By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
It’s no surprise that Vanessa Lee of Bellevue won Miss Chinese Chamber of Commerce U.S.A. in San Francisco. What is surprising is, Lee won three titles, a record-breaking feat for the local Chinese community in the national Miss Chinatown pageant.
Lee also won Miss Talent and First Princess. Those women in Washington state, who had won the Miss Chinese Chamber of Commerce, were generally tall. At only five feet, Lee, 19, beat all odds to bring home the crown.
Born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Lee’s platform for the pageant is to be ambassador for Chinatowns across the U.S., including Seattle. A University of Washington sophomore, Lee’s major is business.
“She (Lee) is lucky to be standing here tonight,” said Lee’s father, Tim, in a celebration dinner on March 12 at China Harbor Restaurant. Tim is a contractor for Federal Express.
Just before the pageant in California, Lee had appendicitis and required surgery. The surgery almost killed her as the nurse had administered an injection that she was allergic to.
Lee’s allergic reaction was so bad that she couldn’t walk and would feel intense pain.
“Her face was swollen,” said Tim as his daughter sent him a selfie. Medical records showed later that “Lee had stopped breathing for two minutes.” But Vanessa was positive. In her text, she told her dad, “I am still alive. It doesn’t matter, win or lose, I want to walk on stage.”
Lee’s mother Kristin tried to convince her daughter not to run after seeing Vanessa’s condition. But Lee was adamant about participating in the pageant. Kristin suggested different options. Perhaps, she should share her story of pain at the pageant to receive “sympathy votes”’ from the judges. Or she could opt in an easier talent to compete such as storytelling.
No matter what her parents proposed, Vanessa rejected them all.
“This is part of my journey,” she said. “I have to do it.”
Inspired by Vanessa’s courage, bravery, and resilience, Kristin cried many times. Coincidentally, the theme of the national Miss Chinatown pageant this year was “resilience.” It meant “to give, and lean on the strength of those around me,” Vanessa said.
Taking the easy path was not in Vanessa’s agenda. Instead, she did the opposite. To stand out among the contestants, she asked her dance instructor to teach her a more difficult version of the Chinese Peacock dance in order to impress the judges. She has been learning Chinese dance from Hengda Li for the past decade, and planned to use dance in the talent competition.
Hengda said he taught Vanessa the version for professional dancers. Imagine the pain she had to endure during rehearsals to prepare for the pageant.
Vanessa credited her strength to all the people who had supported her, including her sponsor, Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which organized a team of people to work with her for months. It began with Millie Su, a Chamber board member, whose goal is to spot potential contestants for the San Francisco pageant. Because of the pandemic, the Chamber couldn’t hold its own local pageant. But the local chamber can still send a contestant
every year to represent Seattle.
The talent portion was only one part of the contest. Vanessa had to go through the judges’ interview to test the contestants’ self-confidence, speaking skills, ability to think on her feet, and the Chinese gown competition for poise and competing with 12 other contestants from all over the U.S.
The training for the question-and-answer portion and the professional model walk was more like a personal development course for young women.
Vanessa’s mentors include Sandy Sun, Susana Chin, Rick Choi, Samantha Yee, Karma Lee, and Cythnia Vuong. They had worked side by side to prepare Vanessa so that she wouldn’t be nervous and would be able to anticipate all types of unexpected questions. The goal was to show the judges grace under pressure.
Vanessa also thanked more supporters at the dinner, including the Lee Family Association and all the aunties and friends who had rallied behind her.
“I know how blessed I am,” she said. “I have the community in my life.”
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.