Written by Eveline Chao, NCSNew York

This function is a part of NCS Style’s new collection Hyphenated, which explores the advanced problem of identification amongst minorities in the United States.

In February of final 12 months, the Miss Chinatown USA pageant in San Francisco topped its latest winner: the then-18-year-old Lauren Yang of Sugar Land, Texas.

Across 4 competitors classes — titled beauty and poise, expertise presentation, verbal communication and swimsuit/health and kind — Yang, a Harvard University pupil, gave a speech on the significance of gender equality and carried out a classical piano piece. Alongside 11 different contestants, she additionally answered an interview query and walked the stage in a swimsuit, then a cheongsam, in entrance of an viewers of lots of and a judging panel comprised of local people leaders and representatives from the enterprise, arts and leisure sectors.

The yearly occasion is each quintessentially American, like the Miss America pageants that impressed it, and remarkably Chinese. Emcees host in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, and contestants typically showcase Chinese arts, like ribbon dancing or taking part in conventional stringed devices.

Lauren Yang crowned as Miss Chinatown USA in 2020.

Lauren Yang topped as Miss Chinatown USA in 2020. Credit: Courtesy Andreas Zhou Photography

Yang first fell into pageantry via cultural actions. Growing up close to Houston, which has a big Asian group, she spent her weekends attending Chinese faculty and folks dance courses, listening to of the contests from classmates who had competed. Yang’s dad and mom, electrical engineers from China who first moved to the US for grad faculty, signed her and her sister up for the Miss Chinatown Houston pageant with the intention of creating them much less shy. Both received, in separate years, and each went on to assert the nationwide Miss Chinatown USA title, too.

Reflecting on her victory after the emergence of the current Stop Asian Hate marketing campaign, Yang advised NCS that the Covid-19 pandemic’s impression on Asian American communities made 2020 an particularly significant 12 months to have competed, describing the expertise as a “space to celebrate Chinese culture, history and tradition.”

“At the height of Lunar New Year celebrations in February, we paraded on the streets — corners filled with local Asian vendors and brightened by lion dances and cultural performances. Within a month, the streets emptied. Where our culture was celebrated, our people were now loathed and blamed.

“These very streets at the moment are the place our elders are being attacked,” she added, where anti-Asian rhetoric “hangs with suffocating weight in the air.”

Yang, now aged 19, could just as easily be talking about the first Miss Chinatown pageant in the 1950s, a period of similar anti-Asian xenophobia. And although those early competitions ultimately helped challenge racial prejudices, they also reinforced other stereotypes — of women, in particular — that later generations would find limiting.

As the American zeitgeist has shifted, from the Cold War through the civil rights movement and multiple waves of feminism, Miss Chinatown USA has continued to shape, and be shaped by, the ever-changing ideals of Chinese American womanhood.

Yellow peril, red scare

The 1950s were a fearful time for Asians in America. China had “fallen” to communism in 1949, and when the newly formed People’s Republic of China (PRC) entered the Korean War the following year — pitting it directly against the US — Chinese Americans feared being interned, just as Japanese Americans had been during World War II.

Some leftists and PRC symphathizers were certainly deported or jailed, and Chinatowns were surveilled, although measures stopped wanting mass internment. America in the meantime imposed an embargo in opposition to mainland China that, immediately, paralyzed the many Chinatown companies that relied on imported items, from pharmacies and groceries to reward outlets.
Miss Chinatown Ingrid Van takes part in Chinese New Year fesitivities in New York, date unknown.

Miss Chinatown Ingrid Van takes half in Chinese New Year fesitivities in New York, date unknown. Credit: Frank Hurley/New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images

It was in this environment that community and business leaders in San Francisco’s Chinatown hatched a plan to improve its public image and encourage tourism: a day of cultural activities, capped by a parade to mark Chinese New Year. Though the community had previously staged its own new year celebrations, this one would be explicitly public — a place to “invite our American buddies … to understand and be taught issues about (the) Chinese,” as organizer Henry Kwock “H.Ok.” Wong put it.

The image that organizers wished to project was that of a patriotic, assimilated community, compatible with American values. The first of the parades, in 1953, was led by a Chinese American veteran who had been blinded in the Korean War. He was followed by an Anti-Communist League car and Chinese school marching bands.

In 1954, Wong added a local Miss Chinatown pageant (which had been held since 1948) to the festival lineup. The competition proved so popular that, in 1958, it was expanded into Miss Chinatown USA, a national-level pageant featuring 17 young women from around the country, many of whom had been Miss Chinatown winners in other cities.

Female drummers marching in a Chinese New Year Parade in 1958, the same year June Gong (pictured up top) won Miss Chinatown.

