Local Sightings Film Festival is Seattle’s only festival dedicated to Pacific Northwest films and filmmakers, from WA, OR, AK, ID, MT, BC, and the Yukon.

She Marches in Chinatown (2023)

A still from She Marches in Chinatown (2023) by Della Chen • Courtesy

She Marches in Chinatown (2023) by Director Della Chen investigates the history, contemporary present, and future of the Seattle Chinese Girls Community Drill Team (SCGCDT).

Every summer, dozens of Chinese American girls parade in-step to thundering drums in vibrant gold-vermillion Cantonese opera costumes. Onlookers cheer and swell with pride when the young performers masterfully execute elaborate foot drills. Part performance, part military-esque exercise, the drill team has been a mainstay in the Seattle Chinese community for over 70 years. Behind the strict movements and dark sunglasses are young people excited to be authentically themselves and authentically Chinese.

Chen introduces us to the current members and alumni as they prepare for the 2022 Seafair Parade. This year’s march will be an important one as the team makes a triumphant return since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The documentary, the first of its kind about the SCGCDT, mixes contemporary footage with archival imagery and interviews of team alumni.

Seattle Chinese Girls Community Drill Team was founded in 1952 by former city councilwoman Ruby Chow and a group of Chinese American women called The Chi-ettes with the aim of improving relations between Chinese Americans and the wider Seattle community. In archival footage and interviews, Chow shares how The Chi-ettes got their start from an idea of giving back to the community. Chow’s presence as an indomitable Chinese American woman and Seattle community leader inspires the drill team women of all generations — everyone takes time to pay homage to Auntie Ruby.

The team spans many generations; it’s a place for youth and elders to come together in solidarity. Young members affectionately praise their aunties as powerful role models that helped them forge ahead and accept themselves as Chinese people. Together, they share moments of joy and camaraderie. Both sides of the generational line have things to teach each other.

Cheryl Chow, the late Seattle city councilwoman and Ruby Chow’s daughter, describes how she took the team into new directions after inheriting the project from her mother. As a queer Chinese woman, Cheryl Chow showed the next generation of young members that they too have a place on the drill team and can authentically be themselves while representing their community.

Unfortunately there is a big historical part of the team’s origins that the documentary did not touch on. Chow and others began developing the idea for the SCGCDT in 1951. By then, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army had entered the Korean War against U.S.-led forces and turned the tide for the communist movement in Korea. American and western anxieties over worldwide anti-colonial and communist revolutions reached an all-time high. Chinese in America were already subject to intense scrutiny and discrimination since the preceding 19th century, but this repression once again entered a new stage, with Americans and the U.S. government scrutinizing Chinese people as a potential fifth-column for domestic leftist and anti-racist movements.

Seattle Chinese Girls Community Drill Team • Courtesy

Chinese people across America were forced to pledge loyalty to the United States or be subjected to intense harassment, surveillance, and political violence. The Chinese American community ruptured along lines of support for the Chinese Nationalist or Communist parties. The drill team developed in this climate of Cold War McCarthyism as a gesture of goodwill between Chinese in America and their increasingly hostile adopted nation, as well as amidst the splits within the Chinese American community along political lines.

While the film points to historic anti-Chinese exclusion and expulsion from Seattle, how the Seattle Asian American community has grappled with COVID-19, and the rise of anti-Asian violence and discrimination, the film does not explicitly explore this historical throughline of Cold War politics that brought Chow and others to form the SCGCDR as a way of changing the public image of Chinese Americans amidst widespread repression of the Asian Americans and the American Left. This omission felt like a missed opportunity to set a clear historical grounding.

Today, with the reorientation of the U.S. military toward the Asian continent, ongoing anti-Chinese fear-mongering following the pandemic, and terrifying prospects of a new Cold War between China and the U.S., the impetus for the SCGCDR arises yet again. And it’s in this historical moment that the girls of the drill team find themselves as subjects as they recall the wave of anti-Asian attacks on the Chinatown International District (CID) and upon Chinese and Asian people in America.

At the same time, they draw upon the strength of the community to pull together and resist repression as inspiration to carry forward to the 2022 parade march. It’s in this developing backdrop that the drill team remains an important part of the Seattle community, and a place for young Chinese women in America to find solidarity and belonging in an increasingly hostile environment to anything Chinese or Asian.

The origins of the team strongly mirror our present situation, and we should appreciate the similarities and differences of then and now. The film shows how the team has evolved since its founding to reflect the dynamic makeup of Chinese and Asians in America. The team today reflects the widespread acceptance of LGBTQIA+ Asian Americans and membership is open to non-Chinese and those with mixed ancestry alike.

We also see the resilience of the CID, surviving as a focal-point of the Seattle Asian diaspora community despite racism, repression, and geographical displacement. She Marches in Chinatown will be an important watch for anyone interested in the history and future of Chinese and Asian people in America. As our beloved CID faces intense political and economic struggles both outside and within the neighborhood, we ought to consider how the SCGCDT will continue to evolve. History is marching forward, and so too are the women of the Seattle Community Girls Drill Team.

