"Loveliest Daughter of Our Ancient Cathay!": Representations of Ethnic and Gender Identity in the Miss Chinatown U.S.A. Beauty Pageant

Article excerpt

In February 1958, seventeen young women came from throughout the country to compete in the first Miss Chinatown U.S.A. Beauty Pageant. Sponsored by the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce (CCC) as part of the Chinese New Year celebration, the competition sought to find "the most beautiful Chinese girl with the right proportion of beauty, personality and talent." The organizers promised that "honor, fame and awards . . . is (sic) ahead for her majesty in this, the most Cinderella-like moment of her young life." June Gong, a 21 year-old senior majoring in Home Economics at the University of New Hampshire, captured the title of the first Miss Chinatown U.S.A. Although she expressed surprise at winning, Gong had a history of competing successfully in beauty contests. She had won the titles of freshman queen and football queen at college. In 1957, she placed second in the Miss New Hampshire beauty pageant, a preliminary for the Miss America competition. She also won the 1957 Miss New York Chinatown title, which provided her with the opportunity to compete in the national pageant. Years later, she explained that the Miss Chinatown U.S.A. pageant was not "a beauty contest"; it was "more like a matter of ethnic representation." Having grown up in Miami, Florida, with only a few Chinese families, Gong's participation in the San Francisco event provided her with the opportunity to come into contact with the largest community of Chinese people outside of China and to learn about her ancestral culture.(1)

The popularity of the first Miss Chinatown U.S.A. beauty pageant made the event one of the highlights of the Chinese New Year celebration, which it continues to be today. Without it, one organizer explained, there would be no focus to the celebration: no pageant, no coronation ball, no Miss Chinatown float for the annual parade, and no fashion show. These Chinese New Year events draw hundreds of thousands of tourists into San Francisco's Chinatown, serving the dual purposes of educating the public about Chinese American culture and attracting business for Chinatown merchants.

The Miss Chinatown U.S.A. Beauty Pageant has served as a beauty competition, a promotional event to attract tourism, and a means for exploring and celebrating ethnic identity. Because of its multiple purposes, an analysis of the pageant provides insights into Chinese American efforts to construct both gender and ethnic identity during the post-World-War-II era. In defining the ideal woman to represent Chinatown, pageant organizers responded to developing cultural, economic, and political tensions within the Chinese American community and the broader American society. In turn, these efforts to represent Chinese American womanhood generated a variety of responses, which reflected community conflicts surrounding not only gender roles and ethnic identity but also class divisions and international politics.(2)

Using pageant publications, oral histories, and Bay Area and Chinese American community newspapers, this paper analyzes the Miss Chinatown U.S.A. beauty pageant from its origins and popularization in the late 1950s and the 1960s, through the growing controversy that surrounded it in the late 1960s and 1970s. During the height of the Cold War and the era of racial integration, pageant supporters successfully balanced tensions within the Chinese American community and with the broader society by depicting their ethnic identity as a non-threatening blend of Eastern Confucian and modern Western cultures. However, with the rise of social movements during the late 1960s and 1970s, this conception of ethnic identity came under attack for presenting an outdated and exotic image of Chinese Americans in general and women in particular. Critics argued that Miss Chinatown did not represent the "real" Chinatown women who tended to be working class or the revolutionary Asian women in the Third World. Pageant supporters responded by emphasizing the importance of beautiful and articulate Chinese American women as role models for promoting respect for the community. …