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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Return to culture
Smiling kimono-clad contestants from Honolulu’s first Cherry Blossom Festival, in 1953.
Photo: HONOLULU Magazine Archives
While adding professional-and personal-development classes is fairly new for these ethnic pageants—both Miss Chinatown Hawai‘i and the Narcissus Festival have begun to include classes on public speaking and interviewing, too—what has long been a constant of the contestant experience is an exposure to the culture.
Many of these pageants—such as the Cherry Blossom Festival and Miss Latina Hawai‘i—are part of a larger cultural festival open to the public. But, in the past 20 years or so, contestants have been given opportunities to learn more about their heritage through private classes led by experts in their fields.
Contestants in the Cherry Blossom Festival, for example, take more than a dozen cultural classes, including taiko (Japanese drumming), aikido, calligraphy, tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arrangement) and origami-folding. And, since 1991, the Narcissus Festival has offered cultural classes to its participants, ranging from kung fu to lion dance to chop carving. Contestants even visit Mānoa Chinese Cemetery to learn about traditional burial rituals and see the Bone House, where the remains of the dead were held, pending state Board of Health approval, to be sent back to China.
All of these classes are free to the participants, in the hope that they learn and later perpetuate these traditions.
Jennifer Hong returned from college in Boulder, Colorado feeling a little distanced from her Chinese culture. She ran in the Miss Chinatown Hawai‘i pageant—and won—in 1999, thinking it would be a great way to learn more about her heritage.
“(My family) had a very different path to Hawai‘i, and we didn’t have much family here, so I wasn’t part of any big cultural celebrations,” says Hong, 40, a math teacher. “We ate Chinese food and went to Chinatown, but I didn’t participate in things like visiting the Chinese cemetery, because we didn’t have any ancestors here in Hawai‘i.”
Through the pageant, though, she connected with a culture that had once seemed so foreign to her. She even traveled to Shanghai and Hong Kong, where her family is from, and the experience fostered an interest in learning more about the Chinese who immigrated to Hawai‘i, and the history of Chinatown.
“I think pageants are powerful vehicles to encourage young women to lead and serve their communities,” Hong says. “I think the classes and personal-development training are useful after the pageant—in the workplace and in life.”
Filipino beauty pageants are themselves part of the group’s culture. Beauty queens were selected during times of fiesta in the Philippines, and Filipino immigrants brought that tradition with them to Hawai‘i during the plantation era, says the Rev. Alex Vergara, president of the O‘ahu Filipino Community Council, which sponsors the Miss O‘ahu Filipina contest.
“Every town had a fiesta to honor a patron saint,” he explains, “and part of the festivities was the crowning of a queen and her escorts.”
It’s not uncommon for there to be several dozen queens crowned in a single year in Hawai‘i, he says, as the various Filipino organizations run their own pageants. “Everybody has a title in our community,” he says, laughing.
While these pageants don’t offer cultural classes, Vergara says he’s trying to emphasize the importance of perpetuating culture and participating in service projects to these young women, who, whether they intended to or not, represent the local Filipino community.
“We’re telling them now that it’s not only posing for photos,” he says.
And that’s clear to Lovely May Orsino, who is no stranger to pageants, having competed in a few before earning the title of Miss O‘ahu Filipina in 2014. Both of her parents are from the Philippines, and, though this pageant didn’t offer any cultural classes, attending events and meeting other Filipino-Americans taught her a lot about a heritage she grew up in.
“Before going into this pageant, I thought I knew a lot about my culture, but being Filipino is endless,” says Orsino, 24, who just graduated from Hawai‘i Medical College as a pharmacy technician. “From every event to appearance, there is always something new to learn, from the different cities to the dialects to the different types of (traditional) clothes … There is just so much more I need to learn.”
The current Miss O‘ahu Filipina, Lovely May Orsino, at the recent Pasko Filipino Christmas celebration at the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Photo: Mark Arbeit
looking to the future
It’s unclear whether these ethnic pageants evolved to accommodate the changing expectations of the community, or whether their updated approach has attracted different kinds of women to run.
Bottom line: The contestants these days tend to have professional careers, hold college degrees, and see these pageants as a way to meet people and learn about their culture at the same time.
“It’s really become another thing to add to their résumé,” Choy says. “And it’s a way for them to network.”
More than four decades ago, the Cherry Blossom and Narcissus festivals recruited heavily from ethnic sororities at UH such as Wakaba Kai and Te Chi Sheh. Most contestants then were either still in college or recent high school graduates.
Today, there are engineers, college instructors, scientists, medical students, lawyers, journalists, accountants, business owners and graduate students who run in the various local ethnic pageants. Most of them have already earned college degrees and have ambitions beyond the competition.
“I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the women who participate in these pageants are some of the smartest, most generous and most genuine people I have met on the planet,” says Leilani (Tan) Young, 40, an attorney and 50th Narcissus queen. “It has been more than 15 years since we were contestants, but I still keep in touch with many of them and share a sense of sisterhood among those who have come before and after me.”
In order for these ethnic pageants to stay relevant in the future, they will need to continue to evolve.
“Ethnic pageants can play a positive role in today’s world as many are designed to celebrate cultural diversity,” says Sharene Urakami-Oyama, who participated as a contestant in the Cherry Blossom Festival in 1998 and served as HJJCC president and festival general chair. “If one can learn something interesting about another culture or discover similarities through such festivals, all the better.”
Kamida explains to people that the Cherry Blossom Festival is not a pageant focused on looks or talent. “It’s a cultural festival that gives young women a unique opportunity to learn about their Japanese culture, challenge their intellect, and develop professionally to become greater leaders in the community.”