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Tiaras, Sashes, Diversity

Times Staff Writer

Angela Chao Roberson, 22, knew she did not exactly look Chinese, with her cocoa-colored skin, her bushels of curly hair and her curvy figure. But she had no doubt she belonged in the same room with 17 other young women vying for the title Miss Los Angeles Chinatown.

Sure, she ate soul food when her father’s African American relatives came to visit her family in Victorville, but her family was much more likely to eat rice and stir-fried tilapia with garlic and soy sauce. And she loved Chinese New Year.

Angela scanned the young women sitting around the circle at the orientation session. There was one other girl whose complexion was close to her own. But the other girls resembled more closely the Miss Chinatowns of the past -- slender, fine-featured young ladies with pale skin and silky straight hair.

“I’m kind of brave if you think about it,” she said, flashing an unassuming smile. “But I’ve always accepted odd challenges.”

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The Miss Los Angeles Chinatown Pageant, organized by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles, aims to pick an ambassador for the largest Chinese American community in the U.S.

And for most of its 40-year history, despite changing outfits, hairstyles and makeup, the contestants have looked remarkably the same: willowy Chinese American girls with flowing black hair.

But as Chinese intermarry, the contest is attracting more girls of mixed race. It started with girls whose backgrounds were white and Chinese. A couple had Hispanic last names.

This year, Angela became the first contestant with an African American father.

Most of the 18 girls chosen as contestants after a preliminary interview, including Angela, could speak at least a few phrases of Chinese. They hailed from such communities as El Sereno, Monterey Park, Hacienda Heights and Anaheim, the daughters of packaging company owners, restaurateurs and seamstresses.

Almost all of them had parents who were both ethnic Chinese. There were two of mixed races: Angela and Kaye Ponnusamy, whose father was an ethnic Indian who had grown up in Malaysia and whose mother was from Taiwan.

That first day of orientation marked the beginning of weeks of preparation.

Angela’s father, Harry Roberson, a wiry 60-year-old electronics technician at Ft. Irwin Army base, worried how she would be treated. But Angela didn’t see herself as making history or knocking down barriers. She thought she could win.

“I’m not scared to walk into an all-Chinese place,” she said. “They might be surprised that I’m there, but I’m not surprised I’m there.”

*

Competing in the pageant was her mother’s idea.

One day in October, Nancy Chao Roberson was listening to KWRM-AM (1370), the only Mandarin language radio station she gets in Victorville. A call for contestants for hua fu xiao jie -- Miss Chinatown -- came on.

She thought about one of her Chinese friends who had married a white man and whose children would refuse to claim her as their mother when they were at school because she was Chinese.

“Since they were young, I taught my kids, it doesn’t matter what color you are,” Nancy Roberson said in Mandarin.

She continued in English: “You don’t want to be hiding or embarrassed because your mom is Chinese and your daddy’s black.”

She encouraged Angela to enter the pageant and said she didn’t care if she won or not. While other Chinese pageants around the country require that the father be Chinese or that contestants speak either Mandarin or Cantonese, Los Angeles’ event is considered one of the most inclusive, requiring only 25% Chinese heritage.

Angela, who had been living in Fullerton for the last five years since she left to go to college at Cal State Fullerton, thought about how she used to sit around and chat with her mother and her mother’s Chinese friends. She remembered how she used to go to Buddhist temples in the San Gabriel Valley with her mother. Since she had moved, she missed all of that.

Entering the contest wasn’t about renouncing her African American heritage, Angela said. She would always prefer R&B; to any other kind of music. She enjoyed her talks about the N-word with her colleagues as she worked as a production assistant on black-themed “The Boondocks” television show.

Other African Americans never failed to recognize her as one of their own. But some Chinese people at Lunar New Year parties would often stare at her as if she had just crashed a wedding. They would soften their bewildered looks when she explained that she was there to celebrate the holiday with her family.

She found the pageant’s website, where she could download an application. She perused the gallery of previous queens and princesses.

“Some of them looked half-white, so I thought, ‘That’s good. They won’t be surprised when a half African American girl signs up,’ ” Angela said.

*

When Angela signed in for her preliminary interview at Castelar Street Elementary School in Chinatown, her hand was shaking. She felt better when she saw one of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce’s administrators was white. That made her feel less of an oddball.

She reminded herself that she had sent in a photo, so it wasn’t as if she was trying to pretend to be anything she wasn’t.

Angela heaved a real sigh of relief when she found out that the contest favored poise and intelligent answers in the onstage interview. Angela began to think that maybe she really had a chance at winning.

“I can’t change my look,” she thought to herself. “I know if I just focus on the criteria that are there: question and answer, poise and the things we’re judged on, I can do well.”

She wasn’t discouraged a few weeks later when two past winners of the pageant stood in front of the group and asked the girls to write down their family associations or village associations, the mutual aid societies based on last names or hometowns in China. These groups had historically helped Chinese immigrants settle into life in America. The girls were also supposed to write their names in Chinese.

Most of them could either write their Chinese names in fluid strokes or knew that their parents came from, say, the village of Fa Yuen or Jiangsu province.

When the paper reached Angela, she thought about how she was once taught to write her name in Chinese. But she couldn’t recall all of the words or the order of the strokes, which she knew was important in Chinese writing. She had heard of family and village associations but could not recall her mother’s particular affiliations.

She wrote her name in English. She passed the sheet along.

