This piece originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald, republished here with permission.
In the hustle and bustle of a room in the Chinatown International District, a group of girls get ready. One does her makeup in a mirror adorned with pictures of former City Councilmember Cheryl Chow. Another sorts through a bin of white sneakers while yet another patiently gets a belt fitted around her waist.
These young women are preparing to march in the 2022 Seattle Chinatown Seafair Parade as the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team. Donning elaborate red and gold costumes, the marchers move with military-like precision, weaving in and out of formations and calling out moves in the middle of the street, glimmering for the crowds.
A new short documentary, She Marches in Chinatown, tells the drill team’s incredible 70-year history, from its founding in the early 1950s all the way to today, when it’s become a refuge for young Asian American women across the city. Directed by longtime photographer Della Chen, the documentary dives into Chinese American culture in Seattle and what that identity means to the community both past and present. She Marches in Chinatown is currently on the festival circuit, where it sold out screenings at Northwest Film Forum and SIFF Egyptian.
“In a time where Chinatowns are still vulnerable, it’s important to be around people who look like you, whether you’re a multi-generational drill team member or adopted,” said Chen. “There’s just so many different aspects of this team.”
The Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team is the only drill team of its kind in the world. It began in 1952 when a group of Chinese American teenage girls asked restaurateur, activist, and future King County Councilmember Ruby Chow how they could become more involved in their community. Chow reached out to her friend Ted Yerabek, a Seattle police drill team instructor, to ask if he’d teach the girls American military drills, and he obliged. Her husband, Ping Chow, was a trained Cantonese opera singer and suggested the girls wear women warrior costumes, which signified their strength, intelligence, and power. Thus, Chow fused these two disparate cultural practices into this unique Seattle drill team.
“The first time they went to compete, they came back with first place and sweepstakes,” Ruby reflected in archival footage from 2002 that’s included in the film. “The trophy was as high as the shortest girl on the team!”
Over seven decades, the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team has seen hundreds of Chinese American girls pass through its ranks and find community with one another. The documentary follows the 2022 season of the team, as the girls bounce back from the pandemic and the wave of anti-Asian hate that swept the Chinatown International District during that time. Many of the 30 girls on the team have been adopted into families of a different race from their own or have multiethnic backgrounds, and see it as a way to uniquely embed themselves into their Chinese culture.
“It’s very inclusive to anyone who wants to be a part of a group that has been going on for so long,” said Chen, whose daughter is also on the team. “I think the drill team gives them the opportunity to see each other frequently, and they get to make friends.”
Chen also incorporates the reflections of aunties from drill teams past into the 33-minute documentary. While some women were coached by Ruby Chow, many pointed to her daughter, the late Cheryl Chow, as the biggest influence on their time on the team. Cheryl Chow took over as director of the drill team when her mother stepped down, and led the team for nearly 50 years, emphasizing sisterhood, friendship, and community to the young women.
Crucially, Chen relies on unseen archival interviews from 2002 of both Ruby and Cheryl Chow to help illustrate the history of the drill team and provide insight into the women’s perspectives. She came across the footage when one of the drill team aunties casually handed her a VHS tape with the words “50 year anniversary” on it. It turned out to be the lynchpin of the entire documentary.
“I was able to connect with the person who produced [the interviews]. Within a week, she went to her storage unit in California and overnighted it to me,” said Chen. “It was the most amazing gift and game changer for the film, because we knew we had to introduce Ruby and Cheryl, but we didn’t really know who was going to be able to do it. Once we saw this footage, we were like, we’ll have Cheryl introduce Ruby and Ruby introduce Cheryl. It was perfect.”
In the years since Cheryl Chow passed, the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team membership has dwindled to around 30 from its height of over 100 girls. Chen hopes this documentary can not only help boost the team’s numbers, but also draw deserved attention to the drill team’s singular and important story.
“The whole purpose of my film is so that not only can people learn about this cool organization,” said Chen, “but know that Asian American women have a place in Seattle history.”
She Marches in Chinatown is screening on-demand at the Friday Harbor Film Festival from October 30 – November 5, and in-person at both the Vancouver Asian Film Festival on November 5 and the Reel Women’s Film Festival on November 12.
Jas Keimig is a writer and critic based in Seattle. They previously worked on staff at The Stranger, covering visual art, film, music, and stickers. Their work has also appeared in Crosscut, South Seattle Emerald, i-D, Netflix, and The Ticket. They also co-write Unstreamable for Scarecrow Video, a column and screening series highlighting films you can’t find on streaming services. They won a game show once.