Female drummers marching in a Chinese New Year Parade in 1958, the identical 12 months June Gong (pictured up high) received Miss Chinatown. Credit: Courtesy Chinese Historical Society of America

The event was a hit, attracting interest from both within the Chinese community and across greater San Francisco. The first winner, June Gong of Miami, Florida, was a college senior studying home economics who had won a Miss Chinatown competition in New York City the previous year. She was crowned by the mayor of San Francisco, and her smiling image — complete with a cheongsam, heels, lipstick and curled, 1950s-style hair — appeared in newspapers across the country.

The appeal of Miss Chinatown was far-reaching and even extended across the pond. Pageant contestants from London are pictured here during the 1980s.

The enchantment of Miss Chinatown was far-reaching and even prolonged throughout the pond. Pageant contestants from London are pictured right here during the Nineteen Eighties. Credit: Alamy

The cheongsams worn by contestants were key to the early pageants’ success, argues scholar Chiou-ling Yeh in her book “Making an American Festival: Chinese New Year in San Francisco’s Chinatown.”

“By this time, Chinese Americans had lengthy been Orientalized by their fellow Americans — in different phrases, they were portrayed as unique and distinctly totally different from White Americans,” Yeh wrote. “(Community) leaders understood that solely by interesting to the American Orientalist creativeness might they distinguish themselves from the Red Chinese and, as well as, draw more vacationers into Chinatown.”

Contestants parading in cheongsams marked a notable departure from the community’s earlier pageants, in which participants generally assumed Western dress. The tight-fitting garments were considered sexy and exotic and, Yeh argues, had the benefit of being associated, in American minds, with figures like Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the Western-educated First Lady of China’s pre-communist republic, who had toured the US to great fanfare in 1943, appearing on magazine covers and dazzling Congress in (a decidedly more conservative version of) a cheongsam.

A rainbow of cheongsams are worn at the 2006 Miss Chinatown pageant in Los Angeles.

A rainbow of cheongsams are worn at the 2006 Miss Chinatown pageant in Los Angeles. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

At Miss Chinatown USA, Wong hoped the garment would present spectators with the perfect blend of East and West. He wrote that the winner should conjure “the centuries-old Chinese idea of beauty” described in classical literature, “corresponding to melon-seed face, new moon eyebrows, phoenix eyes, peachlike cheek, shapely nostril, cherry lips, medium peak, willowy determine, radiant smile and jet black hair.” However, he also wanted the winner to embody American notions of progress, with “satisfactory schooling, coaching and the versatility to fulfill the problem of the trendy world.”

Whether the inaugural winner match this profile was debatable: One girl who labored on the pageant mentioned in a 2002 interview that Gong “was not glamorous” and “not lovely.” However, she believed Gong won because, when asked who her hero was, she answered not Marie Curie or Eleanor Roosevelt, like other contestants, but “my mom” — a response that garnered “a pair minutes of applause.”

Feminism and rising power

In the ensuing years, Miss Chinatown USA boomed in popularity. It moved to larger venues that seated thousands of spectators, was embraced by San Francisco’s tourism board and was covered by global media. But as 1950s conservatism made way for the social upheavals of the late ’60s and ’70s, a new generation of youth activists, influenced by the civil rights, feminist, Black liberation and anti-war movements, began voicing concerns about the contest.

Competitors of the 1988 Miss Chinatown USA pageant pose for cameras in Oahu, Hawaii.

Competitors of the 1988 Miss Chinatown USA pageant pose for cameras in Oahu, Hawaii. Credit: Alamy

The lifting of immigration restrictions in 1965 drastically expanded the working-class population of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Community advocates complained that they had more pressing concerns than pageantry. Criticisms of the contest, as detailed by Asian American studies professor Judy Tzu-Chun Wu in a 1997 paper, included: that it promoted a stereotype of Asian women as submissive or exotic “China Dolls”; that the winners were usually affluent and educated, when Chinatown itself was mostly working class; that contestants were being judged by White beauty standards (since its inception, the pageant’s judging panel has included a mix of Asians and non Asians); that it served tourism and businesses rather than local residents; and that it reinforced the image of a “mannequin minority” at a time when the city’s Chinese community — often poor and ignored by City Hall — badly needed resources.
Four runner-ups stand around Carol Ng, winner of the Miss Chinatown USA pageant of 1960.

Four runner-ups stand round Carol Ng, winner of the Miss Chinatown USA pageant of 1960. Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

These objections spoke to wider, conflicting visions of what San Francisco’s Chinatown should be. According to Wu’s research, things came to a head in 1971, when the Holiday Inn chain opened a hotel in the neighborhood, and, as a publicity stunt, had a Miss Chinatown contestant jump out of a fortune cookie. Across the street, a radical Asian youth group and other activists protested the opening, calling it an “invasion of Chinatown’s territory,” while demanding more low-cost housing for residents. Several weeks later, during that year’s Lunar New Year parade, protesters threw eggs at the 16-year-old contestant concerned, and she was removed from the float.

