Yun Tau Chee, 73; Miss Hawaii of 1948, First Asian in Miss America Pageant


Yun Tau Chee, who as the first Miss Hawaii helped break the color barrier in the Miss America pageant, died Feb. 21 in Kailua, Hawaii. She was 73 and had cancer of the duodenum.

Chee was the runner-up in the first Miss Hawaii contest in 1948 and took the crown after the winner was disqualified for not having enough high school credits.

Later that year, Chee, whose ancestry was Chinese, traveled to Atlantic City, N.J., for the Miss America pageant, becoming the first Asian American contestant.

The pageant, founded in 1921, had a long history of racial exclusion. Sometime during the 1930s, a rule was adopted specifying that contestants "must be of good health and of the white race." Until at least 1940, all contestants had to complete a biological data sheet that asked them to outline their lineage.

Then, in 1941, Mifauny Shunatona, a Native American from Oklahoma, was admitted to the pageant. In 1945, Bess Myerson became the first Jewish Miss America. Three years later, Chee and Irma Nydia Vasquez from Puerto Rico pushed the ethnic boundaries further when they joined the pageant.

More than two decades would pass before the pageant had its first black contestant, Cheryl Brown of Iowa, in 1970.

Chee was born Yun Tau Zane in Kohala, Hawaii. She was a 20-year-old home economics major at the University of Hawaii when she won the Miss Hawaii title. She vied for Miss America because she hoped to earn money for college.

She learned the hula from Hawaiian hula master Winona Beamer and performed the dance for the talent portion of the national pageant wearing a holoku, a traditional Hawaiian fitted gown with a flowing train.

People were "intrigued that I didn't trip on the train," she recalled in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin two years ago.

Having grown up among the many cultures that make up Hawaiian society, she was not aware she was making history as the pageant's first entrant of Asian ancestry, according to her husband, Hon Ting Chee. "Being from Hawaii, she didn't have any idea of the discrimination on the mainland," he said.

But she was greeted warmly by the other contestants. "They were all together for the same purpose," he said, "so they were friendly to her."

Although Chee did not win the national title, she was named Miss Congeniality, which came with a $1,000 scholarship. After graduating from the University of Hawaii, she earned her teaching certificate at the University of Wisconsin. She taught kindergarten in Hawaii for 33 years, retiring in 1986.

She and her husband had four sons, including twins who died of cancer within months of each other. She is survived by sons Derrick and Brandon, three brothers and three sisters.

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