She felt intimidated when she heard other contestants speak in flawless Mandarin.

“Sometimes, I’m afraid to speak Chinese because I don’t know that much,” Angela said. Once, she explained, she was trying to call her niece a stinky monkey, but because she didn’t pronounce the words with the right inflection, she called her niece an ugly monkey. That kind of peeved her mother because Angela’s niece was certainly not ugly.

Angela realized that her world was a little removed from Chinatown and the pageant. Her best friend in elementary school was white and Thai, and another friend was Thai and black.

Over the weeks, she braced herself for questions about her ethnic background. When she had to call local businesses to see if they would sponsor her for the pageant, she figured out how she would explain why her last name was Roberson. She figured she would say that her father was American and her mother’s maiden name was Chao. But the businesspeople never asked.

One of her biggest anxieties during the weeks of preparation was over her hair.

Angela knew she wanted to twist her hair on top of her head and that was going to require straightening her curls. She worried that her hair was going to present a quandary for stylists who had never dealt with the texture before.

Angela called a Chinese woman who had done a presentation on hair and makeup to the contestants in October. “I’m Chinese and black,” she told the woman. “I have darker skin and hair that is more coarse. I’m looking for somebody who can do darker skin, and not somebody who does all black people.”

The woman referred Angela to one of her former assistants who owns a salon in Chinatown. “She’s Filipino, but her husband is black,” Angela said. The salon owner managed Angela’s hair without a problem.

For the most part, the pageant organizers saw Angela’s background as a sign of the times.

“There’s a newer generation coming up, and the whole idea of being multicultural is more accepted now,” said Priscilla Tjio-Hervey, 26, the pageant’s director.

Hervey was crowned Miss Chinatown in 2003. “Even when I came in it was, ‘Wow, she doesn’t speak Chinese,’ ” said Hervey, who has a surname that is unusual among Chinese because her family used to live in Indonesia. “ ‘Is she Chinese or is she Indonesian?’ There was even some concern there.”

Hervey privately worried Angela would face the same questions. “I personally thought the odds were against her [for] being part African American. It was kind of a personal thing for me because my husband is African American. I was Miss Chinatown. If I have kids, will they be able to be?”

*

“Please give it up for Contestant No. 3, Angela Roberson!”

At a glitzy ballroom downtown, the contestants were being introduced one by one on a stage festooned with gold and red banners celebrating the Chinese new year, the year of the dog.

The crowd of hundreds clapped as Angela Roberson made her way across the stage in a red and white hibiscus swimsuit. Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking emcees announced Angela’s name for the benefit of the non-English speaking audience: Chao An Qi Er, or Chiu Ang Kei Yee.

Angela, whose almond-shaped eyes were accentuated with dark eyeliner, greeted everyone in slightly imperfect Chinese: Da jia hao.

Many in the crowd leaned forward or stood up to get a better look. They had puzzled looks on their faces. Some of them whispered that they thought she was too curvy. Others tried to figure out what percentage of her background was Chinese.

Angela didn’t notice. She was just trying not to look scared.

She directed her wide smile toward the judges.

When the emcees interviewed her on stage, Angela didn’t stumble. She was asked whether she thought herbal supplements ought to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. “It’s very important that we know what we’re putting in our bodies and where it’s coming from,” she said.

When the 18 contestants were called to the stage for the announcement of the winners, they plastered nervous smiles on their faces. First they announced Miss Friendship, whom the contestants themselves chose. Then Miss Photogenic, chosen by the Chinese media. Then the title of fourth princess.

“And the Miss Los Angeles Chinatown Third Princess is ... Contestant No. 3, Angela Roberson!”

Angela broke into a broad, stunned grin as she accepted her rhinestone crown and sash. She was ecstatic, even though she wasn’t the queen. That honor went to Melody Cheng, a somewhat shy, svelte 19-year-old from Hacienda Heights who was crowned in a burst of red and gold confetti.

With Kaye also winning a place on the court, it turned out to be the most diverse court the pageant had ever picked.

The winners “are a really true reflection of Chinese Americans in Southern California,” said Terry R. Loo, one of the judges. “It’s a mixed group these days.”

“I’m glad she did it,” said Harry Roberson. “This tells the community there’s more out there than just pure Chinese.”

*

Angela and the other winners have been making public appearance across Los Angeles County since the court was crowned in January.

Last week, they attended a Chinese folk dance recital in Azusa, and Angela was struck by how normal it felt to be part of the pageant court, representing the Chinese community.

“It’s kind of naive of me to say nobody notices,” Angela said. “But I don’t think it concerns them to make a point that they notice.”

Her parents’ lives have changed as well. Her father, who for months had kept Angela’s pageant entry to himself, now proudly trumpets to co-workers her success and how much it meant to him.

“They asked how many mixed-race [contestants] there were, and I said she was the first black and Chinese to be in the competition -- and then she actually won,” he said Thursday. “I was proud of that.”

Recently, the pageant court helped children at the public library in Chinatown make lanterns. Angela was smitten by a 6-year-old girl who was part African American and part Chinese.

This girl had great hair, she thought. It fell like a wavy waterfall and was certainly less curly than her own hair.

“I was happy for her,” Angela said. “She gets to grow up in Chinatown, surrounded by other Chinese people. In Victorville, the Chinese people were only in Mom’s close circle.”

Maybe, she thought, this is what a future Miss Chinatown might look like.


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