By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team resembles no other organization in the world—not even anywhere in mainland China or Taiwan. They combine ceremonial costumes derived from Cantonese Opera, with precision marching and drilling. To take part requires health, strength, dedication, sacrifice, and teamwork. Working together, the team’s been a fixture at the Chinatown Seafair Parade, and the Seafair Torchlight Parade, for more than 70 years now.
“My family always went to the Seafair Torchlight Parade, and when I was a teen, I always wanted to be part of the drill team. Sadly I didn’t get the chance but when my daughter turned 11 I encouraged her to join, and she has been part of the team for the last five years. I noticed the team was smaller than when I used to watch them, and wanted to help rebuild it. Once I started learning about the history and the unique story, I was determined that this was going to be my first documentary project.”
The team’s history goes back to 1951, when a group of Asian American high school girls wanted to be of service to the community. They approached Ruby Chow, the well-known Chinese American restaurateur and politician, for guidance.
Ruby Chow’s husband, Ping Chow, was a Cantonese opera singer and suggested the girls wear Chinese woman warrior costumes. One of the customers from Ruby Chow’s restaurant was Ted Yerabek, a Caucasian Seattle police officer and member of the SPD drill team. He offered to teach the girls American military marching drills.
The uniforms, unchanged in style after all these years, come handmade from Hong Kong and weigh eight pounds each. Team officers wear a different color, teal, and have long feathers in their head dresses.
The team had not drilled in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID, but Chen filmed them as they re-started practices in 2022, culminating in their march in the Chinatown Seafair Parade. “We had plans on filming the Torchlight Parade, but for the first time, [they] had to withdraw due to the extreme heat.” Cinematographer Phillip Townsend used a camera jib, plus a drone, to capture shifting precision formations from overhead.
Another fascinating aspect of the film is how Ruby Chow’s daughter, Cheryl Chow, recalls family history through team history: Drilling with the other girls, becoming friends with the other girls, learning from her mother even as drilling under her mother’s leadership brought its own stresses, and how the other girls, at times, protected her from her mother. Cheryl Chow later became a teacher, school principal, and prominent Chinese American politician, following in her mother’s footsteps.
Asked about the archival footage of the Chows, Chen called it “pretty amazing, actually. We were finishing our last interview in September 2022, and one of the [Drill Team] aunties handed me a VHS tape that was labeled ‘Fifty Year Anniversary.’ Once I had the tape converted, there was great footage of Ruby and Cheryl from 2002, but I needed the original (video) files.”
“Within a week, the producers of that tape, Jacy and Jerry Yu, sent me the original footage from their storage unit in California. The footage we ended up using was mostly [previously] unseen. This was such an amazing gift and game-changer for the film.”
Chen went into the project with a great admiration for the Team, but said her perceptions grew and changed during filming. “I have so much respect and admiration, especially [for] the dedication from the aunties that return year after year to keep this team alive. Most of the girls on the team now are transracially adopted, and this bond they have is quite amazing.”
The project also allowed Chen to reflect deeply on what the team ultimately meant, and means, to its members.
“We interviewed around 50 people, and everyone had that same takeaway from being on the drill team. Sisterhood, leadership, mentorship, lifelong friends, forming identity, and a place of belonging. Ruby and Cheryl did that. I am inspired by their tenacity.”
“She Marches In Chinatown” plays at a free screening Oct. 14 at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian, 805 East Pine Street on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. The program features a performance by the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team, plus Q&A with team members and filmmakers. For more information about the screening and the film, visit https://www.chenaniganfilms.com/chenanigans.