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Kathy Huang, Miss Chinatown USA

Eye of the beholder: Katie Au in Miss Chinatown USA

By Jennifer Merin

JM: You brought your seven-minute documentary, Night Visions to Tribeca in 2006. This year, you’re back with the 25-minute Miss Chinatown USA. Other than length-wise, how do these films differ? What’s similar about them?

KH: Night Vision is about a young soldier returning from Iraq. He’d enlisted for idealistic reasons, went to Iraq and came home a very different person. Miss Chinatown USA is the story of a young Chinese-American woman who, through machinations for which she’s only partly responsible, competes in the Miss Chinatown USA contest in San Francisco. Both films are basically portraits -- Miss Chinatown’s protagonist is Katie Au, who’s slightly confused about her identity.

JM: How is she confused?

KH: She’s a beautiful Asian-American young woman who’s been raised in a white community. All her friends are white, she doesn’t speak any Chinese and she’s a member of the Seattle Sea Gals, the cheerleading team for the Seattle Seahawks football team. I don’t know if you know that -- I didn’t know that, I’m quite ignorant about football matters. Cheerleading squads tend to be filled with girls who’re very blond and blue-eyed and have very curvaceous bodies. And Katie does not -- but she has this wonderful athletic ability as a dancer. She’s brilliant. She’s actually on a world tour now, dancing.

JM: How’d you find Katie?

KH: Honestly, I had no intention of making a documentary like this. My interest had been in the Miss Chinatown USA pageant. I was in the Masters in Documentary Filmmaking program at Stanford, and decided to do my project on the Miss Chinatown USA Pageant because its history is so fascinating. The pageant started at a time when Chinese-Americans were considered saboteurs and Communist spies, so Chinatown in San Francisco was losing a lot of business -- nobody was going there, the FBI was raiding. So business leaders of Chinatown got together and decided they wanted to put their best faces forward with an event that would draw people to their section of town. They created the Miss Chinatown USA Pageant.

It was a very social and political event, highly charged for the era. I thought I’d do my project on that. I even interviewed a woman who’d competed 50 years ago and was still alive. I went through all the archival material. Then I started getting this nagging pressure, this voice inside me saying it’s great to make an historical documentary showing why this pageant came to be, but what I don’t understand is why it’s so popular today. I couldn’t figure it out. It seemed so anachronistic. I know a lot of ethnic pageants are still very popular, especially for newly arrived immigrant groups. There’s a Miss Pakistan, Miss Ethiopia and all that. But for Chinese-Americans, we’ve been here a bit longer than the (other) immigrant groups. We’ve successfully made our way into entertainment venues and all that.

So, for me, the idea of why the Chinese-American community still needs a pageant to celebrate itself was fascinating. Why would a girl join now? I shifted my focus from historical documentary to a portrait of a young woman participating in the pageant, trying to understand what drove her, what were her motivations.

JM: How did you go about finding her?

KH: Basically, Miss Chinatown pageant is a national pageant, drawing girls from Chinatowns across the country, everywhere from Las Vegas to Atlanta, Georgia, New Hampshire, Hawaii. Miss Hawaii is always a very serious contender. So I called all the Chinese Chambers of Commerce across the US asking: “Who’re you sending up? Who’s coming to nationals?” I began weeding them out -- finding those who were interesting, had interesting stories and, most importantly, who’d be 100 percent honest with me. The problem in dealing with pageant contestants, and this I didn’t realize until I started this project, is that so many of them are so well-trained they’re always turned on, never let down their guard. But, Katie Au was amazing. She just told me as it was, never felt the need to put up artifice and that was really refreshing.

JM: Did you find out anything about yourself by making this film?

KH: This is a question I always get -- why did you make this film?

JM: But I’m not asking why you made it. I’m asking whether making it led you to discover anything about yourself. That’s different, isn’t it?

KH: Yeah. It is. I think, actually, I was uncomfortable making the film at first, just because it hit too close to home. I mean, I also grew up in a predominantly white community -- not Seattle, but in Maryland. And even though there were plenty of Asian-Americans in Maryland, I grew up in a neighborhood where there were none. I remember going to school, an elementary school-middle school, where I was the token minority girl. That was something that I remembered.

JM: Gee, that must have been fun.

KH: It was a Catholic school. And it was pretty interesting. But yeah, there was definitely that coming to terms with... Katie is very similar to me. We have a lot of parallels in our lives. It’s just that we’d taken two very different paths, even though we’d had a similar background, upbringing.

JM: What different paths?

KH: She’s very good at adapting, she’s very social, very extroverted. I mean the fact that she’s a cheerleader should tell you something. She’s into the performance arts. I, myself, who grew up in a similar environment, took the other path: Instead of being an extrovert, I became an introvert, did a lot of reading. I had a good group of friends -- small, but tight-knit. But I kept to myself a lot. I think it was more of an interior development that I went through. Whereas for Katie, it was more about making friends, fitting in, kind of donning all the -- how should I put it? She kind of took on everything she was supposed to do. She’s a nice girl, got good grades, she’s a cheerleader, she’s very attractive. Um. Yeah.

JM: She made her parents proud.

KH: Yes, she made her parents proud. I never put the same stock in doing exactly that. I kind of went off and did my own thing I spent a lot of time reading. So I guess it was just different coping mechanisms, different personalities

JM: Does your film teach us anything about the Chinese-American community?

KH: This is the first film I’ve made about Chinese-American topics, but, you know, when I make my films -- and this is true for the three other films I’ve made, too -- there’re social, cultural and political issues that are touched upon, but I never do it directly. I always want people to come to see things on their own terms. So, when people watch this film -- I've had very different reactions. It’s always dependent on their background. For example, I’ve had a lot of white females come up to me after the film in the lobby and say, “Wow, I never realized this is something Asian females have to go through,” whereas a lot of Asian Americans will watch it and those themes that are in the film will resonate with them and they’ll say, “Yeah, we know what she’s going through.” For me, it’s more about building empathy between the audience and the protagonist. And what people take out of it -- they’ll take out of it what they need to, what they want to.

JM: Katie’s story might make a good fiction feature. Do you have any interest in making one?

KH: My interest in making films is purely documentary. I love other types of films, but I’m only interested in making documentary films.

Posted at May 4, 2007 12:07 PM

Comments (1)

Dear Ms Huang,
I am Katie's "American dad" and you hit the nail perfectly. I was aware of the documentary and in fact paid to send Katie to the San Francisco pageant and did so with joy for Katie. In addition to what you had to say, Katie is inquisitive, witty, caring and a very quick learner. She has learned to avoid the petty politics involved in the Chinese pageants and makes all of us proud. She works for my company, after just completing 6 months dancing in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, and is an integral & important part of my firm. You picked a wonderful person for your documentary. Good for you, Ms Huang.

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