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.
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.

 

 

evolution

Left: In 1953, Violet Tokie Niimi was crowned Honolulu’s first Cherry Blossom Festival Queen. She passed away in 2001. Right: Vail Matsumoto, queen in 2000, was the first queen of less than 100-percent Japanese ethnicity.
Photos: Courtesy of The Cherry Blossom Festival

 

The Cherry Blossom Festival is a prime example of how the community’s needs intersect.

 

In 1949, Akira “Sunshine” Fukunaga had returned to Hawai‘i, inspired, after participating in the Nisei Week Japanese Festival in Los Angeles. He wanted to do something similar here, put on a cultural celebration that culminated with a beauty pageant. It was just after World War II, and the Japanese-American community in the Islands wanted to prove its Americanness while at the same time preserving a culture that, with each new generation, was being forgotten.

 

So Fukunaga, the vice president of the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce, urged his members to donate $1,000 each for a startup fund. Four years later, the first Cherry Blossom Festival was held and Violet Tokie Niimi was crowned its first queen. A staggering 72 young Japanese-American women competed for the title in front of 5,000 spectators, the event ending with fireworks over the old Honolulu Stadium in Mō‘ili‘ili.

 

“Oh, it was a huge deal then,” says Christine R. Yano, an anthropology professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and author of the book Crowning the Nice Girl: Gender, Ethnicity, and Culture in Hawai‘i’s Cherry Blossom Festival (UH Press, 2006). “There were fewer options for entertainment. Hawai‘i was a very different place. I mean, people would watch motorcades.”

 

Yano remembers the excitement when her older cousin competed in the early ’60s, back in the festival’s heyday. Everyone, it seemed, waited for the festival poster, which featured all 15 contestants, to be displayed at storefronts and in restaurants all over the island. Yano scrutinized the faces on the poster, she writes in her book, silently picking the queen and her runners-up. At the pageant, which was then held at Honolulu’s Civic Auditorium on South King Street, her cousin wasn’t crowned queen but named first runner-up instead.

 

“It meant something back then,” says Yano, whose own daughter, Marika Emi, ran four years ago. “It was a bigger deal. It’s like everyone wanted to know who was running. You waited for that poster. Everyone did.”

 

Over the years, though, public interest declined, and much of the original festival—with amateur song contests, kabuki performances and cooking demonstrations—was replaced with different events that drew different crowds. In 1984, a golf tournament was added, in 1995, an essay contest was introduced.

 

But the most significant—and controversial—change to the festival happened in 1999, when the HJJCC opened the queen contest to multiethnic Japanese-American women, for the first time since its inception 46 years prior.

 

Keith Kamisugi was running for HJJCC president at the time, pushing two initiatives that fundamentally changed the festival: changing the blood quantum to better reflect the modern, multiethnic Japanese-American community and creating more professional-development programming for the chamber.

 

“I thought it was just plain archaic and discriminatory to continue to insist on a 100-percent ethnic requirement,” says Kamisugi, who is now director of communications at the Oakland-based Equal Justice Society. “We were the last major ethnic festival in Hawai‘i to allow multiethnic women to participate. I thought making that change was a no-brainer.”
The decision wasn’t approved by everyone in the community, but its impact has been undeniable. Since the blood-quantum change, dozens of multiethnic women have participated in the festival, with four earning the queen title.

 

One of them was Vail Matsumoto, the first non-full-Japanese queen, who decided to run because she thought it would be an interesting experience. She says she’s grateful to all the people, including Kamisugi, who fought to give women like her a chance to experience the Cherry Blossom Festival.

 

“My grandmother taught me about all of the local Japanese traditions as I grew up, but I never thought of any of it as culture. It was just the way our family celebrated,” says Matsumoto, 40, an educator. “After the Cherry Blossom Festival, I saw everything with a different lens, a cultural lens. Without a doubt, it made me appreciate all that I learned growing up and the new lessons I gained through (the festival).”

 

Kamisugi’s push to create more professional-development programming for HJJCC members carried over to the contestants, who now attend classes in public speaking, business etiquette and interview, aimed at preparing them not only for pageant night but for attaining their professional goals.

 

Even the judging criteria have shifted away from beauty to focus more on attributes that include communication, personality, presence and attitude.

 

Current reigning Cherry Blossom queen Sarah Kiyomi Kamida in the Japanese garden at the East-West Center.
Photo: Mark Arbeit

 

“In a pageant, you come away with a crown, sash and title,” Matsumoto says. “I feel that the Cherry Blossom Festival focuses on culture, camaraderie and leadership development.”

 

One of the reasons Sarah Kiyomi Kamida ran last year was to take advantage of the professional-development opportunities provided by the festival. In particular, she hoped to get over her fear of public speaking.

 

“In any profession, if you want to become successful, you will need to address large crowds of people confidently and articulately,” says the 26-year-old licensed home care social worker and reigning Cherry Blossom Festival queen. “I thought this opportunity to participate in the festival would force me to learn to become more comfortable and help me in my professional growth.”

 

 

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.”      

                                            

Find out why writer Catherine E. Toth ran in the 49th Cherry Blossom Festival.