Launched throughout the Chilly Battle, Chinatown’s pageants have been about way more than magnificence

Launched during the Cold War, Chinatown's pageants were about much more than beauty

Written by Eveline Chao, CNNNew York

This function is a part of CNN Model’s new collection Hyphenated, which explores the complicated challenge of id amongst minorities in the USA.

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 kind — 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 tons 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, 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 taking part in conventional stringed devices.

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

Yang first fell into pageantry by way of cultural actions. Rising up close to Houston, which has a big Asian neighborhood, she spent her weekends attending Chinese language faculty and people 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 purpose of constructing them much less shy. Each gained, 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 instructed CNN that the Covid-19 pandemic’s impression on Asian American communities made 2020 an particularly significant yr to have competed, describing the expertise as a “area to rejoice Chinese language tradition, historical past and custom.”

“On the top of Lunar New Yr celebrations in February, we paraded on the streets — corners stuffed with 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 have been now loathed and blamed.

“These very streets are actually 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, might simply as simply be speaking in regards to the first Miss Chinatown pageant within the Fifties, a interval of comparable anti-Asian xenophobia. And though these early competitions in the end helped problem racial prejudices, in addition they bolstered different stereotypes — of ladies, specifically — that later generations would discover limiting.

Because the American zeitgeist has shifted, from the Chilly Battle by way of 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, purple scare

The Fifties have been a fearful time for Asians in America. China had “fallen” to communism in 1949, and when the newly fashioned Individuals’s Republic of China (PRC) entered the Korean Battle the next yr — pitting it straight towards the US — Chinese language People feared being interned, simply as Japanese People had been throughout World Battle II.

Some leftists and PRC symphathizers have been certainly deported or jailed, and Chinatowns have been surveilled, although measures stopped wanting mass internment. America in the meantime imposed an embargo towards mainland China that, straight away, paralyzed the numerous Chinatown companies that relied on imported items, from pharmacies and groceries to present retailers.
Miss Chinatown Ingrid Van takes part in Chinese New Year fesitivities in New York, date unknown.

Miss Chinatown Ingrid Van takes half in Chinese language New Yr fesitivities in New York, date unknown. Credit score: Frank Hurley/New York Every day Information Archive/Getty Photographs

It was on this surroundings that neighborhood 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 neighborhood had beforehand staged its personal new yr celebrations, this one could be explicitly public — a spot to “invite our American associates … to understand and be taught issues about (the) Chinese language,” as organizer Henry Kwock “H.Okay.” Wong put it.

The picture that organizers wished to mission was that of a patriotic, assimilated neighborhood, appropriate 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 Battle. He was adopted by an Anti-Communist League automotive and Chinese language faculty marching bands.

In 1954, Wong added a neighborhood Miss Chinatown pageant (which had been held since 1948) to the competition lineup. The competitors proved so in style that, in 1958, it was expanded into Miss Chinatown USA, a national-level pageant that includes 17 younger ladies from across the nation, lots of whom had been Miss Chinatown winners in different cities.

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

Feminine drummers marching in a Chinese language New Yr Parade in 1958, the identical yr June Gong (pictured up prime) gained Miss Chinatown. Credit score: Courtesy Chinese language Historic Society of America

The occasion was a success, attracting curiosity from each inside the Chinese language neighborhood and throughout better San Francisco. The primary winner, June Gong of Miami, Florida, was a school senior learning house economics who had gained 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, Fifties-style hair — appeared in newspapers throughout the nation.

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

The cheongsams worn by contestants have been key to the early pageants’ success, argues scholar Chiou-ling Yeh in her e-book “Making an American Pageant: 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 have been portrayed as unique and distinctly totally different from White People,” Yeh wrote. “(Group) leaders understood that solely by interesting to the American Orientalist creativeness might they distinguish themselves from the Purple Chinese language and, as well as, draw extra vacationers into Chinatown.”

Contestants parading in cheongsams marked a notable departure from the neighborhood’s earlier pageants, by which individuals typically assumed Western costume. The tight-fitting clothes have been thought of attractive and unique and, Yeh argues, had the good thing about being related, in American minds, with figures like Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the Western-educated First Woman 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 at the 2006 Miss Chinatown pageant in Los Angeles.

A rainbow of cheongsams are worn on the 2006 Miss Chinatown pageant in Los Angeles. Credit score: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Instances/Getty Photographs

At Miss Chinatown USA, Wong hoped the garment would current spectators with the right 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, “comparable 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 “enough schooling, coaching and the flexibility to satisfy the problem of the fashionable world.”

