Tri-Cities Chinese Association Celebrates Dragon Boat Festival with Food, Family


Sophia Stone

Community members enjoy fresh fruit and traditional dishes under a Bays Mountain shelter

Sophia Stone, Editor In Chief

Amid the smells of spit-roasting meat and steaming rice dumplings, the Tri-Cities Chinese Association (TCCA) hosted its annual celebration of the Dragon Boat Festival at Bays Mountain on Saturday evening, sponsored by Eastman. Over 150 people in attendance mingled underneath the shelters and chatted with friends and family over tables piled high with traditional dishes, commemorating the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. 

Inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, the Dragon Boat Festival’s 2000-year history pays tribute to a diverse range of local Chinese heroes. Jing Nie, president of the TCCA, notes that the festival’s origins are fluid. 

“A lot of people memorialize Qu Yuan, an ancient Chinese poet and statesman who was exiled and drowned himself on the fifth day of the fifth month. Many Dragon Boat traditions like eating zongzi (rice dumplings) and racing dragon boats stem from him,” Nie explains. “But even before Qu Yuan, there were other local heroes who are said to have died on the same day and have now come to be honored.” 

The TCCA strives to promote cultural heritage like this through inclusivity in the local community. The Dragon Boat celebration falls between two other annual events hosted by the TCCA and open to the Tri-Cities community: the Lunar New Year celebration and the Mid-Autumn or Moon Festival, each with their own traditions and captivating origins.

“In this area, there are only so many people who speak Chinese and come from the same cultural background,” Nie says. “We want to have a community where we can help each other out, spread our stories, and gather during holidays– to have a sense of belonging.”

Dating back to the 1970s, the TCAA was founded by just five families from Taiwan. Over time, however, the association has grown rapidly in size. Now, hundreds of Chinese-Americans, especially from Eastman and ETSU communities, volunteer and participate in TCAA events and celebrations. In 2014, TCAA members Xiaorong Wang and Yubiao Liu founded the East Tennessee Chinese Culture Center (ETCCC) to further Chinese language and cultural education in the Tri-Cities area. Each year, between 30 and 50 students from both Chinese and non-Chinese families participate in the program, with many going on to earn full scores on Chinese proficiency exams. 

Sen Li, a technology manager at Eastman and co-director of the ETCCC, speaks with pride about the Chinese school’s accomplishments. “When we have cultural events like Kingsport’s Fun Fest or school cultural showcases , ETCCC students are able to represent our culture and lend awareness regarding the diversity of the local community.” 

Despite the association’s booming popularity, Li recalls that COVID posed an extreme disruption to the association’s functions. “There were three years when we had no in person events because all of our activities are centered around culinary tradition, family, and large gatherings like this.” 

Still, Nie says that the end of the pandemic invigorated the community. “We had so much help from the Chinese families in this area. Everybody showed up for our events at the beginning of the year and started doing something on their own to make it happen. We’re so excited to be back laughing and eating together.” 

Nie looks fondly at the bustling crowd gathered around the food table. “Growing up in mainland China, celebrations were all centered around food,” she remembers. “There’s an old Chinese saying that goes something like this: for the common people, tasting food is how we converse with heaven.” 

Jimmy Liu, a recent Vanderbilt graduate who returned to Johnson City for the summer, could not agree more. “My favorite part of the celebration has definitely been the food,” Liu says. “There’s a lot of options that are culturally representative. Events like this remind me that, even though we’re here in America, we still maintain our cultural roots.”