When the dragonboat festival came around in years past, I would always take advantage of my location to simply stroll down to Bitan to watch, but this year some photography friends were going to the big official races at Dazhi, so I decided to have a look at how the other half paddles. I met Chenbl at the Zhongshan Middle School MRT stop, and we took a taxi to the riverside, though it is easily walkable if you know where you are going. The river, looking rather manufactured, lay underneath somber grey skies and the large Dazhi bridge. Tents lined the bare banks, with few trees in sight.
The Dazhi races seemed to be mostly populated by foreigners from all kinds of places, all wearing life vests and towing lines of small, blonde children who kept getting lost, resulting in loudspeaker announcements. We found the photo group huddled by the starting point, all taking pictures of the boats with large zoom lenses. I’d borrowed a 70-200 f2.8IS from Thumper for the occasion; a huge, ungainly gray lens that came in handy capturing the faraway boats and paddlers, it’s known as “Little White” in Chinese.
It didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that Bitan is a far better place for dragonboat photography, for many reasons. First of all, you can get much closer to the racers from either bank or on the suspension bridge. Also, the background is much nicer, with dark green foliage instead of dull concrete walls festered with advertisements. The color of the water at Bitan is a nice shade of green, unlike the muddy Keelung River’s odiferous sludge that looks and smells like something straight out of a factory’s sewage gate. The Bitan races don’t require the racers to wear lifevests, letting them show off their tanned, muscled physiques and a plethora of tattoos.
We took some pictures of the finishing line, practicing getting the timing right until the morning’s races were over. The others were going up to the Shilin Villa to take pictures of birds, but we decided to cross the bridge and walk over to the Martyr’s Shrine, which I haven’t been to in ages. We watched the changing of the guard amidst a crowd of tourists from Japan and China, all snapping pictures of the guards’ shiny helmets and goose-stepping gait.
It was afternoon by the time we caught up with the photo group at the Shilin Villa. They’d been there all afternoon, all set up by a particular nest where a “Five Color Bird” was flitting about, bringing food to its young. I took some practice shots of it flying into and out of its nest with the telephoto, but it got pretty boring. Some of the photographers there were really into taking pictures of birds; they had huge, expensive lens setups and tripods, and were themselves decked out in camos and safari hats. They sell the pictures to magazines.
We walked around Shilin for a bit, having a bite of mutton rice by the night market temple, before parting ways. The subway took me back to Bitan, where I feasted on zongzi with Ray, Gordon, Jojo and Sandy Wee at the Sandcastle. We chatted until quite late.
I’d planned on going down to Tainan the next morning, but I couldn’t miss taking at least some dragonboat pictures at Bitan, so I decided to postpone the trip and spend the morning by the river. As I’d guessed, the experience was much better; a more comfortable, lively scene without the fussy international officialdom of Dazhi. Kids splashed each other on the pebbly outcrop and cheered on their parents paddling by in the boats, while loud stage performances, including a tai-chi group, failed to distract anyone from the races. The suspension bridge would tilt from one dangerous angle to another as the boats passed by underneath and everyone ran from one side to the other. At one point a boat overturned, the spectators on the bridge yelling and cursing the rescue boats for not responding fast enough. “They’re tired, they can’t just wait for your slow-ass rescues!” They shouted. “There might be people trapped under the boat! Come ON!” It was ok, though; three rescue crafts pulled all of the bobbing paddlers to safety. They huddled together on the shore afterwards, looking rather abashed.
I took a lot of pictures, of course, but it will take me a while to wade through the pile. It’s strange; I didn’t used to need so much time to get photos up, but these days the backlog just keeps getting deeper and deeper. I suppose I just need to be pickier about what I put up instead of just throwing everything into the mix.