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.
This story was made with the support of the Third Coast Radio Residency and the Ragdale Foundation.