Stephanie Wong took a step forward to separate herself from a line of young women dressed in elegant costumes. She stooped down and a silver jeweled crown was placed on top of her dark brown, perfectly laid hair. A smile was fixed on her face as she wore the shining symbol of victory that glistened under the hot stage lights.
Wong, a UCLA alumna, was crowned Miss Chinatown USA in February. As a pageant queen, she feels inspired to serve as an ambassador for the Chinese-American community.
When she was 12 years old, Wong performed in the annual Chinese New Year parade that followed the Miss Chinatown USA Pageant. This parade gave her a glimpse into the pageant world for the first time.
“I kind of wanted to do it, but I never thought of myself as a pageant girl,” Wong said. She said that she was shy as young girl and did not always feel comfortable interacting with others.
Years later, she would have her own rose-covered float in that parade after being crowned Miss Chinatown USA.
Wong is the first generation in her family to be born in America. She said her mother and grandmother, born in China, taught her to feel pride in her Chinese roots.
“It’s a pageant, but it’s about bringing the Chinese community together. That’s probably the biggest difference between this pageant and any other one out there,” Wong said.
But she has not always felt unwavering pride in her heritage.
In the sixth grade, she performed a Chinese handkerchief dance for her school talent show, imagining herself in the shoes of someone who lives in a Chinese village. The celebratory performance was her first public expression of her culture and she was excited to share it with her school friends. Her performance, however, received negative reactions.
Many of her peers mocked her for performing a Chinese dance; none of the other non-Asian performers in the talent show received the same treatment, Wong said.
“I was embarrassed that people thought it was a bad thing to express your culture,” she said.
However, she said the embarrassment felt in the moment only made her more resilient over time.
“Having that talent show experience kind of made me unsure of whether I wanted to accept my culture or not … but as the person that I am today, I feel so sure of it,” Wong said. “I feel like if I wasn’t Chinese I wouldn’t be the same person at all.”
Even after receiving negative criticism from her classmates and feeling embarrassed, she continued performing cultural dances. Years later, she used those same dancing skills to win the pageant.
Suzanne Yip, Wong’s mother, said her daughter is very connected to her Chinese heritage, and being crowned helped to instill even more cultural pride.
But what does it take to be crowned the victor?
Wong said there are no official rules that exclude girls from entering the Miss Chinatown competition. She painted the image of a diverse pool of women who are permitted to participate: both short, tall, skinny, and thick.
However, in 2015 none of the participants in the competition weighed over 130 pounds and the 2016 competitors were similar in size.
Wong subsequently said some of her body-conscious peers felt pressure to maintain their figures in the days leading up to the swimsuit portion of the competition.
“Physically, a lot of the girls wanted to look good in their swimsuits, so they were eating less carbs the first week,” Wong said. “People would eat a little and try to get the oil off.”
She and the other participants were required to walk across the stage with an assigned number attached to their swimsuits as an offstage voice announced their height and hobbies to a crowd of onlookers. She was referred to as Contestant Four before she was called Stephanie Wong.
Wong altered her appearance to match the beauty standards of the Miss Chinatown USA competition, which she said are distinct from the stereotypical images of American beauty queens.
She dyed her hair back to black before the pageant. She said that the goal is to look Chinese, which does not include having blond highlights. She also did not tan her skin, with the understanding that pale skin was preferred.
Miss Chinatown USA is different from the mainstream American pageant, Wong said, because the participants are encouraged to take pride in their Chinese heritage.
“I had a positive perception of it, because everyone performs Chinese talents,” Wong said. “It wasn’t just about beauty. There is a cultural root in it.”
Performing in a culturally centered competition helped deepen the connection to her Chinese roots, Wong said. Following the pageant, she and the other women would walk up and down the hills of San Francisco’s Chinatown in their heels and dresses, introducing themselves to people in the community.
Wong has physical beauty and talent, but Tammy Chan Shueh, a former Miss Chinatown USA contestant, believes that those are not the only reasons that she won.
“When I was watching the entire show, I didn’t see anyone that compared to her,” said Shueh. “She is physically very beautiful, but it was her presence that got her the crown.”
In the weeks leading up to the pageant, Wong felt mixed emotions. She had recently tried out for the Warriors dance team, but was not chosen for a spot. She planned to enter the pageant with a different mindset than her Warriors audition: Wong did not want to have any expectations.
Instead, she would use the competition as an opportunity to deepen her connection to her culture.
A lost opportunity made room for her calling.
“I felt like finally in my life, I did something where I surprised myself,” Wong said.