In 1992, Israel and China established diplomatic relations between their countries. An embassy was set up in Tel Aviv, trade and all manner of business ventures bloomed and travel restrictions were eased such that more than 70,000 Chinese nationals are reported to have visited Israel this past year alone.
The growing presence of Chinese in this country is characterized by the growth of Chinese-owned enterprises and restaurants, joint ventures and academic exchanges: The Confucius Institute of Chinese Studies was founded at Tel Aviv University and countless Chinese students now study in Israeli universities – including doctoral and post-doc students.
Notably, Israel’s outgoing President, Shimon Peres made his last state visit to the People’s Republic of China just last month.
Who could have imagined, back when diplomatic relations were first created, that two decades later, one of China’s historical treasures would become such a sensation on the shores of the Galilee: Dragon boat racing. This 2500-year old Chinese legendary event got its start on the shores of Lake Kinneret three years ago, when a Canadian team set the idea in motion. Boats were shipped to Israel from Canada, coaches were sent to train locals. Rowers became dragon boat paddlers, as did retirees, grannies and army vets.
Now, three years later, Dragon Boat Israel continues to attract new members, young and old, from diverse backgrounds; paddlers are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze – and now, Chinese, comprised of students and Embassy staff. International dragon boat racing events have sprouted on the Kinneret and one of the local teams, the Ohalo Dolphins, are gearing up to race at the World Championships Crew Club in Italy this coming September.
This morning, the 2014 Drakon Ba-Yarkon (Dragon on the Yarkon River) competition took place at a site a stone’s throw from where I happen to be staying this week in north Tel Aviv. So when I heard the cackling sounds of a gravel-voiced man testing out a bullhorn shortly before 8 o’clock, I picked up my camera, water and hat, headed out and locked up.
It was a sight to behold – and hear. Not just because a small marching band was playing mariachi-style music, and not only because the team members’ uniforms were (in some cases) laughably unique; but also because of the hybrid groupings of spectators, the flags and languages.
The Chinese ambassador,Mrs Gao Yanping, launched the meet by throwing handfuls of rice grains into the wind, scattering them over the heads of paddlers. Then she and the Ethiopian-born representative of Tel Aviv’s municipality added a speck of red paint to the dragons’ heads. Chinese students, children and men in suits stood side by side with Israelis, South Africans and Russians. And together, they cheered on the racers as they moved towards the starting position.
As paddlers stretched themselves to the limit, moving fervently towards the finish line, their drummers pounded hard and coaches yelled for more from the back of each boat. Dogs and runners and cyclists and power walkers all came to a stop, mesmerized bythe sight of a relatively recent addition to Israel’s sportscape.
Under the Tel Aviv sun, already at 10 o’clock baking like an oven, I leaned back on the grassy slope and watched with a mixture of joy and envy. I’d raced for three years with a Toronto-based team, so perhaps it was no surprise that a voice in my head suddenly issued a command: Paddles Up! Then, as a colorfully-painted, dragon-fronted boat glided by more slowly than the rest, I had to restrain myself from yelling at the paddler seated in the back row, looking worn and spent: REACHHHHH!
You just HAD to be there; to see the camaraderie, the team spirit, the laughter, the fun. Far-fetched as it sounds, could it be that cooperative global ventures such as this might have a part to play in the search for peace, not just in this region of the world, but elsewhere as well? Bring it on, peace negotiations on the water!