Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Miss Asian American Colorado Leadership Program: not a typical a “beauty pageant”
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Miss Asian American Colorado Leadership Program: not a typical a “beauty pageant”

Erika Tanaka won the crown as Miss Asian American Colorado 2009.Congratulations to Erika Tanaka, the young Japanese and Vietnamese American woman who won the second annual Miss Asian American Colorado Leadership Program‘s Finale Show last night. The tiara was there, along with the glitz and glamor.

But there was no swimsuit competition, and no one mentioned “world peace.”

This is no ordinary beauty pageant.

The program is all about leadership and community service — the inner beauty that the 17 contestants all displayed on the stage (yes, it’s a cliche, but these woman all have inner beauty, in spades). Erin and I were impressed with all of the contestants when they shared their community service projects, and also impressed with many of their talent segments.

Our favorites included what might be expected performances for this kind of event: Abhinetri Ramaswani’s singing on a lovely, hypnotic Indian classical song, accompanied by a musician on tablas; Lana Nguyen’s performance of a melancholy Vietnamese folksong.

But we also enjoyed the performances that showed the “American” side of these Asian American women: Giane Morris’ self-penned rock song (complete with a full electric band backing her) about the death of her brother; several spoken word performances including Nguyen Nguyen’s passionate poem about her identity, “Beautiful Things”; and several hip-hop dance routines, including a very cool, intricately choreographed duet by Laila Nguyen.

There were several non-traditional talents displayed in an entertaining way, including cooking pad Thai, making lotus flowers out of colored napkins, and most notably, a demonstration of the sport of curling (really).

Tanaka, the winner, spoke eloquently about her project to help raise the issue of suicide within the Asian American community — a seldom-talked-about, taboo subject. Her talent performance was a showcase of taiko drumming, not a surprise to us, since we’ve known her for years as a member of the popular local taiko group, Mirai Daiko.

The panel of seven judges, which included 2008 Congressional candidate Hank Eng, Colorado’s Asian Pacific American Bar Association president, Dennis Kaw, and Denver fashion designer/entepreneur Brandi Shigley, must have been wowed by her articulate answers to questions about her service project, and then bowled over by her taiko performance.

The power of the Miss Asian American Colorado Leadership Program isn’t just in the finale and the crowning of the “Queen” — the event is much more interesting and deeper conceptually than any typical beauty pageant, on multiple levels.

First and foremost, it battles the emphasis on objectification of Asian women (and women in general) by avoiding the “sexier” aspects of pageantry. While a competing local pageant features its contestants in bikinis, Miss AACO sticks to talent and social activism.

The event was conceived by and is produced by a small group of young AAPIs, led by Annie Guo, the twenty-something President of Asian Avenue Magazine and director of Miss AACO, and her friend and event Chair, Kenneth Quan Phi. Helping the two are a handful of friends, family and contestants from last year’s inaugural Miss AACO.

In fact, it’s a testament to Guo and Phi’s vision for the event — to create a lasting network of professional AAPI women as the contestants go on from their college years and succeed in the corporate world — that powerful bonds were formed last year, and the 2008 women helped in the planning of this year’s event, and served as “Big Sister” mentors for the new contestants.

Last year, the event drew 400 and uncomfortably packed a small hotel ballroom, because Annie and company hadn’t expected such a turnout. This year, the troupe moved the show to the theater at Teikyo Loretto Heights University (appropriate setting, a Japanese-owned college for an AAPI event), an auditorium that holds 1,000, and got more than 700 to the event.

The program’s emphasis on community service isn’t just lip service. Not only are the women required to articulate a service project (several were focused on Asian community health issues, and a couple planned to fight poverty in the Philippines) that they can complete in the year after they’re crowned, they get involved in community projects during the run-up to the finale show, and many will continue after last night. As a group, the women volunteered at Safehouse Denver, the 9News HealthFair, and a Habitat for Humanity project. But they also were teamed up in smaller groups with “Big Sister” contestants from last year, and worked with a handful of area community non-profits.

The Miss AACO program is also dedicated to being inclusive, and Guo and her compadres go out of their way to invite participants from as many ethnic communities as possible. This year, eight ethnicities were represented, including Hmong, Vietnamese, Mongolian, Indian and Filipino as well as Japanese, Chinese and Korean. The communities got behind their contestants and emcees Kim Nguyen and Joneil Custodio got the crowds pumped up by asking each community to “represent” themselves in the auditorium. By volume, the Filipinos, Hmong and Vietnamese were the frontrunners.

It was a long evening — the event started at 6:30 and didn’t end until well past 10 pm — but it was a powerful expression of the area’s Asian American Pacific Islander communities. The only other event that generates the same kind of spirit for me, is the annual Colorado Dragon Boat Festival. That event’s going to celebrate its tenth anniversary next year.

It’s hard to imagine how big and visible, and important, Miss AACO will be in that time.