It Takes a Village to Raise a Winner – A Journey to Overcome Adversity

By Assunta Ng

Vanessa with her portrait (Photo by Assunta Ng)

It’s no surprise that Bellevue’s Vanessa Lee won the title of Miss Chinese Chamber of Commerce USA in San Francisco. What is surprising is that Lee won three titles, a record feat for the local Chinese community in the national Miss Chinatown pageant.

Vanessa performed the Peacock Dance at a celebration dinner at China Harbor Restaurant (Photo by Assunta Ng)

Lee also won Miss Talent and First Princess. These women from Washington State, who had won the Miss Chinese Chamber of Commerce award, were generally tall. At just five feet, 19-year-old Lee beat all odds to win the crown.

Born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Lee’s platform for the contest is to be an ambassador for Chinatowns across the United States, including Seattle. A sophomore at the University of Washington, Lee is majoring in business.

Vanessa in a peacock pose (Photo by Assunta Ng)

“She (Lee) is lucky to be here tonight,” Lee’s father, Tim, said at a March 12 celebration dinner at China Harbor Restaurant. Tim is a contractor for Federal Express.

Just before the contest in California, Lee suffered appendicitis and required surgery. The operation nearly killed her because the nurse had given her an injection to which she was allergic.

Vanessa lee and her mother, Kristin (Photo by Assunta Ng)

Lee’s allergic reaction was so severe that she could not walk and was in severe pain.

“His face was swollen,” Tim said as his daughter sent him a selfie. Medical records later showed that “Lee stopped breathing for two minutes”. But Vanessa was positive. In her text, she told her father: “I am still alive. It doesn’t matter, win or lose, I want to go on stage.

(Photo by George Liu)

Lee’s mother, Kristin, tried to convince her daughter not to run after seeing Vanessa’s condition. But Lee was keen to enter the contest. Kristin suggested different options. Perhaps she should share her story of pain in the contest to receive “sympathy votes” from the judges. Or she could opt for an easier talent to compete for, like storytelling.

No matter what her parents offered, Vanessa rejected them all.

“It’s been part of my journey,” she said. “I have to do it.”

Vanessa crowned Miss Chinese Chamber of Commerce at the Miss Chinatown USA pageant in San Francisco (Photo courtesy of the Lee family)

Inspired by Vanessa’s courage, bravery and resilience, Kristin cried many times. Coincidentally, the theme of the national Miss Chinatown pageant this year was “resilience”. It meant “giving and building on the strength of those around me,” Vanessa said.

Taking the easy route was not on Vanessa’s agenda. Instead, she did the opposite. To stand out among the contestants, she asked her dance teacher to teach her a more difficult version of the Chinese Peacock Dance to impress the judges. She learned Chinese dance from Hengda Li over the past decade and planned to use the dance in the talent show.

Hengda said he taught Vanessa the version for professional dancers. Imagine the pain she had to endure during rehearsals to prepare for the competition.

Vanessa attributed her strength to everyone who had supported her, including her sponsor, the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, who organized a team of people to work with her for months. It all started with Chamber board member Millie Su, whose goal is to scout potential contestants for the San Francisco contest. Due to the pandemic, the Chamber was unable to hold its own local competition. But the local chamber can still send a candidate
every year to represent Seattle.

Vanessa thanked all the friends who supported her (Photo by Assunta Ng)

The talent part was only part of the competition. Vanessa had to pass the interview with the judges to test the contestants’ self-confidence, speaking skills, thinking ability and the Chinese dress contest for balance and competition with 12 other contestants from all over the United States.

The training for the question-and-answer part and the walk of the professional model was more like a personal development course for young women.

Vanessa’s mentors include Sandy Sun, Susana Chin, Rick Choi, Samantha Yee, Karma Lee and Cythnia Vuong. They had worked side by side to prepare Vanessa so that she wouldn’t be nervous and could anticipate all sorts of unexpected questions. The aim was to show the grace of the judges under pressure.

Vanessa also thanked more supporters at the dinner, including the Lee Family Association and all the aunts and friends who had joined her.

“I know how blessed I am,” she said. “I have community in my life.”

Assunta can be contacted at [email protected]

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