Launched during the Cold War, Chinatown's pageants were about much more than beauty
Published 7th April 2021
Credit: Courtesy Chinese Historical Society of America
Launched during the Cold War, Chinatown's pageants were about much more than beauty
This feature is part of CNN Style's new series Hyphenated, which explores the complex issue of identity among minorities in the United States.
In February of last year, the Miss Chinatown USA pageant in San Francisco crowned its newest winner: the then-18-year-old Lauren Yang of Sugar Land, Texas.
Across four competition categories -- titled beauty and poise, talent presentation, verbal communication and swimsuit/fitness and form -- Yang, a Harvard University student, gave a speech on the importance of gender equality and performed a classical piano piece. Alongside 11 other contestants, she also answered an interview question and walked the stage in a swimsuit, then a cheongsam, in front of an audience of hundreds and a judging panel comprised of local community leaders and representatives from the business, arts and entertainment sectors.
The yearly event is both quintessentially American, like the Miss America pageants that inspired it, and remarkably Chinese. Emcees host in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, and contestants often showcase Chinese arts, like ribbon dancing or playing traditional stringed instruments.
Yang first fell into pageantry through cultural activities. Growing up near Houston, which has a large Asian community, she spent her weekends attending Chinese school and folk dance classes, hearing of the contests from classmates who had competed. Yang's parents, electrical engineers from China who first moved to the US for grad school, signed her and her sister up for the Miss Chinatown Houston pageant with the aim of making them less shy. Both won, in separate years, and both went on to claim the nationwide Miss Chinatown USA title, too.
Reflecting on her victory after the emergence of the recent Stop Asian Hate campaign, Yang told CNN that the Covid-19 pandemic's impact on Asian American communities made 2020 an especially meaningful year to have competed, describing the experience 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 are now where 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 indeed deported or jailed, and Chinatowns were surveilled, though measures stopped short of mass internment. America meanwhile imposed an embargo against mainland China that, in an instant, paralyzed the many Chinatown businesses that relied on imported goods, from pharmacies and groceries to gift shops.
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 friends ... to appreciate and learn things about (the) Chinese," as organizer Henry Kwock "H.K." 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.
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 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 long been Orientalized by their fellow Americans -- in other words, they were portrayed as exotic and distinctly different from White Americans," Yeh wrote. "(Community) leaders understood that only by appealing to the American Orientalist imagination could they distinguish themselves from the Red Chinese and, in addition, draw more tourists 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.
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 concept of beauty" described in classical literature, "such as melon-seed face, new moon eyebrows, phoenix eyes, peachlike cheek, shapely nose, cherry lips, medium height, willowy figure, radiant smile and jet black hair." However, he also wanted the winner to embody American notions of progress, with "adequate education, training and the versatility to meet the challenge of the modern world."
Whether the inaugural winner fit this profile was debatable: One woman who worked on the pageant said in a 2002 interview that Gong "was not glamorous" and "not beautiful." 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 mother" -- a response that garnered "a couple 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.
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 "model minority" at a time when the city's Chinese community -- often poor and ignored by City Hall -- badly needed resources.
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 competition" is now called "swimsuit/fitness and form" 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 ideal Miss Chinatown USA embodies the best of both cultures -- the East and the West," said a representative of the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce via email. "She serves as a positive role model for young women and as an ambassadress for the Chinese communities throughout the United States. She possesses inner and outer beauty. She is intelligent, talented, articulate, poised and community 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 only things Fannie threatens are the unrealistic ideals of 'perfection,' beauty, and gender normative behavior placed on Chinese American women," 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.
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 tradition." 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 meet different Chinese American leaders who were working on (causes) I didn't even know existed," such as gaining recognition for Chinese American veterans from World War II.
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 a lot of things I learned through my Miss Chinatown USA participation," from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Chinese American representation in today's media.
"Growing up, I didn't think I should be someone who takes up space, in the sense that I shouldn't speak up, or I should minimize or qualify what I have to say," Yang said. "That's something that I still struggle 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 image caption: 1958 Miss Chinatown winner June Gong meets people on the streets.