In February of final yr, the Miss Chinatown USA pageant in San Francisco topped its latest winner: the then-18-year-old Lauren Yang of Sugar Land, Texas.
Throughout 4 competitors classes — titled magnificence and poise, expertise presentation, verbal communication and swimsuit/health and type — Yang, a Harvard College 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 a whole lot and a judging panel comprised of area people leaders and representatives from the enterprise, arts and leisure sectors.
The yearly occasion is each quintessentially American, just like the Miss America pageants that impressed it, and remarkably Chinese language. Emcees host in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, and contestants typically showcase Chinese language arts, like ribbon dancing or enjoying conventional stringed devices.
Lauren Yang topped as Miss Chinatown USA in 2020. Credit score: Courtesy Andreas Zhou Pictures
Yang first fell into pageantry via cultural actions. Rising up close to Houston, which has a big Asian group, she spent her weekends attending Chinese language faculty and folks dance lessons, 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. Each 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 Cease Asian Hate marketing campaign, Yang advised CNN that the Covid-19 pandemic’s influence on Asian American communities made 2020 an particularly significant yr to have competed, describing the expertise as a “area to have fun Chinese language tradition, historical past and custom.”
“On the top of Lunar New Yr celebrations in February, we paraded on the streets — corners full of native Asian distributors and brightened by lion dances and cultural performances. Inside a month, the streets emptied. The place our tradition was celebrated, our folks had been now loathed and blamed.
“These very streets at the moment are the place our elders are being attacked,” she added, the place anti-Asian rhetoric “hangs with suffocating weight within the air.”
Yang, now aged 19, may simply as simply be speaking concerning the first Miss Chinatown pageant within the Nineteen Fifties, a interval of comparable anti-Asian xenophobia. And though these early competitions in the end helped problem racial prejudices, in addition they strengthened different stereotypes — of ladies, particularly — that later generations would discover limiting.
Because the American zeitgeist has shifted, from the Chilly Struggle via the civil rights motion and a number of waves of feminism, Miss Chinatown USA has continued to form, and be formed by, the ever-changing beliefs of Chinese language American womanhood.
Yellow peril, pink scare
The Nineteen Fifties had been a fearful time for Asians in America. China had “fallen” to communism in 1949, and when the newly fashioned Folks’s Republic of China (PRC) entered the Korean Struggle the next yr — pitting it straight towards the US — Chinese language People feared being interned, simply as Japanese People had been throughout World Struggle II.
Miss Chinatown Ingrid Van takes half in Chinese language New Yr fesitivities in New York, date unknown. Credit score: Frank Hurley/New York Each day Information Archive/Getty Photos
It was on this setting that group and enterprise leaders in San Francisco’s Chinatown hatched a plan to enhance its public picture and encourage tourism: a day of cultural actions, capped by a parade to mark Chinese language New Yr. Although the group had beforehand staged its personal new yr celebrations, this one can be explicitly public — a spot to “invite our American pals … to understand and study issues about (the) Chinese language,” as organizer Henry Kwock “H.Ok.” Wong put it.
The picture that organizers wished to challenge was that of a patriotic, assimilated group, suitable with American values. The primary of the parades, in 1953, was led by a Chinese language American veteran who had been blinded within the Korean Struggle. He was adopted by an Anti-Communist League automotive and Chinese language faculty marching bands.
In 1954, Wong added an area Miss Chinatown pageant (which had been held since 1948) to the competition lineup. The competitors proved so fashionable that, in 1958, it was expanded into Miss Chinatown USA, a national-level pageant that includes 17 younger girls from across the nation, a lot of whom had been Miss Chinatown winners in different cities.
