treat to watch the paddlers up close.
  • Plenty of shade can be had under the large tent but as the races are best seen from the pier, it's not a bad idea to add a layer of sunscreen.
  • This is a free festival but some of the food vendors might only accept cash and there isn't an ATM handy so come prepared.
  • There was an area set aside for food vendors but as there were only a handful, it wouldn't be a bad idea to pack a snack in the event that the lines get long (as they were around 1pm).
  • Bring your camera to capture the many wonderful moments. Every part of this festival, from the fierce dragon boats to the lovely performances, is special.
New England Fall Events_Dragon Boat Taiwan Day RI_Chinese Folk Kung Fu
"Kung Fu Dance" by the Chinese 
Folk Art Workshop of Boston
  • Get there early. We feel obligated to pass this tip along because we really regret missing the Lion Dance performance which kicked off the festival. We also wished we could have stayed for the many performances that took place in the 2nd half of the day. 
  • As this festival has scheduled events throughout the day, it really is worth making a point to attend as much of it as possible. We recommend planning to attend the whole day if you can as it seemed that everything was really worth our time and attention. Next year we'll plan to stay for the entire day.
  • We didn't find it difficult to locate a parking spot and it seemed that the overflow parking was being diverted to the medical building just beyond the park/pier entrance. If needed, we noticed plenty of street parking opportunities along the side streets.

Family Tips for Attending the Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival
  • This is a perfect family-friendly festival. Lots of room to roam, kids' activities, plenty of performances which are visually engaging and will entertain your children and enable them to experience something new and different.
New England Fall Events_Dragon Boat Taiwan Day RI_Origami Lotus Craft
Adults and made origami lotus
flowers at the Falun Dafa tent
  • There were several free crafts for children--everything from learning to write one's name in Chinese characters to molding pretty paper-weights out of class to learning about bonsai.  
  • Depending on whether your kids are flexible about food, you will find that most (not all) of the vendors were selling Asian food and there was a long line at the food stands by lunchtime. There was an area selling Taiwanese pastry and tea near the children's activities as well. Still, if lines are a concern, you may want to pack a few snacks with you to tie the kiddos over if they need it.
  • For a great vantage point for the performances, consider sitting near the front under the tent or in the open area in front of the seats.
  • This is a stroller-friendly event but you may need to park the stroller if you plan to watch the performances under the tent.


  1. There is also a sponsoring hotel nearby if people would like to stay longer and enjoy some of the other events during the Pawtucket Arts Festival. Festival rates available if booked early!
    The Comfort Inn is located at exit 27 off route 95 and is minutes from the pier as well as other arts festival sites!