For San Francisco native and resident Crystal Lee, winning Miss Chinatown USA in 2010 was an initial step toward what has been an astounding career as a tech start-up co-founder, CBS news show host, and in-arena host for the Warriors.
Lee, 28, said the event, founded in The City in 1948, and held every year around the Chinese New Year, gave Chinese American girls an opportunity to be proud of themselves at a time when Miss America was always white.
“If you can’t join them, create your own,” said Lee, who added to the representation of the Chinese community in beauty pageants in 2014 when she finished as first runner-up at Miss America, behind Indian-American Nina Davuluri.
In 1953 the Chinese Chamber of Commerce folded the local pageant into their annual Chinese New Year celebrations. In 1958, by popular demand, it became a national competition, featuring contestants from regions around the country including Seattle, Hawaii, Houston, New York and Florida.
On Saturday, Feb. 1, twelve young women will compete at the Palace of Fine Arts for the honor of being crowned Miss Chinatown USA 2020, earning a spot on the parade float and a place in history.
Lee grew up middle class in the Outer Richmond and Mission Districts with her younger sister, Jasmine Lee, who was also crowned Miss Chinatown USA in 2018, making them the only sisters to have both won the competition. Chinese New Year was always a special time for their family; if the sisters weren’t participating in the pageant, parade or flower festival, they were at home watching TV coverage of the festivities.
Their father is Chinese-American and was born in the same Chinatown hospital as Bruce Lee and raised in San Francisco. Their mother is from Taiwan.
Jasmine Lee said participation in the local pageant is declining now. While many aspects of the event are important celebrations and exhibitions of traditional Chinese garments and performing arts, she feels that in order to boost participation, certain practices should be changed.
“Some of the rules don’t make sense,” Jasmine Lee said. “For example, the fact that you can only compete if your dad is Chinese to me seems a bit antiquated.”
“It’s 2020 and our world is becoming more multi-cultural, and a lot more multi-racial,” she added.
But there are positive reasons for reduced participation as well. Pageants used to be one of few opportunities for women to achieve recognition and get jobs in entertainment or broadcast journalism.
“They saw it as the only door that would open opportunities for them,” Jasmine Lee said.
“Today that has changed. Now women have a lot more options. We see a lot of women entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers, myself included,” she added. Jasmine Lee is a 26-year-old software engineer at a start-up called Carta.
“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,” she continued.
Since neither of the sisters grew up in Chinatown, they were both thankful for the opportunity that Miss Chinatown USA gave them to connect with Chinese community leaders, elders, and the Chinese family associations, who the contestants spend time meeting with over the two-week competition.
“It was my golden ticket into Chinatown proper,” Jasmine Lee said.
Established in the 1840s, Chinese family associations were created to help immigrants survive and were vital in combating racist policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act.
There is, in fact, a Lee Family Association that provides services, including a credit union, to community members with that surname, said Jasmine Lee. The different family associations support people with common places of origin or surnames.
Both these high-achieving sisters have fond memories of their time winning the pageant and still attend every year. For Crystal Lee seeing her sister crowned was even better than winning herself.
“I was pretty happy when I won, but I was ecstatic for my sister,” Crystal Lee said. “I don’t have any children yet, but I think it was the closest thing to being a parent who watched their child achieve some sort of goal that the child had been working towards.”
Crystal and Jasmine Lee plan to be in attendance when the 2020 contestants square off at the Palace of Fine Arts.
Editor’s Note: The story initially had the incorrect date for this year’s competition. The pageant will take place on Saturday, Feb. 1.