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At 98, America’s first Miss Chinatown finally gets her jeweled crown

Five women dressed in fancy clothes crowd together around a woman wearing a Miss Chinatown banner.
Ruby Fong, Cynthia Yee, Mimi Chin and Pat Nushimoto from the Grant Avenue Follies celebrate Penny Wong’s 98th birthday. | Courtesy Pat Nishimoto | Source: Courtesy Pat Nishimoto

When Penny Wong won the first-ever Miss Chinatown contest in 1948, she only received a paperboard crown. The organizers didn’t quite know how to celebrate a beauty champion properly.

Some 75 years later, Wong finally got what she earned—a jeweled crown—at her 98th birthday party last Friday, in a surprise geture conceived by her friends and supporters.

“She’s so happy, very happy,” said Janice Quan, Wong’s daughter.

Wong, a San Francisco native, is the first Miss Chinatown in history, inspiring generations of Chinese American girls to pursue the beauty queen title and setting up an annual tradition in the community that continues today.

Naturally Pretty

From its inception in 1948, Miss Chinatown was—like Miss America—originally a bathing suit contest, with young, American-born Chinese women vying to compete.

In James Chan’s 2021 documentary short, “Miss Penny Wong,” Wong expresses surprise that she won the contest in 1948 among all the other tall, beautiful Chinese girls. 

“I don’t think anybody ever wore bathing suit, except for going swimming,” she said.

That paperboard crown? Wong threw it away after it wore out, decades later.

America’s first Miss Chinatown, Penny Wong, wins the title in 1948. | Courtesy Janice Quan

Quan praised her mom for being “naturally pretty” as in the early days there weren’t many makeup techniques. Wong competed using only lipstick.

The contest quickly grew in scale. In 1958, having become national, Miss Chinatown was rebranded as “Miss Chinatown USA

Funny Queen

Outside of her pageant life, Wong is a funny and open-minded person, Quan told The Standard.

In the documentary, Wong is not shy from sharing her obsession with nightlife in the early days, as there was no TV or other entertainment.

“After I won [Miss Chinatown], I went out every night—partying, partying,” Wong said with a smile in the film. “That’s how I got fired.”

Quan said that her mom actually was helping and managing the family’s businesses throughout the years, including a popular club and a bar where she served as a bartender. She also modeled and taught young women how to walk the runway.

Penny Wong's paperboard crown wore out over the years, so she threw it away. | Courtesy Janice Quan
Penny Wong (center) wins the first Miss Chinatown in 1948. | Courtesy Janice Quan

Before she moved into a senior care facility, Wong had lived in Chinatown for more than half a century and retains deep connections with the community. Quan remembers that Wong would always stop on the street to say hello to people.

Now, at 98, a little bit frail and with memory issues, Wong is generally doing well, with a lot of energy, according to Quan. She also said her mom has been living a healthy lifestyle and was into fitness, which has helped her live a long life.

“She’s going to live to 100, I think,” Quan said.

Have Younger Friends

Pat Nishimoto, a member of the glamorous Chinatown performing group Grant Avenue Follies, attended Wong’s birthday party and helped prepare the crown for her.

“We thought it will be a great idea to give her a real jeweled crown,” Nishimoto said. “It was very touching, very heartfelt for us.”

Nishimoto said the Follies members didn’t want to overload Wong so they visited her as a small group a day before her actual birthday, April 15.

Members of the Grant Avenue Follies celebrate Penny Wong’s 98th birthday. | Courtesy Pat Nishimoto

Cynthia Yee, the founder of Grant Avenue Follies, a well-known performer and winner of Miss Chinatown San Francisco in 1967, has known Wong for a long time.

Yee said that when she was 7 years old, she lived in a Chinatown apartment where Wong lived upstairs and sometimes babysat her. Yee also performed at Wong’s family’s club.

“We remained friends with the family, and Penny and her friends always supported my shows,” Yee said.

Wong’s relationships show she lives by the words she always told her daughter: Befriend all kinds of people.

“Her favorite saying to me [when I was] growing up, is ‘Always hang out with younger people, have younger friends,’” Quan said. “That’s a quote that I always remember.”