The Rainbow Runway

Richard Perry/The New York Times

Finalists in the Miss New York Chinese pageant riding through Chinatown last month via stretch limousine.

 

The Rainbow Runway

By BROOKE HAUSER, NEW YORK TIMES

GOOSE-PIMPLY in a turquoise string bikini and silver heels, Stacy Wang stepped up to the microphone in a back room of East Manor, a dim sum restaurant in Flushing, Queens, and breathed deeply. “Hi, everyone,” she said brightly, introducing herself in Mandarin to the eight judges for the preliminary round of this year’s Miss New York Chinese beauty pageant. “I’m Stacy Wang, and I am 18 years old. I like to dance, play the piano, swim, play Go and read.”

Later, the judges would remember the young woman for her grace under pressure as well as her elegant performance of a seductive Chinese snake dance during the talent round. Other contestants plucked a Chinese table harp called the guzheng, demonstrated calligraphy and booty-danced to Beyoncé. But on this sticky day in early June, it was Stacy’s star turn before the judges.

This would be a decisive moment in a beauty contest followed eagerly by New York’s Chinese community of nearly 430,000, an event in which 13 finalists would be chosen out of 50 contestants.

New York City, where the foreign-born and their children make up roughly 60 percent of the population, is home to upwards of a dozen small, ethnically based beauty pageants, among them Miss Trinidad and Tobago, Miss India and Miss Polonia. While these events exist in the shadow of more mainstream events like Miss America, they represent occasions of huge cultural pride.

Backstage, behind the glitz and glamour, the pageants often reflect an immigrant community’s striver dreams. In the Chinese pageant, all of the contestants were born in China — though none were F.O.B., “fresh off the boat” — and a couple of the newer arrivals still struggled with English. As one contestant put it, “The Chinese pageant is the perfect combination of East and West.”

At times, the days leading up to the Miss New York Chinese finals felt like a never-ending sorority party, with friendships forged, rumors flying and whiffs of scandals. Even as the contestants vied for the crown, they angled for other titles: Miss Congeniality, Miss Photogenic and the highly coveted Miss Internet Popularity, an honor bestowed on the girl who snagged the most online votes from fans around the world based on her personal profile on the pageant’s Web site, misschinese.us/.

On this morning in early June, however, the pageant experience was just beginning in an unremarkable private room of East Manor, away from the din of diners and the heady smell of pork buns and Peking duck.

Stacy, who lives with her parents in a largely Asian enclave in Bayside, Queens, and who graduated in June from Stuyvesant High School, will always remember June 9 as the day she sashayed in a back room of East Manor only hours before being whisked off in a limousine to her prom at the Waldorf-Astoria. The next morning, she was recovering from the revelry when Eric Yuen, a co-owner of the Miss New York Chinese pageant, called to congratulate her.

“I’d just come back from after-prom and I was exhausted,” said Stacy, who had fallen asleep clutching her cellphone so as not to miss the call. “I was kind of confused. He told me, ‘You should come in tomorrow,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, is there another round?’ He was like, ‘No, you’re a finalist.’ ”

Less than 24 hours later, in a mirrored dance studio inside the Flushing Mall, Stacy received a new identity: No. 6. She also met the 12 other finalists, ages 17 to 25. While most of them were New Yorkers, a few had traveled from as far away as Florida and moved to Queens for the summer, fulfilling a temporary residency requirement.

Like Stacy, who had read about the pageant in her mother’s copy of The World Journal, a Chinese daily, they entered with the hope of winning $7,000 in cash, a diamond necklace worth $3,500 and a ticket to Hong Kong to represent New York in the 2008 Miss Chinese International pageant.

“The whole Chinese global community follows our beauty pageant,” said Mr. Yuen, the competition’s founder and chief organizer, “because New York Chinatown is large compared to the world.” A natural pitchman, he carries three different business cards for his various media and marketing ventures.

