Hawai‘i Ethnic Pageants Are More Than Just Beauty Contests
Ethnic beauty pageants have long been a staple of Hawai‘i’s diverse cultural history. Over the years, though, they’ve had to evolve to fit the changing times.
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Left: Miss O‘ahu Filipina Lovely May Orsino. Right: The 65th Narcissus queen Brittany Lee in Chinatown.
Photos: Mark Arbeit
After marveling at Chinese acrobats in Shanghai and walking along the Great Wall of China in Beijing, Brittany Lee went on a side excursion to a small village in the province of Lung Doo that left the biggest impression of her trip to China.
It’s not a town you can find on Google Maps. It’s tucked away in a small district of Zhongshan county in Guangdong province in southern China, north of Hong Kong in the South China Sea.
On a summer day in June, Lee scurried through the village, trying to keep up with guides who deftly navigated the maze of tiny streets, past women washing clothes in a common well, to an unassuming house where her grandfather’s family lived.
Here, the 25-year-old from Liliha, who had never been to China before, who had only heard stories about her grandfather immigrating to O‘ahu in 1911 and starting a grocery store in Chinatown, who had always wondered where she came from, finally found her roots.
She met her father’s cousin and his father, browsed through old photos and found out more about her grandparents, who passed away when she was very young, too young, she says, to have really cared about her heritage.
“It was really moving,” says Lee, who works as a sonographer at Pali Momi Medical Center. “To see that, to be there, and to know that my grandparents took that leap of faith to leave and start a new life here in Hawai‘i, I was just blown away.”
This experience came courtesy of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawai‘i, which sponsors the annual Narcissus Festival, the longest-running ethnic pageant in the state. Lee, who is three-quarters Chinese, is the 65th Narcissus queen.
Like many other ethnic pageants in Hawai‘i, the Narcissus Festival has, in recent years, put more emphasis on culture and personal development for the contestants than just crowning a pretty face.
“We hope the contestants walk away learning something about their Chinese heritage, to have an appreciation for their culture,” says Michele Choy, the festival’s longtime chairwoman, who ran as a contestant more than 40 years ago. “We have all shapes and sizes, all heights and weights. And we’ve had a myriad of queens. That’s why we say anybody can run. We can brag about that. You can be tall, short, heavy—it doesn’t matter. Anybody get chance.”
That’s a major departure from what ethnic pageants in Hawai‘i—and, really, beauty contests across the U.S.—used to be.
Pageants have long been about physical beauty. Since ancient Greece, beauty in women has been exalted above all other traits. And while European festivals dating back to the medieval era may provide the most direct lineage for beauty pageants, the first modern contests involving the judging of women’s outward appearance can be credited to P.T. Barnum, one of the country’s greatest showmen, who also held national contests for dogs, chickens and babies, in 1854.
It wasn’t until the 20th century, though, that beauty pageants became sources of entertainment, a way to lure tourists to beach resorts. That’s exactly how the Miss America Pageant started in 1921; it was a ploy to get visitors to Atlantic City to stay past Labor Day. The first group of women who competed were judged on their general appearance, personality, conversations with judges and interactions with the crowds. In order to build hype, the women were paraded around in bathing suits, competing for the coveted title of Golden Mermaid. Margaret Gorman, a 16-year-old junior from Western High School in Washington, D.C., won the contest and, the following year, was known as Miss America.
Over the decades, public interest in beauty pageants has waned, likely due to the feminist movement, which considers these contests to be demeaning, reducing women to objects. And these pageants are now competing with a bevy of other things women can be doing with their time, from running businesses to running marathons to running for political office.
But ethnic pageants in Hawai‘i have a slightly different history. These weren’t born out of a need to keep visitors in Waikīkī—that’s what the island’s beaches and sunsets are for—but a need to perpetuate their culture, a way to prove their Americanism and a desire to stay connected to a history beyond these shores.