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The State | COLUMN ONE

Tiaras, Sashes, Diversity

For Angela Chao Roberson, who's black and Chinese, vying for Miss Chinatown isn't about breaking barriers. It's about winning.

April 22, 2006|Jia-Rui Chong | 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."

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."

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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.

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