Past winners have gone on to modeling and acting careers in Hong Kong. The 2004 winner, Fala Chen, is now “a superstar” there, Mr. Yuen said, and has appeared on several shows on TVB, a popular Hong Kong television station.

In pursuit of these plums, the girls put aside their studies and careers for two months to brave beauty boot camp from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every weekday under the direction of Judy Mae Chao, a former Wilhelmina model who is the pageant’s image consultant. Mrs. Chao, who also runs a dog-breeding business with her husband from their home in Bayside, took in three contestants who needed a place to stay for the summer.

Pale Skin and One-Upmanship

Starting in early June, the contestants spent their time prepping for the pageant, a dizzying spectacle of cabaret routines and deliriously paced costume changes that was held last Sunday, beginning at 1 a.m., at the Mohegan Sun casino in eastern Connecticut. But in the weeks leading up to the finale, much of the drama unfolded in private rooms in dim sum restaurants around the city as the girls jockeyed for position and eyed one another warily.

Hours before their first press conference, held on June 26 at East Buffet, the 13 finalists gathered in a steamy windowless private room to get their hair teased and their fake eyelashes curled. It was an occasion to size up the others in terms of everything from their pageant walks to their smiles.

“Ooh, your smile is so forced!” an architecture major from Cornellnamed Elaine Lu, her brows knit in mock concern, said to Judy Yu, a nutrition major at Queens College. “You just have to find your natural smile.”

Later, as the contestants exchanged beauty advice about the best whitening lotion and eyelid tape, some of the girls cringed at the extent to which their competitors seemed to idealize Caucasian features.

Stacy Wang, whose pale complexion is due partly to genetics, partly to her mother’s incessant exhortations to stay out of the sun, kept out of the complexion conversation. But she did get dragged into a cross-examination about her academic career.

“How old are you?” Elaine Lu demanded at one point.

“I just turned 18,” Stacy replied.

“So young!” sighed Elaine, who is 19. “How are your grades?”

“Ninety-four,” Stacy said. “What’s your G.P.A.?”

“It’s too embarrassing to say,” Elaine demurred, promptly changing the subject. “Where are you going to college?”

“I wanted to go to Columbia,” Stacy said, tracing an invisible teardrop on her cheek. “But I was deferred. I’m going to Carnegie Mellon instead. It’s ranked No. 1 for comp sci.”

“I think comp sci is a bad major,” Elaine announced. “Business is good. You should do business. Ugh, my foundation is melting.”

Echoes of a Mother’s Dreams

Many of the girls vying for the title seem to lead double lives. Finalists have included investment bankers, accountants and Ivy Leaguestudents who secretly harbor beauty queen dreams.

While some parents balk at the idea of their daughters putting their professional goals on hold to pursue careers in modeling and acting, others consider their very entry into the Miss New York Chinese pageant to be a crowning achievement — a little piece of the American dream, Mandarin flavored.

On a recent excursion to Chinatown, Stacy, wearing a snug polka-dot dress, listened quietly as her mother, Cindy Xie, a distributor for a cosmetics company, described how proud she had been to learn that Stacy had been selected as a finalist.

“It’s like proof of my own success as a mother,” Ms. Xie said through Shirley Hon, a translator and ever-present chaperone. Her eyes brimming with tears, Ms. Xie added, in English: “I only have one daughter. I want to take her good life.”

At the age of 11, when she emigrated, Stacy knew that her parents had left their comfortable lives behind in China, where her father was a software engineer, so that she could thrive in America. But the route to Queens from the industrial city of Harbin, near the Russian border, was pocked with obstacles.

“I guess I missed two years of happiness,” Stacy said one Sunday afternoon in July at Grand Harmony restaurant on Mott Street as she munched on chicken feet (a natural anti-wrinkle agent, thanks to the high collagen content, according to Ms. Hon). “In China, I always felt like I was on top. But when I came here, I felt like a nobody, like I was inferior. I looked up to anyone who could speak English.”

