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What's It Like to Be Miss Chinatown?

“The moment I set foot on stage, I pulled a Beyoncé: ‘I am Crystal, hear me roar!’” 


Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about the Chinese-American city that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the April 2015 Chinese Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here. 

Since 1958, San Francisco has played host to the Miss Chinatown U.S.A. pageant, which draws dozens of young women from Chinatowns across the country. Here, 2010 winner Crystal Lee (who was then earning a bachelor’s degree from Stanford and now works for Google) describes how it feels to win the competition.

What was it like to compete?
It’s a two-week adventure. The first week is preparing, getting to know each other, and doing dinners with the community. Then, on Saturday, there’s the competition. The following week, the queen and court make appearances around Chinatown. The week ends with a coronation ball and the parade.

How did it feel when the red cape was draped over your shoulders after your victory?
Oh my gosh, it was so exciting! It’s the original cape from when the pageant started, and it’s only brought out three times a year—for the pageant, coronation, and parade. Being a silly Chinese daughter, I felt proud that I had made my father proud, and that was enough after the grief I gave him as a teenager.

In the talent portion of the contest, what did you do?
Classical Chinese dance with tai chi impressions—martial arts is badass, and I wanted to prove that I wasn’t just this dainty girl. There are lots of jumps, leaps, and split legs in the air. It’s not a pretty dance.

What question were you asked onstage?
What’s your favorite book? I said The Joy Luck Club, which I was reading at Stanford. That fit well with the audience.

Were you self-conscious about wearing a swimsuit?
I was during rehearsals, but the moment I set foot onstage, I pulled a Beyoncé: “I am Crystal, hear me roar!” You’re only young once.

How did you do your makeup?
Your features need to stand out, so you use heavy-duty stage powder and winged eyeliner pulled way out. Good makeup remover is essential. Your photos hang on the wall for hundreds of years, so you have to look good. I don’t wear makeup on a daily basis, so I broke out like crazy the second week.

Did you make the rounds in Chinatown?
We did, especially to the family associations—they’re on the second and third floors of buildings in Chinatown, in a part of town that not many get to witness. On several of the walls are photos of Miss Chinatown contestants—a lot of the hair, outfits, and shoes haven’t changed since the 1950s. I’d never interacted with my family organization, the Lee Association. They gave us a traditional gum pai, a necklace with a crest of Chinese characters engraved in pure gold.

What other gifts did you receive?
Little red envelopes with money are the typical Chinese honorarium, but every time you make a visit, you get a product—skin cream, ginseng tea, lots of jewelry. Someone gave me a voucher for discounted life insurance.

What was your most surprising takeaway from the pageant?
I didn’t expect to feel so proud to be Chinese. Right after the parade, a little girl from the mainland asked me in Chinese, “Are you Chinese, or are you American?” That was poignant, because I’d never been asked before. There are people outside of the United States who would be confused by a person like me.


Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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