Feminine drummers marching in a Chinese language New Yr Parade in 1958, the identical yr June Gong (pictured up high) received Miss Chinatown. Credit score: Courtesy Chinese language Historic Society of America
The occasion was a success, attracting curiosity from each inside the Chinese language group and throughout higher San Francisco. The primary winner, June Gong of Miami, Florida, was a school senior learning dwelling economics who had received a Miss Chinatown competitors in New York Metropolis the earlier yr. She was topped by the mayor of San Francisco, and her smiling picture — full with a cheongsam, heels, lipstick and curled, Nineteen Fifties-style hair — appeared in newspapers throughout the nation.
The attraction of Miss Chinatown was far-reaching and even prolonged throughout the pond. Pageant contestants from London are pictured right here in the course of the Nineteen Eighties. Credit score: Alamy
The cheongsams worn by contestants had been key to the early pageants’ success, argues scholar Chiou-ling Yeh in her guide “Making an American Competition: Chinese language New Yr in San Francisco’s Chinatown.”
“By this time, Chinese language People had lengthy been Orientalized by their fellow People — in different phrases, they had been portrayed as unique and distinctly completely different from White People,” Yeh wrote. “(Group) leaders understood that solely by interesting to the American Orientalist creativeness may they distinguish themselves from the Pink Chinese language and, as well as, draw extra vacationers into Chinatown.”
Contestants parading in cheongsams marked a notable departure from the group’s earlier pageants, during which members usually assumed Western costume. The tight-fitting clothes had been thought-about horny and unique and, Yeh argues, had the advantage of being related, in American minds, with figures like Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the Western-educated First Girl of China’s pre-communist republic, who had toured the US to nice fanfare in 1943, showing on journal covers and dazzling Congress in (a decidedly extra conservative model of) a cheongsam.
A rainbow of cheongsams are worn on the 2006 Miss Chinatown pageant in Los Angeles. Credit score: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Occasions/Getty Photos
At Miss Chinatown USA, Wong hoped the garment would current spectators with the proper mix of East and West. He wrote that the winner ought to conjure “the centuries-old Chinese language idea of magnificence” described in classical literature, “corresponding to melon-seed face, new moon eyebrows, phoenix eyes, peachlike cheek, shapely nostril, cherry lips, medium top, willowy determine, radiant smile and jet black hair.” Nonetheless, he additionally needed the winner to embody American notions of progress, with “sufficient training, coaching and the flexibility to satisfy the problem of the fashionable world.”
Feminism and rising energy
Within the ensuing years, Miss Chinatown USA boomed in recognition. It moved to bigger venues that seated 1000’s of spectators, was embraced by San Francisco’s tourism board and was lined by international media. However as Nineteen Fifties conservatism made means for the social upheavals of the late ’60s and ’70s, a brand new technology of youth activists, influenced by the civil rights, feminist, Black liberation and anti-war actions, started voicing considerations concerning the contest.
Rivals of the 1988 Miss Chinatown USA pageant pose for cameras in Oahu, Hawaii. Credit score: Alamy
4 runner-ups stand round Carol Ng, winner of the Miss Chinatown USA pageant of 1960. Credit score: Bettmann Archive/Getty Photos
These objections spoke to wider, conflicting visions of what San Francisco’s Chinatown ought to be. Based on Wu’s analysis, issues got here to a head in 1971, when the Vacation Inn chain opened a lodge within the neighborhood, and, as a publicity stunt, had a Miss Chinatown contestant bounce out of a fortune cookie. Throughout the road, a radical Asian youth group and different activists protested the opening, calling it an “invasion of Chinatown’s territory,” whereas demanding extra low-cost housing for residents. A number of weeks later, throughout that yr’s Lunar New Yr parade, protesters threw eggs on the 16-year-old contestant involved, and he or she was faraway from the float.
On the time, pageant organizers largely dismissed the criticisms. However, very similar to Miss America, the competition has advanced according to the feminist motion and altering visions of womanhood. The “swimsuit competitors” is now referred to as “swimsuit/health and type” although, in contrast to Miss America, the class has not been eradicated. And the place contestants as soon as talked about eager to be a great spouse and mom, on-stage interviews now emphasize group service, particular person achievement and profession ambitions. The latest winners have embodied present-day beliefs of educational success and upward mobility, together with a number of Harvard college students and girls who’ve gone on to careers in fields together with administration consultancy and expertise.