At the time, pageant organizers largely dismissed the criticisms. But, much like Miss America, the contest has evolved in line with the feminist movement and changing visions of womanhood. The “swimsuit competitors” is now called “swimsuit/health and kind” though, unlike Miss America, the category has not been eliminated. And where contestants once talked about wanting to be a good wife and mother, on-stage interviews now emphasize community service, individual achievement and career ambitions. The most recent winners have embodied present-day ideals of academic success and upward mobility, including several Harvard students and women who have gone on to careers in fields including management consultancy and technology.

The swimsuit round remains a competition category of Miss Chinatown USA. Here 2017's winner, Yang Kairun, walks on stage during the pageant in San Francisco.

The swimsuit spherical stays a contest class of Miss Chinatown USA. Here 2017’s winner, Yang Kairun, walks on stage during the pageant in San Francisco. Credit: Liu Yilin/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

“The ideally suited Miss Chinatown USA embodies the better of each cultures — the East and the West,” said a representative of the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce via email. “She serves as a constructive position mannequin for younger girls and as an ambassadress for the Chinese communities all through the United States. She possesses internal and outer beauty. She is clever, gifted, articulate, poised and group service oriented.”

Yet, despite its seemingly more progressive values, Miss Chinatown USA has, like pageants elsewhere, waned in popularity and relevance. While winners would once spend a year visiting Chinese communities across America, and even traveling to Hong Kong and Taiwan, their responsibilities are now relatively local and stretch little beyond the two-week festival period.

Nonetheless, the pageant still attracts criticism. Since 2002, performance artist Kristina Wong has crashed several Miss Chinatown USA events as the satirical character “Fannie Wong, former Miss Chinatown 2nd runner-up.” Chomping on a cigar, humping attendees’ legs and generally defying stereotypes of Asian women as quiet and demure, she was removed by security on more than one occasion.

“The solely issues Fannie threatens are the unrealistic beliefs of ‘perfection,’ beauty, and gender normative habits positioned on Chinese American girls,” Wong wrote in 2012, in an apology letter sent to a community organization she had snuck into the parade with, but said she had no affiliation to.

Satirical comedy character, Fannie Wong, at the Annual LA Asian Pacific Film Festival Opening in 2010. As part of her bit, Wong crowned herself as Miss Chinatown's 2nd Runner Up.

Satirical comedy character, Fannie Wong, at the Annual LA Asian Pacific Film Festival Opening in 2010. As a part of her bit, Wong topped herself as Miss Chinatown’s 2nd Runner Up. Credit: Sthanlee B. Mirador/Pacific Rim Photo Press/Newscom

Providing a space

Looking back, reigning Miss Chinatown USA Lauren Yang has mixed feelings about her experience. On the one hand, she found some aspects of the pageant patriarchal and “very rooted in custom.” The entry criteria, for example, only defines Chinese ancestry as having a father, not a mother, of Chinese descent. She also had qualms about the swimsuit competition, which wasn’t a component of previous pageants she had competed in.

On the other hand, Yang enjoyed the community aspects of the pageant that she and other former contestants have cited as a primary reason for participating. Yang, who had not previously been to San Francisco, spent the week after the pageant visiting important community organizations in the nation’s oldest Chinatown, learning about its history and “getting to fulfill totally different Chinese American leaders who were engaged on (causes) I did not even know existed,” such as gaining recognition for Chinese American veterans from World War II.

Miss Chinatown Queen and Court ride their float during the 119th annual Chinese New Year ''Golden Dragon Parade'' in the streets of Los Angeles' Chinatown in 2018.

Miss Chinatown Queen and Court journey their float during the 119th annual Chinese New Year ”Golden Dragon Parade” in the streets of Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 2018. Credit: Alamy

This sense of connection to Chinese American history has stayed with her, Yang said. After returning to Harvard, she began volunteering for a campus program that teaches US history and civics to immigrants preparing for the citizenship test. She also taught a summer course on Chinese American history and culture that “included loads of issues I discovered via my Miss Chinatown USA participation,” from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Chinese American representation in today’s media.

“Growing up, I did not suppose I ought to be somebody who takes up house, in the sense that I should not converse up, or I ought to decrease or qualify what I’ve to say,” Yang said. “That’s one thing that I nonetheless battle with.

“But this pageant was one of the first times where I was intentionally and purposefully taking up space — on stage, in the community — and being fully sure of who I was.”

Top picture caption: 1958 Miss Chinatown winner June Gong meets folks on the streets.


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