Miss Chinatown - a marker in U.S.-China history

Richard M. Nixon crowned Lai Lun Mark Miss Chinatown in 1964. Memories from those days linger.
Richard M. Nixon crowned Lai Lun Mark Miss Chinatown in 1964. Memories from those days linger.
Posted: February 05, 2013

Lai Lun Mark's smile is as beautiful today as the day she won the title - Miss Chinatown, 1964.

"A lifetime ago," she said and laughed during an interview.

Flashbulbs popped as she accepted the winner's trophy in the Grand Court of Wanamaker's department store, crowned by no less than Richard M. Nixon, then planning a comeback campaign for the presidency.

A week later, Mark, 20, became the white-caped centerpiece of a boisterous Chinese New Year parade, chauffeured through Chinatown in a red Ford Galaxie convertible, waving to crowds that stood five deep on the sidewalks. She flew to San Francisco to compete against 15 other women in a national pageant.

"It was almost like a dream," she said.

For two decades, the Miss Chinatown contest attracted some of the Philadelphia region's most elegant young women, along with judges and presenters who ranged from actors to ambassadors. Now, with the Year of the Snake set to arrive at midnight Saturday, all that remains are photos and memories - and the realization that the pageant was more than it seemed.

"It gave me a sense of direction, who I was as a person, as a Chinese American," said Kathy Eng, who as 18-year-old Kathy Jung was crowned Miss Chinatown 1969, and today is a South Jersey grandmother.

Consciously and unconsciously, the pageant encouraged the assimilation of an immigrant community, helped preserve its traditions - and, not unimportantly, drew visitors to the neighborhood's restaurants and shops.

"It was a good promotion, because the Caucasian people did come to Chinatown for the parade," said Cecilia Moy Yep, 83, the grand dame of Chinatown organizers.

All sorts of pageants sprang up across America in the early 1960s, so popular that TV stations vied to broadcast them. In Philadelphia, businessman T.T. Chang, known as the "mayor of Chinatown," saw a way to raise the community's profile and prospects.

He started a pageant, making it key to a parade of floats, marching bands, and even Mummers, led through the streets by a giant, dancing dragon. Everyone came. In 1965, newspapers said, 15,000 people packed the streets around 10th and Race.

Walter D'Alessio can still feel the frozen chill of riding in an open convertible in February. He was director of the city Redevelopment Authority, and grand marshal of the 1969 parade. A bottle of spirits kept him warm, but Miss Chinatown, Kathy Jung, shivered the whole way in her thin formal gown.

"You had to make the rounds, this big loop through Chinatown," D'Alessio said.

Philadelphia's Chinatown was then two different communities.

To the Chinese who lived there, it was a close-knit place to raise children and find work. To the outside white population, it was what newspapers called "a tenderloin," rife with bars and prostitutes, home to the poor and uneducated.

For Chinese here and elsewhere, a pageant was a way to transform that image, to showcase sophistication and modernization, said Judy Wu, an Asian studies scholar at Ohio State University. In big cities like New York and smaller towns like Sacramento, pageants enabled Chinese to shape perceptions of their neighborhoods based on whom they chose as winner: The most beautiful. The smartest. The most talented.

"The racial hostility toward the Chinese in those days had a lot of Chinese trying to show they were Americans - bands, American flags, Miss Chinatown, all that kind of stuff," said Peter Kwong, a pioneer of Asian studies at City University of New York.

In Philadelphia, pageant contestants had to be single and between 16 and 25. The top prize? Adulation. And sometimes a trip to compete in California.

News clips indicate the first pageant began on Feb. 8, 1964. One of the judges was Al Yaremko, president of the Ukrainian Nationals soccer team; the others were local newsmen.

Nixon was then the former vice president - and a political dead man. He had lost the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 California governor's race, then bitterly announced he was quitting politics.

Instead of retiring, Nixon traveled around the country, gathering support for a return. He was in Philadelphia that day to honor Sen. Hugh Scott.

Mark recalls that she and Nixon exchanged only a few words. But the trip to San Francisco changed her life.

"It was a world of sophistication I didn't know," she said.

She had grown up helping run the family laundry at 62d and Chancellor Streets. After competing in the national pageant, she moved permanently to San Francisco and took a job in the airline industry.

The next year, her younger sister entered the Philadelphia pageant - and won. Lai Oye Mark, then 16, was crowned by faded-star actor Larry Parks at the Central YMCA, now Le Méridien hotel.

By the late 1960s, American society was changing. Some women criticized pageants as sexist. In Chinatowns, activists asked: Our neighborhoods suffer, and we devote resources to pageants? In Philadelphia, groups like Yellow Seeds pushed Chinatown to focus on housing and health issues, even as the pageant went on.

Marie Moy, now Marie Wong, was a 22-year-old Temple University student when she was crowned Miss Chinatown 1970.

"It was an honor," she said. After the pageant, her portrait hung in the offices of the Chinese Benevolent Association.

The 1972 winner was 19-year-old Janet Lee, whom the Bulletin described as a "Chinese American beauty whose favorite sport is shooting baskets." Her sister, Jackalyn, won the next year. In 1976, the title went to Temple senior Elizabeth Li.

But interest in pageants was slipping in the 1970s. And world politics intruded in Chinatowns.

For years, Kwong said, the Taiwan government had funded the traditional family associations, helping support parades and pageants. That gained Taiwan loyalty from overseas Chinese during the Cold War.

But Nixon had been elected president in 1968, and relations between the United States and the mainland improved after his 1972 visit. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter recognized the People's Republic and severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Taiwan stopped funding Chinatown groups, just as the neighborhoods' demographics were shifting, the once-dominant Cantonese majorities fading and new immigrants arriving.

"The whole Americanization of 'Miss Chinatown' disappeared because of the influence of these new immigrants," Kwong said. "They didn't have that tradition."

One of the last mentions of the local pageant was a 1982 Inquirer item that said judging would be at the Lotus Inn.

It's not known who won.

For Eng, her reign is a warm memory. She grew up in Collingswood, but Chinatown was a second home, and being Miss Chinatown bound her to the community.

"It made me realize that Chinatown was a main route in my life," said Eng, recently retired after 39 years at KYW radio. "The people I met are very near and dear to me now."

Contact Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, jgammage@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JeffGammage.

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