The swimsuit spherical stays a contest class of Miss Chinatown USA. Right here 2017’s winner, Yang Kairun, walks on stage in the course of the pageant in San Francisco. Credit score: Liu Yilin/Xinhua Information Company/Getty Photos
“The perfect Miss Chinatown USA embodies the perfect of each cultures — the East and the West,” stated a consultant of the San Francisco Chinese language Chamber of Commerce through electronic mail. “She serves as a optimistic position mannequin for younger girls and as an ambassadress for the Chinese language communities all through america. She possesses inside and outer magnificence. She is clever, proficient, articulate, poised and group service oriented.”
But, regardless of its seemingly extra progressive values, Miss Chinatown USA has, like pageants elsewhere, waned in recognition and relevance. Whereas winners would as soon as spend a yr visiting Chinese language communities throughout America, and even touring to Hong Kong and Taiwan, their duties at the moment are comparatively native and stretch little past the two-week competition interval.
Nonetheless, the pageant nonetheless attracts criticism. Since 2002, efficiency artist Kristina Wong has crashed a number of Miss Chinatown USA occasions because the satirical character “Fannie Wong, former Miss Chinatown 2nd runner-up.” Chomping on a cigar, humping attendees’ legs and customarily defying stereotypes of Asian girls as quiet and demure, she was eliminated by safety on a couple of event.
“The one issues Fannie threatens are the unrealistic beliefs of ‘perfection,’ magnificence, and gender normative conduct positioned on Chinese language American girls,” Wong wrote in 2012, in an apology letter despatched to a group group she had snuck into the parade with, however stated she had no affiliation to.
Satirical comedy character, Fannie Wong, on the Annual LA Asian Pacific Movie Competition Opening in 2010. As a part of her bit, Wong topped herself as Miss Chinatown’s 2nd Runner Up. Credit score: Sthanlee B. Mirador/Pacific Rim Photograph Press/Newscom
Offering an area
Wanting again, reigning Miss Chinatown USA Lauren Yang has blended emotions about her expertise. On the one hand, she discovered some elements of the pageant patriarchal and “very rooted in custom.” The entry standards, for instance, solely defines Chinese language ancestry as having a father, not a mom, of Chinese language descent. She additionally had qualms concerning the swimsuit competitors, which wasn’t a element of earlier pageants she had competed in.
Alternatively, Yang loved the group elements of the pageant that she and different former contestants have cited as a main cause for collaborating. Yang, who had not beforehand been to San Francisco, spent the week after the pageant visiting essential group organizations within the nation’s oldest Chinatown, studying about its historical past and “getting to satisfy completely different Chinese language American leaders who had been engaged on (causes) I did not even know existed,” corresponding to gaining recognition for Chinese language American veterans from World Struggle II.
Miss Chinatown Queen and Courtroom journey their float in the course of the 119th annual Chinese language New Yr ”Golden Dragon Parade” within the streets of Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 2018. Credit score: Alamy
This sense of connection to Chinese language American historical past has stayed along with her, Yang stated. After returning to Harvard, she started volunteering for a campus program that teaches US historical past and civics to immigrants making ready for the citizenship take a look at. She additionally taught a summer season course on Chinese language American historical past and tradition that “included lots of issues I discovered via my Miss Chinatown USA participation,” from the Chinese language Exclusion Act to Chinese language American illustration in at this time’s media.
“Rising up, I did not suppose I ought to be somebody who takes up area, within the sense that I should not communicate up, or I ought to reduce or qualify what I’ve to say,” Yang stated. “That is one thing that I nonetheless battle with.
“However this pageant was one of many first occasions the place I used to be deliberately and purposefully taking over area — on stage, in the neighborhood — and being absolutely certain of who I used to be.”
Prime picture caption: 1958 Miss Chinatown winner June Gong meets folks on the streets.