Written by Sofia Chang
Graphic by Gracelyn Prom
The year is 1956, and the San Francisco Chinatown is under attack. A federal grand jury has just subpoenaed eight major family associations for immigration fraud. Chinatown residents – including elderly people in grocery stores and children on playgrounds – are questioned by police about immigration status and ties to communism. Tourism has dropped thirty percent; tensions are high because of the Red Scare.
Incidents like the 1956 subpoena crisis proved that American society still saw Asian-Americans as “others.” In response, Chinese-Americans in San Francisco decided they needed to rewrite the script of what it means to be Chinese in America. Thus, Miss Chinatown USA was born.
The first Miss Chinatown USA pageant occurred in 1958. The winner, June Gong, in many ways exemplified what people wanted from Miss Chinatown. She was beautiful and an experienced pageant competitor. She was a home-economics major, and audience members could comfortably imagine her as the perfect housewife. She was popular, even by the standards of the white culture; at her predominantly white school, she’d been crowned football queen.
Choosing winners like June Gong was intentional. Indeed, Miss Chinatown – with its roots in patriarchy, exploitation, assimilation, capitalism, and gentrification – had always been political. By hosting this pageant, organizers wanted to flaunt the cultural flair of Chinatown while simultaneously positioning Chinese-Americans as part of mainstream American society.
The first part of the equation was to propagate an orientalist China-doll fantasy. To do so, community leaders appealed to familiar images of the East: tight, “exotic” cheongsams – the national dress of Kuomintang China. The cheongsam resembled the dress worn by Madam Chiang Kai-shek, serving as yet another reminder that Chinese-Americans were decidedly anti-communist. Community leaders, however, encouraged contestants to wear a more sexualized version of the dress, with a particular emphasis on the side slit, which “endow[ed] the basically simple cheongsam with a touch of intrigue…a tantalizing suggestion about the beauty of its wearer (Low).” To local officials, sex appeal bolstered pageant viewership, which, in turn, bolstered business and tourism. One titleholder explained, “We bring so much business to San Francisco and they don’t compensate [us for] the trouble and hard work of the girls (Wu).”
This all contributed to the image of Chinese women as sexualized, submissive housewives. Chinese men who, historically, had been emasculated by white society, used this portrayal to their advantage: The existence of the docile Chinese housewife implied the existence of a masculine, breadwinning husband. In these ways, pageant organizers utilized the China-doll pageant queen to make Chinese-American society appealing to Western eyes.
The second part of the equation was to ensure that Miss Chinatown never strayed too far from whiteness. It was important to be distinctively Chinese, which is why brochures often bragged about Chinatown’s resemblance to “the Orient.” And yet, it was almost equally as important to feel familiar and comfortable to white audiences. For example, the most successful contestants in earlier years had eurocentric features like large, double-lidded eyes and high nose bridges – even better if participants were part-white. (But God forbid if they were part-Black: One Trinidad-born contestant, Arlene Scott Sum, competed for Los Angeles, but her picture is the only one in Miss Chinatown history to never be showcased in any materials.)
Furthermore, as a response to the anti-Chinese sentiment at the time, Chinatown officials worked to push for the image of the “model minority.” Miss Chinatown needed to be a well-educated, middle-class woman, ready to get a job and contribute to the economy (until, of course, she settled down to take care of the kids). In 1962, for example, participant Flora Chan submitted a blank talent section, but pageant organizers filled it in with impressive, but made-up, hobbies: literature, music, dance, drama, and movies. In the eyes of audience members, if you were a model Asian-American woman, you deserved to be crowned pageant queen. If not, your presence was scrubbed from newspaper headlines.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Chinese-American activists started to speak out for social reform, equity, and economic justice. Consequently, they began to criticize the pageant. They pointed out the luxurious, affluent image of Miss Chinatown poorly represented the lived realities of Chinatown residents. In fact, it was often prohibitively expensive for the average person to even secure tickets to see the show. One resident aptly summed up the sentiment, saying: “This pageant is an insult to Chinese women. Here we have the most ‘beautiful’ Chinese women in their fine clothes and just perfect makeup prance around the stage and impress the people who have bought tickets to see this parade of ‘Oriental Beauties.’ Not one of these women in the Pageant represents the Chinese women in America (Yeh).”
In 1971, tension exploded into conflict. A Holiday Inn hotel had opened in the heart of Chinatown, further developing the growing tourist and financial districts. To advertise the grand opening, hotel employees built a giant plastic fortune cookie in front of the building. On the big day, a pageant contestant leapt out from inside the fortune cookie display to greet the crowds. It was a theatrical and, no doubt, expensive performance.
This felt like a slap in the face to radical Asian youth groups who had been advocating for low-cost housing in the increasingly crowded and gentrified Chinatown. As described by one resident, “In Holiday Inn… there is a swimming pool on the roof and a grand view of the city... There is the plush of soft carpets, bright lights, and spacious quarters… There are tourists and businessmen with their briefcases… It’s all there, across from Portsmouth Square, where the poor, the old, and the very young [waste] their time away before the sun goes down (Wu).”
While young radical activists advocated for change and progress, the pageant promoted stasis: “commercialized, anti-revolutionary, middle-class Chinese American identity (Wu).” As everyday residents of Chinatown struggled to get by, Miss San Francisco Chinatown, sparkling in her thousand-dollar dress, smiled and waved into the camera lens.
To be fair, Miss Chinatown pageants did have their benefits. The competitions created space to celebrate the beauty of Chinese-American pageant queen hopefuls (Miss America didn’t crown their first Asian-American winner until 2001). Contestants gained a platform and networked with local businesses, gaining important professional opportunities. Many spoke highly of their experience, saying they wouldn’t be where they are without it. Pageants brought communities together once a year, uniting previously fragmented coalitions. They attracted audiences by pitching Chineseness in a palatable way through the American pageant tradition, and then it introduced them to traditional cultural customs. For some participants, Miss Chinatown USA was a way to reconnect with their heritage through folkloric dance performances, speeches in Mandarin, and traditional clothing. For others, it was simply a way to feel beautiful.
Since the 1970s, Miss Chinatown viewership has declined, and its themes have shifted. In recent decades, for example, the pageant has become much less focused on the submissive Asian housewife. Many recent winners are academically and professionally accomplished women, often from Ivy League schools. In a CNN interview, 2020 winner Lauren Yang discussed her mixed feelings about the competition (Chao). To her, some parts, like the swimsuit competition, felt strange and uncomfortable, but she also enjoyed the opportunity to learn about her heritage and bond with other contestants.
Today, the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce describes Miss Chinatown like this: "The ideal Miss Chinatown USA embodies the best of both cultures – the East and the West. She serves… 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 ." Despite how much the competition has changed over past years, in this statement, you can still identify traces of what Miss Chinatown used to be. The pageant still treads the line between distinctive Chineseness and mainstream Americana – “the East and the West” – and it still celebrates the model Asian woman.
Ultimately, the history of the pageant tells largely untold stories about international relations, gender roles, the model minority myth, and income inequality in America’s Chinatowns. Understanding Miss Chinatown USA can help us understand the past, present, and future of being Chinese-American in America.
“Concealing Yet Revealing” by Alice Low
“‘Loveliest daughter of our ancient Cathay!:’ Representations of ethnic and gender identity in the Miss Chinatown U.S.A. beauty pageant” by Judy Tzu-Chun Wu
“Making an American Festival: Chinese New Year in San Francisco’s Chinatown” by Chiou-ling Yeh
“Launched during the Cold War, Chinatown's pageants were about much more than beauty” by Eveline Chao (CNN)