Whether or not the inaugural winner match this profile was debatable: One lady who labored on the pageant mentioned in a 2002 interview that Gong “was not glamorous” and “not lovely.” Nonetheless, she believed Gong gained as a result of, when requested who her hero was, she answered not Marie Curie or Eleanor Roosevelt, like different contestants, however “my mom” — a response that garnered “a pair minutes of applause.”

Feminism and rising energy

Within the ensuing years, Miss Chinatown USA boomed in reputation. It moved to bigger venues that seated hundreds of spectators, was embraced by San Francisco’s tourism board and was lined by international media. However as Fifties conservatism made method 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 issues in regards to the contest.

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

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

The lifting of immigration restrictions in 1965 drastically expanded the working-class inhabitants of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Group advocates complained that they’d extra urgent issues than pageantry. Criticisms of the competition, as detailed by Asian American research professor Judy Tzu-Chun Wu in a 1997 paper, included: that it promoted a stereotype of Asian ladies as submissive or unique “China Dolls”; that the winners have been often prosperous and educated, when Chinatown itself was largely working class; that contestants have been being judged by White magnificence requirements (since its inception, the pageant’s judging panel has included a mixture of Asians and non Asians); that it served tourism and companies reasonably than native residents; and that it bolstered the picture of a “mannequin minority” at a time when the town’s Chinese language neighborhood — typically poor and ignored by Metropolis Corridor — badly wanted assets.
Four runner-ups stand around Carol Ng, winner of the Miss Chinatown USA pageant of 1960.

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

These objections spoke to wider, conflicting visions of what San Francisco’s Chinatown must be. In keeping with 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 soar 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 like Miss America, the competition has advanced in keeping with the feminist motion and altering visions of womanhood. The “swimsuit competitors” is now known as “swimsuit/health and kind” although, not like Miss America, the class has not been eradicated. And the place contestants as soon as talked about desirous to be a superb spouse and mom, on-stage interviews now emphasize neighborhood service, particular person achievement and profession ambitions. The newest 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 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. Right here 2017’s winner, Yang Kairun, walks on stage throughout the pageant in San Francisco. Credit score: Liu Yilin/Xinhua Information Company/Getty Photographs

“The perfect Miss Chinatown USA embodies the very best of each cultures — the East and the West,” mentioned a consultant of the San Francisco Chinese language Chamber of Commerce by way of e-mail. “She serves as a optimistic position mannequin for younger ladies and as an ambassadress for the Chinese language communities all through the USA. She possesses internal and outer magnificence. She is clever, proficient, articulate, poised and neighborhood service oriented.”

But, regardless of its seemingly extra progressive values, Miss Chinatown USA has, like pageants elsewhere, waned in reputation 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 are actually 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 ladies as quiet and demure, she was eliminated by safety on multiple event.

“The one issues Fannie threatens are the unrealistic beliefs of ‘perfection,’ magnificence, and gender normative conduct positioned on Chinese language American ladies,” Wong wrote in 2012, in an apology letter despatched to a neighborhood group she had snuck into the parade with, however mentioned 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, on the Annual LA Asian Pacific Movie Pageant 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 Picture 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 points 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 in regards to the swimsuit competitors, which wasn’t a part of earlier pageants she had competed in.

However, Yang loved the neighborhood points of the pageant that she and different former contestants have cited as a major cause for taking part. Yang, who had not beforehand been to San Francisco, spent the week after the pageant visiting necessary neighborhood organizations within the nation’s oldest Chinatown, studying about its historical past and “getting to satisfy totally different Chinese language American leaders who have been engaged on (causes) I did not even know existed,” comparable to gaining recognition for Chinese language American veterans from World Battle 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 Courtroom journey their float throughout 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 mentioned. 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 time course on Chinese language American historical past and tradition that “included a whole lot of issues I realized by way of my Miss Chinatown USA participation,” from the Chinese language Exclusion Act to Chinese language American illustration in immediately’s media.

“Rising up, I did not suppose I must be somebody who takes up area, within the sense that I should not converse up, or I ought to decrease or qualify what I’ve to say,” Yang mentioned. “That is one thing that I nonetheless battle with.

“However this pageant was one of many first instances the place I used to be deliberately and purposefully taking on 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.

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