Eclectic gathering brings good cheer to Penn's Landing

A dragon boat team makes its way past the Moshulu and USS Olympia on the Delaware River during the Southeast Asian Dragon Boat Festival at Penn's Landing Saturday, August 2, 2014. In all, 17 teams were competing. MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer
A dragon boat team makes its way past the Moshulu and USS Olympia on the Delaware River during the Southeast Asian Dragon Boat Festival at Penn's Landing Saturday, August 2, 2014. In all, 17 teams were competing. MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 04, 2014

Kouny Vilayphanh, who came to this country from Laos 33 years ago when he was 6, has a crystal-clear reason for his participation in Philadelphia's Southeast Asian Dragon Boat Festival, held Saturday at the marina at Penn's Landing.

Vilayphanh, whose dragon boat team was affiliated with a Lao temple in South Philadelphia, said he wanted to keep Lao traditions and culture alive, especially among the young.

"We're losing that day by day," he said.

The Dragon Boat Festival was part of an active day along the Delaware River waterfront, despite cloudy skies that barely let the sun peek though for a few minutes at a time.

Spruce Street Harbor Park attracted a crowd, as it has been doing all summer, a wedding party had pictures taken against a backdrop of historic ships and dragon boats, and vessels from the Coast Guard and the Naval Academy docked north of the Great Plaza, offering tours of the boats.

The call in Philadelphia also gave young crew members a chance to visit the Liberty Bell and grab a cheesesteak.

"It was so good," said Kelsey Hastings, a Naval Academy midshipman in the Class of 2017, who had never had a Philadelphia cheesesteak before.

The dragon boats drew a good-size crowd. Some spectators danced to music from traditional Southeast Asian drums and small brass cymbals.

Organizers of the festival traced the tradition of dragon boat racing to the Khmer empire in Southeast Asia more than a thousand years ago, when the king would hold races during an annual water festival as a way to exercise troops and pick top fighters, said Thavro Phim, who is on a team from Preah Buddha Temple, also in South Philadelphia.

The event included community teams affiliated with immigrant groups from Cambodia and the Philippines, in addition to Laos, Phim said.

A total of 17 teams were competing, including corporate teams from SugarHouse Casino, Valley Forge Casino, and Johnson & Johnson.

The dragon boats were about 40 feet long and had 10 rows of seats for 20 paddlers. Each boat also had a drummer to pound out a rhythm, and a team member standing in the back to steer. The course Saturday, which ran alongside the USS Olympia and the Moshulu, was about 220 yards long.

On the Columbus Boulevard side of the marina, Joe Simpson and his son Joey were sipping beers at Spruce Street Harbor Park and watching Rea Simpson, wife and mother to the two, compete with the Dragon Sirens.

They were pleased with the early race results: The Dragon Sirens had won their first two heats.

They were also happy with Spruce Street Harbor Park, a so-called pop-up garden that opened in June and that will disappear at the end of this month.

The park, which includes shuffleboard, a chessboard with pieces as tall as a 5-year-old, hammocks, and an abundance of colorful Adirondack and other comfortable chairs, has been attracting an estimated 35,000 people a week, according to its sponsor, the Delaware River Waterfront Corp.

"I've always said it could be beautiful down here," said Joe Simpson, who grew up in South Philadelphia but who now lives in Cinnaminson.

"This is a start," he said.


hbrubaker@phillynews.com

215-854-4651

@InqBrubaker

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