Former Miss Chinatown USA to reign over Chinese New Year parade

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- When this year's San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade kicks off on Feb. 11, June Gong Chin, the nation's first Miss Chinatown USA, is expected to light the ceremonial string of 30,000 firecrackers and riding in the procession.

Gong Chin, who now lives in San Francisco, is used to being in the spotlight. She is in her 80s and still has the megawatt smile she had when she won the crown back in 1958.

"Here's the picture," she said as she pulled a black and white photo out of the pages of an old leather scrapbook.

The old photos and newspaper clippings provide insight into one part of June Gong Chin's history. Her life is also part of Chinese American history.

"This was the moment on the outside stage," she said pointing to the photo of then-San Francisco Mayor George Christopher pinning the tiara on her head.

Beauty queen was never one of her life goals.

The young co-ed from the University of New Hampshire was a fresh-faced 22-year-old who grew up in Miami.

"My mommy and daddy came (and) they'd never been to California before," she said. "It was such a blessing (and) I thought what an honor, especially coming from a place where there were no Chinese."

Her parents operated a grocery store in a poor section of Miami and she was the youngest of five children.

"We all grew up working in the grocery store, stacking things," she said.

When Gong Chin went to college, though, her friends convinced her to enter the Miss New Hampshire pageant. She would go on to compete in the Miss Chinatown New York pageant and the Miss Chinatown USA contest.

She had a fever the night before the pageant, but managed to pull through.

"I'd already been in the Miss New Hampshire contest so it was kind of like a run and so I did the same modern dance. That was my talent," she said with a wry smile.

She says she didn't speak Cantonese or even know what her name meant until she said it on stage -- and people in the audience laughed.

"What is your Chinese name and I said Ju Jun Tai and everybody roared," she said.

Her father had never explained that as the youngest of three girls her name translated into "turn the next child into a boy."

June Gong married P.Q. Chin, a prominent structural engineer whose firm Chin & Hensolt Engineers, Inc. worked to build Candlestick Park, an IBM building, the General Motors/NUMMI auto plant in Fremont, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and dozens of other stores, schools and buildings around the world.

He died in 2010 and is survived by her, their two daughters and three grandchildren.

Gong Chin says over the years she has encountered racial and gender discrimination, but says she doesn't let it bother her. She is quick to offer advice to young people.

"There's not one soul who doesn't have a hard time," she said. "And so you have to look at that as I'll get through it and I'll be better for it," she said.

She said the Chinese New Year's Parade is an important celebration that focuses attention on the community's rich history while celebrating the joy of being Chinese American.

"God bless America," June sang, spreading her arms wide and belting out the song with a smile, "my home sweet home."

By KTVU reporter Jana Katsuyama.