Stories of beauties and legends such as the Moon Goddess were part of Chinese literature and history for over four thousand years. It was only after World War II that the concept of a public judging and acclamation of grace, beauty and talent of the celestial maidens became an official event. Perhaps returning Chinese-American GI’s, with a habit of looking at pin-ups, initially thought it was a good idea. In 1948, a Chinese organization, at a July 4th picnic, had a “Miss Chinatown” bathing beauty contest. This continued through 1952.
The Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 1953 decided to combine this contest in conjunction with the Chinese New Year Festival. The first “Miss Chinatown”, in the year 1953, was Miss Pat Kan, daughter of gourmet restaurateur Johnny Kan. Her first publicity photo, used by wire services internationally, showed her not wearing a traditional cheong-sam, but a string of firecrackers. From 1953 through 1957 the title was bestowed only on San Francisco young women, since it was a local competition.
In 1958, the Chinese New Year Festival was becoming a popular annual event enjoyed by local San Franciscans and visitors from many parts of the country. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce took a bold step in converting the local contest to a national contest where young women from all over the country would be able to compete.
In 1958, it became the “Miss Chinatown, U.S.A. Pageant” and the first crown holder was June Gong from Miami, Fla. The pageant, patterned somewhat along the lines of the “Miss America” pageant, is a combined beauty-talent-fashion and quiz show. In the first competition, held in a Chinese theater, beauty suits were taboo. In the talent contest, one may see the contestants performing Chinese folk-dances, the latest American steps, singing, or playing musical instruments.
The search for contestants is initiated each fall by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Chinese organizations, business groups and colleges are invited to send in their entrants. Many cities send their own contest winner to San Francisco to compete. Once the entry is accepted, a sponsor helps defray some of the expenses.
Now, 60 years later the beautiful, talented and bright young women from throughout the United States are still coming to San Francisco during Chinese New Year to compete for scholarships and prizes in the annual Miss Chinatown USA Pageant. This year’s winners will become goodwill ambassadors for the Chinese community throughout the new lunar year.