By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Rachel He may be 17, but her poise, articulation, and talent have earned her a new crown and $9,000 prize money as 2022 Miss Chinese Seattle on Dec. 3, at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue.
How the young woman beat other contestants may surprise many, including this reporter. She also won the talent competition with her piano performance, a rare phenomenon for contestants to win both the talent portion and the queen title as most judges may prefer to see a show with drama and entertainment.
In 40 years of covering the Miss Chinese Seattle (formerly Miss Chinatown) pageant, the teenager has broken the record of being the youngest to capture the queen title. Previously, the youngest winner was 18 years old, almost two decades ago.
A social media nut, He is not. A pure academic student, she is the opposite. She is not your typical 17-year-old as shown in her interview with the Northwest Asian Weekly.
More than 400 people attended the scholarship pageant with seven contestants in four different competitions, from Chinese evening gown to talent and fitness to question-and-answer. The first runner-up is Elaine Ho and second runner-up Tia Pu. And every contestant won a title, including Miss Congeniality, Miss Community Leadership, and Miss Community Spirit. Everyone’s a winner in her own right.
What makes the new queen tick?
“I was so surprised (to win),” said He. “I was the youngest, I was the baby girl (among the other contestants). I look up to the other contestants. I respect them.”
A senior at International High School, He is active, athletic, and multi-talented. She is not the conventional teenager you would expect.
Born in Tennessee, her family moved to Washington state when she was 7 years old. Her talent performance was playing a difficult and fast Chopin Etude Op. 10 No. 4 for nearly three minutes. She has played the piano for 10 years.
The teenager is also well-read, and not from social media. Ask her any topic including why she picked Chopin for her talent portion, she would quote from the knowledge she got from books. She told the Asian Weekly that she is careful not to spend too much time on social media.
“I like to learn and experiment,” she said. “I don’t understand unless I do it myself.”
“I limit my social media use, I don’t trust it. That’s why I read, [books] teach me lessons that I can relate with.”
Her dream is “to study music, not as a performer, but how to benefit people.” To use music as therapy, she has performed for people with disabilities. Music improves people‘s brains, she said.
The young lady can sing, dance, and ice skate. Her parents encouraged her to take lessons in those areas when she was younger. In her spare time, she also runs long-distance relay races as long as 200 miles in the Canadian border.
He speaks fluent Mandarin and French, which she has studied for seven years in school.
The Miss Seattle Chinese pageant is not He’s first pageant. Did her participation in another pageant help her?
“It helped me to become more prepared,” He said, although she was not less nervous during her piano performance. “… it was a stepping stone for this pageant.”
And her mentors (mostly former Miss Chinatowns) encouraged her to relax.
“That’s the best advice,” she added.
During the interview, a judge asked her, how and what would she say to a world leader? The value of “collaboration” and “empathy” would bring people to work together and understand how someone feels, she said.
Those two elements would “help people to communicate better” and not worry about “who is right and wrong.”
“She is so articulate,” said Suana Chin, who has trained all the contestants. Chin was not surprised that He won.
For the past four decades, no one from Washington state has won the national Miss Chinatown USA pageant in San Francisco. Seattle has received the No. 2 title numerous times, as well as Miss Chinese Chamber of Commerce and lesser titles. He will join the national pageant in San Francisco on Feb. 3.
Already, He is thinking ahead. She is studying, “How can I impact my community?” as I am representing not just myself, but Seattle. How would people perceive Chinese in Seattle? How can I reach out to the Chinese community? What do people want to be portrayed on the national stage?”
That’s not the thought pattern of an ordinary 17-year-old who would be thinking about meeting boys and big shots, and having fun in San Francisco.
2023 may be the year for the pageant sponsor and organizer, the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, to lay its hope on He as the one to achieve the title of Miss Chinatown U.S.A.
Behind the scene
This year, guests might not be aware of the challenges facing the event’s organizer, the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
Millie Su, pageant committee chair for numerous pageants, spent months recruiting contestants. It’s not enough to convince the girls to run; sometimes, the parents, too. If the girls agree to run, they have to invest their time and hard work through months of training and rehearsals in dance performances and public speaking. Su said one contestant backed out because she simply didn’t have the time to participate in addition to her full-time job.
This year was the first big in-person pageant since the pandemic for the Chamber.
“There were lots of pressures,” Su said. Several crises occurred. The sound man and videographer got sick, and one emcee went to Taiwan due to a death in the family. Luckily, those incidents happened before the event.”
The biggest shock was the cost of holding the event. Prices doubled and even tripled. In addition, the Chamber has to raise over $18,000 for prize funds.
Even securing the piano for the talent show was a challenge. In the past, Meydenbauer provided one. This time, the Chamber had to rent one. The contestant wanted a grand piano. The cost was $1,000 just to ensure that the piano would arrive on time.