Winning the 2019 Miss Chinatown U.S.A. competition was the proverbial dream come true for Katherine Wu, a recent San Francisco high school graduate. But it wasn’t her only dream. The world-ranked athlete practiced archery up to five hours a day, aiming for a spot on the Olympic team. And when she visited schools and read books to preschoolers, the goodwill ambassador seized the chance to tell children, “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.”
To be eligible for the coveted crown, every applicant must be between the ages of 17 and 26, and of Chinese descent. Beyond those requirements, no two winners are alike. Past honorees include a tech entrepreneur, Emmy-winning TV journalist, and software engineer. Rose Chung, the 1982 Miss Chinatown USA, was born and raised in the neighborhood. “You can imagine me being the poor girl fantasizing about the life of Miss Chinatown,” she said in an interview for the Chinese Historical Society of America. “It changed my life. I have never had a boring day in my life.”
The history of Chinese American beauty pageants dates back to 1915 when 17-year-old Rose Lew was chosen queen for the Chinatown carnival at the Panama-Pacific World Expo in San Francisco. The idea took hold in the community, and Chinatown continued to sponsor its own pageants. These young women were not welcome to enter the Miss America contest, however. In the 1930s the Miss America pageant added Rule 7 which stated, “Contestants must be of good health and of the white race." It had already been an unspoken credo, but now it was official. The rule would not be revoked until 1940. But even then, Chinese were hesitant to enter.
By 1953, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce created the Miss Chinatown contest for local participants. Five years later, it widened the playing field, renaming it Miss Chinatown U.S.A., so Chinese women from all over the country could apply. The pageant and crowning is broadcast live on Chinese stations and reported in Chinese newspapers. The winner receives a pot of $10,000 in cash and makes appearances as a cultural ambassador during her reign. “The moment I was crowned Miss Chinatown USA,” says Katherine, the 2019 queen, “It was no longer about me. It’s about inspiring others to be the best selves they can be. A crown gives you the opportunity to speak about your passions.”