Dressed like women warriors, these girls step into their heritage
Erin Josue was just 2-years-old when her grandmother took her to her first Seattle Chinese Community Girls’ Drill Team practice.
“I started on her back,” Josue says. “I just kept coming after that.”
At 17, Josue is now one of the team’s old-timers.
At a recent Saturday practice on the asphalt playfield behind the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District, Josue helped put two dozen fellow team members through their paces.
At Josue’s call, five lines of girls marched forward, their arms and legs perfectly synchronized, as a quartet of percussionists pounded out drum beats.
At Josue’s second command, the front line of girls pivoted left, while the second turned to the right, alternating through all five squads.
Instructor Sue-May Eng watched. As a girl, Eng marched with the team; so did her sisters, nieces and other extended family members. For Eng, the history of this team is inextricable from her family’s history in the neighborhood she calls Chinatown.
“Right behind us here is Canton Alley,” Eng explains. “My father was born there, across from the playfield. Drill team is a big part of my life.”
Eng volunteers her time every Saturday, teaching the current team everything that she learned from her predecessors. Eng’s contemporary, Isabelle Gonn, is Erin Josue’s grandmother. She serves as the team’s director, and its informal historian.
“(The drill team) all started because there was a group of girls that got together,” Gonn says.
That was in 1952. The girls had a club called The Chi-ettes. They’d seen Chinese drill teams travel to local parades from as far away as San Francisco, and wondered why Seattle didn’t have its own group.
The Chi-ettes were eager to find a parent-sanctioned after-school activity. At that time, many traditional Chinese families didn’t allow their girls to participate in activities outside the home. These girls took their case for a drill team to one of the pillars of Seattle’s Chinese community, Ruby Chow, owner of the eponymous restaurant, and a future King County Council member.
“They asked Auntie Ruby if they could start a group. That led to this drill team,” Gonn says.
The first instructor was Chow’s friend, Ted Yerabek, leader of the Seattle Police Department drill team.
Yerabek taught the girls how to march in military formation. Chow’s husband convinced her the team should be dressed like women warriors from traditional Chinese opera. They ordered silk dresses from Hong Kong, along with elaborate head pieces decorated with glass jewels, pom-poms or long feathers.
Ruby Chow ran a tight ship. Gonn and Eng say Chow wouldn’t tolerate misbehavior, and boys absolutely were not allowed to mingle with her girls.
Chow served as the drill team instructor until she handed over the reins to her daughter, Cheryl, in the 1960s. The younger Chow was involved with the team on and off for almost half a century, until her death in 2013.
Eng says Cheryl Chow was devoted to both precision marching and to helping “her” girls develop confidence and leadership skills.
“I didn’t have a special talent,” Eng explains. “But I could blend into the squad, I could be part of something special.” Eng carries on Chow’s philosophy. “Anyone can join this team. Every piece is important.”
Seattle attorney Gloria Lung Wakayama was one of Eng’s teammates. She, too, cites the drill team as a formative experience in her life. But Wakayama says the team did more than build self-confidence in its members. The girls also were expected to serve as cultural ambassadors for their community.
“Whenever we went out on parade, there was always a sense of pride to represent the Chinese community of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest,” says Wakayama.
The drill team traveled across the country, and even across the Pacific, to Taiwan. Wakayama says smaller towns always welcomed them, even though many of those communities had little previous contact with Asian-Americans. Ironically, it was in their hometown of Seattle where the team met with overt racism.
“We heard a lot of things,” Wakayama recalls. “Catcalls on parade routes. People would call derogatory names, things like that.”
The girls were taught to keep their faces solemn, their lines straight and to march on.
While its military-style routines have not changed all that much, Sue-May Eng says the team has evolved over its 64-year history.
“In the beginning, most of the girls lived in Chinatown or Beacon Hill,” Eng notes.
As the area’s Chinese community moved beyond central Seattle, the drill team and the Chinatown/International District have become cultural touchstones. They serve to reconnect people of Chinese ancestry with their Northwest history and cultural traditions.
That’s true even for people who aren’t native to this region.
Katherine Vick was adopted from China by a Caucasian family. Vick says they’ve tried to connect her with her Chinese heritage by taking her to restaurants and New Year’s celebrations.
“That’s not the same as being around people who look like you,” Vick says.
For six years, Vick has been a member of the Seattle Chinese Community Girls’ Drill Team. She’s come to think of her teammates as a second family.
Unlike the Chi-ettes of six decades ago, these girls have many activities to choose from. They come to the drill team to connect with friends from the area, and to the legacy the Chi-ettes created for them.
Several years ago, Isabelle Gonn told her granddaughter Erin Josue she didn’t have to stay on the drill team simply because her mother and grandmother had been members. Josue chose to stay.
“It was already a part of me,” Josue says softly. “If I didn’t go on, it would just feel like I was breaking a chain. I would miss it in the end.”
When the time comes, she and the other teenagers plan to do what they can to pass along the traditions to the next generation.
The Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team performs all summer long. They’ll march in the Chinatown parade on July 24, and in the main attraction, the annual Seafair Torchlight parade, on July 30.