So she immersed herself in her studies, doing well enough to be accepted by Stuyvesant. And as Stacy became more invested in her life in New York, her mother, who hopes to open her own beauty salon, became more invested in Stacy.

She urged her daughter to load up with Advanced Placement courses in physics and calculus. Stacy’s after-school hours were crammed with cheerleading practice and her responsibilities as chairwoman of the American Red CrossYouth Group in Queens and as president of Asian Americans for Social Activism at Stuyvesant. Stacy’s schedule also included lessons in ballet, Latin dance, Chinese dance, piano, swimming, modeling and runway walking — “all the things that I didn’t do when I was a girl,” said her mother.

The Fairest of Them All

In a sense, Stacy’s life has been in preparation for this pageant, but the pageant also helped prepare her for life. Some of her competitors became her friends. And as the contest got closer, Stacy began to loosen up. One night at karaoke, she sang her heart out to the Mandarin hit “Mouse Loves Rice.” “The song is like, ‘I love you like a mouse loves rice,’ ” she said, laughing. “It’s a Chinese thing.”

A lot of the fun was engineered for press-related photo ops and product plugs for Mr. Yuen’s various sponsors, ranging from Mohegan Sun to a Chinatown jeweler who supplied the winner’s diamond necklace.

At the annual kite festival at Jacob Riis Park in Queens, the girls, wearing matching bubble-gum pink jumpers and jean shorts, posed for photographs at booths for festival sponsors like Continental Airlines and Verizon. Their adventures were not without misadventures.

One contestant, a diabetic, fainted at the kite festival. (Earlier, the girls had been told: “Don’t eat like you’re hungry. And don’t let the food touch your lipstick.”)

Then there was the minor car accident, when the driver of a Hummer stretch limousine in which the girls were being paraded around the city’s Chinatowns barely squeezed down one of the many narrow streets near Grand Street in Manhattan.

That same afternoon, Mr. Yuen and two assistants got stuck in an elevator as the girls, wearing lavender sashes, paid a promotional visit to a plastic surgeon and an obstetrician-gynecologist, who posed for photos with the contestants.

Finally, there was the scandal that got all the girls talking. Just days before the talent show, Lanna Xu, an aspiring actress with hooded eyes and a high, breathy voice, got caught on a date with Jack Duong, the 19-year-old personal assistant to the pageant organizer. As bad luck would have it, the pair bumped into the pageant’s watchful chaperone, Ms. Hon, on a bus from Chinatown to Flushing.

When word of the date spread, some girls suggested that Lanna had gone out with Mr. Duong only because he might cast a vote at the final pageant. “She doesn’t like him — she’s using him,” one contestant suggested.

Given the tension the girls were feeling by this point, the reaction was not surprising.

“For the past month or two, we’ve been training, having fun, enjoying our time,” said Anni Liang, who has competed in 10 pageants. “But now that it’s the final week, it’s back to reality that we are in a competition. We really need to step up our game. Every girl is concentrating on the prize.”

Shortly after 3 a.m. last Sunday in the grand ballroom at Mohegan Sun, the two-and-a-half-hour event culminated with the girls strutting across the stage wearing xi pao — the tight, long, traditional Chinese dress — while spectators shouted out the names of their favorites in Mandarin. As gold confetti rained down, the winner was announced. It was Stacy. For the first time in weeks, she wore a smile that dimpled her cheeks.

“Right now, I really want to see my mom’s expression on her face,” she said giddily, adjusting her tiara as a guard escorted her to a casino restaurant.

The hours after her coronation should have been the happiest in her life. But Stacy, wearing a heavy red velvet cape, a silver scepter in her hand, looked lost and alone as she sat in a booth in the restaurant, waiting anxiously for her mother. The other girls coolly kept their distance, consoling each other. And Ms. Xie, separated from her daughter and searching for Stacy amid the crush of nearly 3,000 spectators, was nowhere to be found.