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The making of a Chinese American beauty queen

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Andreas Zhou
2018's Miss Chinatown USA Jasmine Lee waves to the crowd at the Chinese New Year Parade.


Every Lunar New Year, Chinese American women from across the country travel to San Francisco to participate in the Miss Chinatown USA pageant — an ethnic beauty pageant that’s been a national event since the late fifties.

The pageant gained widespread popularity and recognition in the thick of the Cold War, a little more than a decade after the United States forcibly incarcerated thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. It was a time when many Chinese Americans felt the need to prove that their perceived foreignness wasn’t threatening to mainstream America. Miss Chinatown USA — which was modeled on the traditional Miss America pageant — was a way for Chinese American women to perform their American-ness, while simultaneously celebrating their cultural heritage.

The pageant has a storied history here in San Francisco’s Chinatown, one that links hundreds of hopeful young contestants together. But what does it mean to compete in 2018, more than half a century after the event took the national stage? Who does the Miss Chinatown USA pageant speak to now, and in what ways has it changed?

KALW’s Hannah Kingsley-Ma wanted to find out for herself. And what she found was a family for whom the crown is as much a coveted prize as it is a complicated expression of identity.  


"It's way bigger than me. There have been Miss Chinatowns who have since passed on, and their names will always be in the program books. There are people who remember what gown they wore when they won. It's a fun thing that has a lot of fanfare . . . it's better to have something like that than not."

This story was made with the support of the Third Coast Radio Residency and the Ragdale Foundation and originally aired in August 2018.


This year, the pageant is on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2019 at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.


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Hannah Kingsley-Ma is a reporter and producer living in San Francisco.