Wok Hei (2023)

A still from Wok Hei (2023) by Joel Salaysay • Courtesy

A good wok’s seasoning can tell a thousand stories, each layer carrying a small legacy of every dish that came before it.

For many families, a wok is something to be preserved and passed down generations an unbroken chain of history that ties us to the past and present. In Wok Hei (2023), Director Joel Salaysay asks us to consider what happens when that chain is interrupted. Vivian, a young Chinese-Canadian mother, grapples with reconnecting to her heritage as she tries to restore her maternal grandmother’s rusty wok. Her grandmother explains to her that since moving to North America, the wok has sat unused because it’s incompatible with Canadian stovetops.

In this short, Vivian reflects on her integration into Canadian society –in some ways seamless, in other ways fraught. Now she struggles to reconnect to her heritage during a family stay at her grandmother’s house –the sights and smells of which take her back to her childhood. One day over burgers, she anxiously looks at her bi-racial daughter and thinks back to all the times she’s been asked by strangers: Where are you really from? curious if her daughter will share a fate of being seen as a foreigner in her country.

Ultimately, Vivian is looking for a fresh start, a reset to her core foundations. Her hopes imbued in this project to get the wok restored for a big family meal. Most of the film is her narrating her journey atop interacting with her family members –everyone’s together for the function. We see Vivian’s frustration but also her witty humor amidst the situation.

With the film having a runtime of 10 minutes and entirely taking place at grandma’s house, we don’t actually get to see the events that shaped Vivian’s life, leaving it to her narration to set the context and history.

Wok Hei joins the many works that focus on the themes of reconnecting and assimilation, largely from the lens of the personal story and anecdote. Viewers with their own experiences

struggling with belonging will find the story’s sentimental beats familiar but not groundbreaking (nor does it feel like it’s trying to be). However, it was neat to see a wok being restored in an electrolysis bath.

The focus on food being the main way Vivian reconnects to her family, while in-keeping with the centrality of the wok, I feel limits or forecloses on raising other aspects of reconnecting that people in the diaspora struggle with. Food and cooking are indeed integral parts of staying connected to our cultures, but they’re not the only ones. I wish Wok Hei had made space to explore some additional threads, but overall it stays focused on Vivian and her goal of putting on an amazing family dinner. It’s a straightforward feel-good story that many who are seeking their own reconnection and reset can strongly relate to, and suggests that it’s never too late for us to make new legacies and new memories atop the old.

Xīn Nī (2023)

A still from Xīn Nī (2023) by Jasmine Liaw • Courtesy

Xīn Nī (2023) is a visual poem by artist Jasmine Liaw. It blends personal narration, digital animation, and dance performance to interrogate Liaw’s questions about her ethnic and cultural identity, and reflects her desire to understand herself and connect to her Hakka ancestry.

Xīn Nī (‮*‬ل‮)‬g), Liaw’s Chinese name, translates to ‘understanding you’. Its meaning changes between the various Chinese dialects, but at the core is a theme of love, trust, connection, and gentle tenderness. Liaw opens by exploring the origin of her given name and launches into more fundamental questions about her origins as a Hakka person living in the west.

Throughout the piece, we hear a conversation between Liaw and her father. Together they chronicle the family’s migration to Vancouver, BC from Brunei following Malaysia’s independence from British colonial rule. After independence, thousands of diasporic Hakka Chinese were denied citizenship in Malaysia and Brunei –we learn that Liaw’s family were among those who left to find citizenship elsewhere. This critical framing opens up questions about what happens to diasporic peoples when they find themselves migrating yet again. How would we as diasporic people respond to challenges and difficulties faced in our adopted homes?

Liaw guides us through her process of uncovering and understanding her history to contextualize her present with a tender sincerity. Her dances are echoed by digitized family artifacts that swirl atop the frame: identification papers, a family photo, a durian. All is swept up in the movement of people and things across decades and oceans. The use of 3D scanned objects intermixed with live footage constructs a metaphor that speaks to Liaw’s sense of alienation.

Xīn Nī has a confessional-like quality. Liaw confides in us all of her anxieties about her simultaneous connection and disconnection to her culture and herself. But there with her, helping guide her through her reflections are her family members. The digital visuals moving across the screen provide a haunting but also soothing ambience, the echoes of her family history are right there with us all the time. Aren’t ours too?

“She Marches in Chinatown,” “Wok Hei,” and “Xīn Nī” will play at Local Sightings at the NW Film Forum on Sept. 15 – 24, 2023. “She Marches in Chinatown” will also have a special screening on October 14, 2023 from 1 – 3pm at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian. With special guests and a live performance by the Seattle Chinese Girls Community Drill Team. 805 E. Pine St. on Capitol Hill. Go to siff.net for details.

A still from Xīn Nī (2023) by Jasmine Liaw • Courtesy
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