For sisters Crystal and Jasmine Lee, the Miss Chinatown USA competition isn’t just a pageant. The annual contest which celebrates Chinese American women and Chinese culture during Lunar New Year kickstarted their careers.
Crystal Lee won Miss Chinatown USA in 2010 and Jasmine Lee was crowned in 2018, making them the only sisters to have won the event.
In 2013, Crystal won both the Miss California pageant and then first runner up at Miss America. She has also been a CBS news show host, tech startup co-founder and in-arena host for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, according to the SF Examiner. Jasmine now works as a software engineer at a startup.
Miss Chinatown USA began in San Francisco in 1948 when Miss America winners had always been White.
“If you can’t join them, create your own,” Crystal Lee, a San Francisco native and resident, told the SF Examiner.
Now, Chinese American women from across the country flock to San Francisco to compete in the pageant. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce folded the event into its annual Lunar New Year celebrations in 1953, and later welcomed contestants from Hawaii, Seattle, Houston, New York and more.
The Queen and her court will become “goodwill ambassadors for the Chinese community throughout the new year,” celebrating Chinese traditions and culture with the rest of the world. The pageant is deep-rooted in Chinese Americans’ rocky history with their place in the U.S.
Pageants used to be one of the few ways for women to enter careers in entertainment or broadcast journalism. For Chinese Americans who were barred from entry to White events, the Miss Chinatown USA pageant has even greater cultural and historical significance. The event continues to showcase traditional Chinese dances and clothing, and remains as a source of empowerment for the Chinese community.
“I think we need to respect our past and traditions, and realize that this pageant was initially created because Chinese women weren’t allowed to compete in Miss America,” Jasmine Lee said.
Miss Chinatown USA 2020 will take place at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco on Saturday, Feb. 1.
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