Coming Out Is a Ball : Young Ladies of Chinese Heritage to Take Their Turn as Debutantes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At first glance, the 22 girls, resembling swan-like fairy princesses under the bright photo studio lights, did not seem like trailblazers in the demure world of debutanting.

They were stereotypically deb down to every ruffle and bow in their billowy white gowns, no different from all the other girls who have prepared for this "coming out" rite of high society from New York and Philadelphia to Los Angeles and Newport Beach.

And, as they posed for Morgan Studio photographer Arone Long for their first group portrait--their Dec. 29 "Winter Blossom Ball" still months away--they acted as thrilled and properly awed as any debs-in-training before the big event.

But these 22 girls from some of Southern California's posher neighborhoods, and whose fathers range from doctors and engineers to corporate moguls, are not your typical American debs.

These girls are all of Chinese descent. And their parents, immigrants from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, have organized their own Chinese-American Debutante Guild, the first such all-Chinese group in Southern California.

The unusualness, even oddity, of such a move--especially for an ethnic-minority group that had never been associated with this still highly popular social ritual in America--is not lost on these Chinese-American girls from Orange and Los Angeles counties.

Murmured one of them, as she was re-fluffing her gown during a break in their recent portrait sitting: "To me, it always seemed strictly for white girls. You know, a Scarlett O'Hara or a Grace Kelly. But not us."

An Asian-American-sponsored debutante ball is still something of a novelty.

In the mid-'60s, the Japan America Society of Southern California, a cultural affairs organization, did stage an annual ball that included whites but was predominately for girls of Japanese descent.

But this Los Angeles "Cherry Blossom Ball" was discontinued in 1968 because, a Japan America Society organizer explained, of the nationwide decline in the popularity of debutante balls during the anti-establishment '60s.

The newly formed Chinese-American Debutante Guild is considered the first such Asian-ancestry sponsor in Southern California since the '60s, representatives in the Asian-American communities said.

Even so, the Chinese-American organizers like to assert that their effort is in no way an ethnic-minority challenge to the traditional, white-dominated debutante circuit.

They pointed out that some Asian-American girls have made their debuts at balls on the traditional circuit with such long-established charitable presenters as Las Campanas, Les Amis des Femmes and the Children's Home Society's Newport Beach auxiliary.

Instead, the Chinese-Americans like to depict their new guild as just one more effort to celebrate their own ethnic heritage and pass on ethnic success models to their otherwise American-born, American-raised children.

These are much the same arguments used by the African-American community groups--including Links, a professional women's organization--which have sponsored their own debutante balls in Los Angeles and Orange counties for years.

"We see nothing wrong with forming our own (debutante) group. People with the same backgrounds, the same values, feel more comfortable with each other," explained May Hsu of Tustin, co-chairwoman of the Chinese-American guild.

However, guild organizers said they are concerned that some Americans--especially those critical of the proliferation of Asian-language signs and Asian commercial strips in Los Angeles and Orange counties--might perceive their all-Chinese guild as racially separatist.

"Oh no, this is not so," said Ruth Ding of Newport Beach, long a key figure in local Chinese-American cultural programs. "Our children are already so Americanized. How can one small (all-Chinese) group like ours hurt."

"And, really, our program isn't so very different," Ding added. "We, too, want the opportunity to honor our outstanding young women in this very special way."

For these guild members--affluent families living in prestigious areas outside the Chinese enclaves--now find themselves turning their attention to yet another status symbol of the upwardly mobile in America.

They have discovered debutanteland.

To many, debutanting has always meant dazzling but rather shallow displays of conspicuous high society, when America's social elite staged its whirlwind rounds of mammoth "coming out" parties.

Ever since, the more serious debutante-sponsor groups have tried to live down the grandiose images. For years now, these groups have tied their events closely to charitable causes--using the balls as fund-raisers and also recruiting the girls for community-service projects .

But the central vision of any debutante program is still this hallowed rite of passage: the night of the debut extravaganza where the girls are formally introduced to society.

Consider again the Chinese-American Debutante Guild-selected girls, ages 17 to 21. They are viewed as high-achiever students in various universities--the schools include Yale, Wellesley and UC Berkeley and Irvine--as well as being from socially prominent families in the Chinese immigrant community.

Although most of the fathers are in the business and professional fields, there is one diplomat in the group: C.Y. Chang, Los Angeles director-general of Taiwan's Coordinating Council for North American Affairs. His deb daughter, Grace, is studying at Northwestern University.

