History of Miss Chinatown USA

Karen Li, Miss Chinatown U.S.A. 2014

Originally started as a fundraising event in San Francisco Chinatown, Miss Chinatown pageant has blossomed into the national contest.

First Miss Chinatown in San Francisco

Chinatown’s first pageant took place during the 1915 Panama-Pacific World Exposition. Exposition organizers asked the already established Chinatown community in San Francisco to adopt a pageant fundraiser by using raffle ticket votes to choose a queen for Chinatown’s Carnival. The first queen was seventeen-year-old Rose Lew, daughter of Lew Hing, the prominent entrepreneur of the Pacific Coast Canning Company.

Fundraising Pageant

In 1927, San Francisco Chinatown started the Lion Awakening Fair to foster political and community empowerment. A Lion Awakening Festival Queen Pageant was created to raise money for the Chinese Hospital during the 1920s and 1930s. A queen was selected from college-aged Chinese American women, some of whom were students at the University of California, Berkeley. Miss Chinatown contestants often represented family associations and sold raffle tickets. The contestant who sold the most tickets was crowned Miss Chinatown and reigned as queen during the Chinese New Year Parade.

Miss Chinatown USA

During the 1958’s Chinese New Year Festival, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce developed the local pageant into a national event – Miss Chinatown USA. The first Miss Chinatown USA pageant drew seventeen contestants from all across the US. The first Miss Chinatown USA was twenty-one-year-old college senior June Gong of Miami.

Pageant as a Barometer

Following the national pageant’s huge success, the 1960s was the most glorious decade. In 1959, the pageant moved from the Great China Theater on Grant Avenue to a bigger setting, the Masonic Auditorium on Nob Hill in San Francisco. The Miss Chinatown USA pageant became the most exciting social event of the year for Chinese Americans.

Social Upheaval of the Late 1960s and Early 1970s

In San Francisco Chinatown, community groups were working hard to improve conditions for the new immigrants arriving after the end of the Chinese Exclusion Act – adopted in 1882 and fully repealed in 1968. The United Asian Women criticized the Chinese Chamber of Commerce for promoting the glittering pageant rather than focusing on the poor. During the talent performances for Miss Chinatown USA 1965, Penelope Lynn Wong sang about the Free Speech movement, the California Berkeley students’ struggle for the right to speak out against injustice. Katheryn Fong delivered a speech about the discrimination a Chinese American faced in the Cold War era.

Evolving Miss Chinatown USA

The Miss Chinatown USA Pageant continues to thrive. Recent pageant contestants said that “Miss Chinatown USA can play a prominent role by serving as an ambassador of Chinese American culture and heritage and stressed the importance of learning about Chinese American history.”


  1. Chinese Historical Society of America, 2007, Glamour & Grace: The History & Culture of Miss Chinatown USA, San Francisco