The CEO of the Sacramento Mandarins looks back at nearly six decades of the group’s challenges and successes, honoring its Asian history and evolution toward inclusion and equity for all.
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and you might be surprised that Asian culture and drum corps have a long, rich history of intersections in America. Dr. Dan Fong, president and CEO of the Mandarins of Sacramento, talks about the organization’s Asian history and evolution.
Halftime: What is your background, musically and beyond?
Fong: I have a Doctor of Optometry degree, and I’ve got my own private practice. … I was a flute player for four years in elementary school and middle school, and when I was 12 years old, I could not wait to join the Mandarins Drum and Bugle Corps because my older brothers were marching. … I was in the brass line for the Mandarins and marched nine years until I aged out. I became brass caption head three different times from 1982 to 2016 … and was on the design team until 2011. I [also] arrange music for some local marching bands.
Halftime: What does your role with the Mandarins look like now?
Fong: Currently, I’m the president and CEO of the Mandarins of Sacramento, and … we have many programs. Our flagship is of course the drum corps; J.W. Koester [is director]. We also have a music education program, which we implement in elementary schools. That was [a project created by Jim Tabuchi, former CEO]. … We also have a pathways program, another one of Jim’s projects, where we bring percussion instruction into the Sacramento County juvenile detention center.
We just purchased our own home base, a 12,000-square-foot building in Sacramento County. We use half of it as an event center for bingo and fundraisers. We also have a 3,000-square-foot band room that we rent out to local music and dance groups in the community. … So, there are a lot of projects that I oversee, and the drum corps is just one of them.
Halftime: Tell us about the corps’ history.
Fong: The corps [was] started in 1963 by four gentlemen who wanted a youth musical group specifically for the Chinese community in Sacramento. Back then, everything was kind of segregated, and there weren’t a lot of things for Chinese youth to get involved with. There were a lot of drum corps at that time; they were community groups, safe environments, and kept kids off the streets. Every city had several because they were started at places like churches and [Veterans of Foreign Wars] posts. Actually, I went and visited some small towns along the Sacramento River, which were known to have a lot of Chinese immigrants and Chinese laborers [who] were left over from the railroad days and the gold rush days. We went to visit one and actually came across pictures of Chinese drum and bugle corps from as early as 1926.
The Mandarins started as a drum and bell corps called the Ye Wah Drum and Bell. Ye Wah is the Cantonese name for Sacramento. They were just a parade corps until 1967 when they added the bugles and eventually changed the name to the Mandarins. The name was actually chosen by the members. Then, they started doing field competitions in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Halftime: What kinds of challenges have the Mandarins faced as a historically Chinese corps? What are your thoughts on advocacy in light of heightened discrimination against Asian people in America?
Fong: All I know is what I’ve witnessed. There wasn’t a lot of overt discrimination that I know of. In the ’60s, the ethnic groups pretty much kept to themselves. There wasn’t a lot of integration, at least in social circles, so the Mandarins provided a safe place for the Chinese. As times went on, in the ’70s and ’80s, the corps opened up to allow people from any Asian descent, not just Chinese.
One difficult situation we came across was when we had several non-Asians who wanted to be part of our corps, but the bylaws still said you had to be of Asian ancestry. The board of directors ended up relaxing the rules, and that’s when we opened up the corps to everyone who wanted to be a part of it. …
I think education is huge. I think speaking up is important, and a lot of groups are being vocal … in their communities and on social media. Taking a stance on what you believe in and what’s right is so important. We have been making very conscious efforts in our drum corps to address these issues by emphasizing equity and inclusion. Now we’re also working that into our Mandarins education programs, especially in Title I schools, with the idea that no kid should be left behind just because of their situation. It’s a part of the fabric in everything we do.
Halftime: How does the corps engage with its culture?
Fong: We have a history night where I talk a little bit about the founding of the corps, the early days, prominent members and staff that have come through, and some of the traditions. But first and foremost, we always [talk] about the values of our organization: respect, family and treating everyone with kindness. As the organization grew, faces have changed and times have changed, [but] these values are things that we have not allowed to change.
Halftime: Do the Mandarins incorporate Chinese elements into shows?
Fong: For a long time, we did. And then we’d let it go and revisit it again. It’s been cyclical. In our drum corps shows, we bow, and the uniforms initially had a Chinese influence. But we went through a phase in the ’80s where we wanted to escape that. … We’ve had several shows with taiko drums. In 2013, our show was called “Destination America,” and it was about Chinese immigrants. In 2015, it was about the Terracotta Warriors.
Halftime: What kinds of special traditions do the Mandarins have?
Fong: I know we eat really well. … Once a year, we have our alumni make a meal for the kids and give our kitchen crew a break. They serve traditional Chinese food. … We also started a Hall of Fame. … Of course, like every music group or sports group, they have their quirky section traditions.
Halftime: What are your proudest moments with the corps?
Fong: I think the organization’s decision not to be all Asian anymore was a landmark. This was the early ’90s, and it was time. You can’t apply the social views of 1963 to 1990. It just didn’t fit anymore.
Making finals [in 2018 and then again in 2019] was certainly a dream. All of the alumni, from all the way back to the ’60s, started to pay attention to the Mandarins again. … It was a very proud moment to make finals and have so many alumni there to experience it.
Halftime: Tell us about your 2021 plans.
Fong: We’re so excited to be able to provide our members with a full drum corps experience this season. … The members will be traveling and going to different cities and performing, so it’s going to be real drum corps. We’re not watering anything down, and we’re ramping up for 2022. [In 2021, the Mandarins will present the show, “Beyond the Canvas.”]