As part of their deb apprenticeship, these girls have attended classes on the American social graces for young ladies--etiquette, poise, proper attire, social dancing--and on choosing careers. They have gone to numerous informal parties at homes hosted by guild parents.

And the main event, the "Winter Blossom Ball" Dec. 29 at the Disneyland Hotel, will feature much of the flourishes and speeches associated with such balls, including the classic moment when each girl is announced and escorted down the center of the ballroom.

"It's an exciting program and a lot of fun. It's real neat. All of us feel proud and lucky at being chosen," said Emily Liu, 17, of Palos Verdes, who is entering the University of Notre Dame this fall.

The girls also lauded the charitable side of today's debutanting. "I think that's great because it gives depth to the program and the image," said Joni Lee, 18, of Huntington Beach, a student at UC Santa Barbara.

The organizers pointed out that their guild was created as a fund-raising arm for a proposed Orange County-based senior citizens center program for the Chinese-American community.

The center project, still in the study stage, was launched last year with $10,000 "seed money" from three organizations: Chinese-American Lions Club of Orange County, Orange County Chinese Cultural Club and Pan Pacific Performing Arts Inc.

According to project president Nelson Mar of Irvine, the proposed center will chiefly be an informational and referral facility. Eventually, he added, the center will join other Asian-American organizations in expanding housing, health and recreation programs for seniors, particularly immigrants.

This community activism extends to each of the 22 guild debutantes. The girls are required to serve at least 100 hours in a community-service program. Some of the girls have already done extensive volunteer work, such as in hospitals.

Others, such as Christina Sun, 19, of Palos Verdes, have been involved in Chinese community projects. A student at UCLA, Sun has been tutoring immigrant children in English and other subjects at an elementary school in Los Angeles' Chinatown.

Even with all this community activism, one historic mission of debutanting cannot be underestimated, even in the '90s--that is, these groups as social catalyst and social arbiter.

For the debs, this means making the proper connections not only for careers but also for marriage.

This is no small matter for those in the Chinese immigrant group. They worry that their children, depicted as already too Americanized, are not making enough contact with other Chinese. They fear that their great hope--that their children will marry other Chinese--may be dashed.

The debs in the Chinese-American guild are a typical case. Nearly all were raised in predominantly white American areas and went to elementary and high schools there. And, unless they attended Chinese churches or Chinese language schools, they seldom went to all-Chinese gatherings.

In fact, some of the older girls were already mostly dating white or other non-Chinese males.

So the parents, when forming their debutante guild, saw a golden opportunity in social arrangements: a program where nice Chinese girls can meet nice Chinese boys.

The parents saw to it that the male partners at the debs' parties and social dancing classes were all young Chinese-Americans from the same coterie of immigrant families.

Tilting the ethnic scale even more, the parents have made it an official policy that the male escorts to the Dec. 29 ball must be of Chinese descent.

And when one of the girls told the guild committee that she wanted her white boyfriend to be her escort, her request was flatly turned down.

This deb, Sansan Kwan, 19, of Rancho Palos Verdes, said she is still not happy with the committee's decision. "But I can live with it. It's one of those things. I mean, all of us already know the feelings of our parents on this issue," said Kwan, a student at UC Berkeley.

Besides, she added, "this (guild) program is overall a very good one. I still feel very honored at being part of it."

The other debs, too, seem to be taking their parents' ethnic arrangements in stride.

"These (all-Chinese parties) are a lot of fun. I like the idea of meeting other Chinese. And I think all of us are becoming more aware of our Chinese identity as we get older," said UCLA student Rosalie Chin, 20, of El Toro.

But Yale student Stacie Cheng, 18, of Los Angeles added: "We also realize we're a bicultural generation, and I think we have learned to be comfortable with that. Socially, I don't think it (ethnic background) matters as much to us, one way or another."

So on the marriage issue, the feelings of these debs may be summed up this way: no matter whom they marry--Chinese or non-Chinese--the choice will be up to them.

Their parents seem to agree.

"Oh, we can't push it (dating and marrying a Chinese)," said guild co-chairwoman May Hsu. "We're in America, and you can't do that, can you?"

Yet, with the guild's specially prepared girl-meets-boy encounters in mind, Hsu added: "But we can try and provide the right opportunities for them. We can suggest--and hope for the best."

get ready for their formal photograph.

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