Chinese New Year: Pageant helps build character 

click to enlarge Shirley Liu, who moved from China to South San Francisco about eight years ago, was named Miss San Francisco Chinatown last year. That honor allowed her to make public appearances, including with Mayor Ed Lee. - JESSICA KWONG/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Jessica Kwong/The S.F. Examiner
  • Shirley Liu, who moved from China to South San Francisco about eight years ago, was named Miss San Francisco Chinatown last year. That honor allowed her to make public appearances, including with Mayor Ed Lee.
Like many Chinese immigrants, when Mengying Liu moved from China to South San Francisco at age 15, she did not know a word of English — and got laughed at by some of her peers.

Liu, now 23 and goes by Shirley, was one of two contestants in last year’s Miss Chinatown U.S.A. Pageant from China. The rest were American-born Chinese. Liu remembers feeling confident about her performance in the opening dance, swimsuit competition and nailing her talent — traditional Chinese dance that she learned since she was five years old — but being really worried about the question-and-answer portion.

Judges asked Liu to describe the word “bitter” as part of the pageant theme of four tastes, the other three being sweet, sour and spicy. For a moment, she froze. “I knew what I was going to say, but I was kind of nervous because I don’t really like to talk in public,” Liu said. “I think I said ‘bitter’ is a path to success. I think that’s what you’re going to go through before success.”

To Liu’s surprise, she was crowned Miss San Francisco Chinatown. The honor brought her not only recognition within The City’s Chinese community, but amity from the girls she spent weeks rehearsing with and who spoke perfect English.

“When I first arrived from China, I felt bitter because I was kind of lonely and missed my friends and family,” Liu said. “The girls in the pageant were really friendly and we’re all friends now still.”

Liu’s family emigrated from the city of Dalian, in northeast China, when she was a freshman in high school because they wanted their daughter to learn American culture.

“English is international and she can have a better future here, I think,” said Liu’s mother, Dan Dan Zhang, 47.

click to enlarge For this year’s pageant, Liu is helping contestants with their dance moves. - JESSICA KWONG/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Jessica Kwong/The S.F. Examiner
  • For this year’s pageant, Liu is helping contestants with their dance moves.
Still, Liu chose Chinese traditional dance — what she performed on TV in China as a child — as her talent in the pageant because she wanted to promote Chinese culture in the U.S. For two months leading up to the competition last year, she practiced at a studio in the Richmond for two hours daily, six days per week. It’s what she has always felt most confident about.

But Liu’s task for the pageant, which was held Saturday — choreographing the opening dance for the new contestants — took her out of her usual comfort zone. “This is the first time I really teach people to dance in such a big event,” Liu said a couple weeks before the pageant.

As Miss San Francisco Chinatown, Liu, normally shy, became accustomed to talking in public events around San Francisco despite having a different accent from American-born Chinese.

Now a senior at San Francisco State University majoring in business with a focus on marketing, she constantly applies one lesson she learned from last year’s pageant: “You have to be yourself and do your best.”

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Bio:
Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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