It took five years, but Tampa finally has a Chinese team taking part in the Chinese sport of dragon boat racing.
Panda Express, a fast-food Chinese chain, hits the water Saturday for the Tampa Bay International Dragon Boat Races on the Garrison Channel downtown. It joins dozens of teams competing for the area's fastest skinny boat with a colorful dragon head on the front.
"We're all for it,'' said Calvin Lee, who lives in Tampa and is director of operations for Florida's 43 stores. "It's a very Chinese tradition.''
The races honor poet Qu Yuan, who threw himself into the Milou River after being exiled more than 2,000 years ago. To try to save him, fishermen beat drums and splashed water with their paddles to prevent fish and evil spirits from eating him. Some say they scattered rice so the fish would have something to eat other than him.
Lee won't be throwing rice into the water, but his team will be handing out samples of Panda Express' new Beijing Beef during the races, which will have live music and a beer garden.
The races coincide with AsiaFest 2008, a cultural festival celebrating on the plaza of the St. Pete Times Forum.
More than 65 teams have signed up for the regional races. Tampa hosted the national championships in 2006 and gets the world championships in 2011.
Most of this year's teams represent area businesses and groups, from Tampa General Hospital to Plant High School. Also new is a team of downtown residents, business owners and artists called the Downtown Express.
"We're trying to make a fun day of it,'' said Josh Dohring, co-organizer of the Downtown Express. "We're not expecting to be super-competitive''
Each team has 20 to 25 people, including a drummer, who sets the paddlers' rhythm. Each race is 400 meters.
"It's very technical,'' Dohring said. "It's not just about rowing fast.''