A row of identical pink suitcases are lined up alongside a dance studio wall. Inside each are killer silver heels, make-up palettes, curling tongs and the arsenal 10 young women need to duke it out for a pageant title.
The title in question is the Miss Chinese Cosmos Pageant. A virtual unknown in South Africa, it enjoys great prestige in China and in the regions where the Chinese diaspora has fanned out, including South-east Asia, the Middle East, the Americas and Australia. It’s the only beauty pageant that takes place in China every year.
It’s also the first time pageant organisers have cast their gaze on Africa and local organisers have managed to coax just 20 girls to enter. South African organisers had to ask for 5cm to be knocked off the 1.7m height requirement or they would have found even fewer contestants.
One week before the curtain raiser, a Johannesburg dance studio is the opportunity for a dry run. The 10 finalists line up in an arc, taking turns to parade forwards to the centre. They introduce themselves in a mix of English and Mandarin. English isn’t essential, the Mandarin matters more, and every girl gives it a shot even if it’s just to say ni hao, a simple greeting. The Chinese South Africans trip up on the pronunciation, their accents laden with awkward affectations.
Kelly Murphy stands out. She has only the slightest hint of being Chinese. Her mother Berenice Murphy watches as her daughter, who’s a part-time model and University of the Witwatersrand student, strides forward in a swish of tulle and satin.
“I didn’t encourage her to enter. I know not being so-called pure Chinese is probably going to be a disadvantage,” says Berenice, herself half-Chinese, half-coloured and married to Kelly’s Irish father.
She quickly adds: “That’s when Kelly said it’s exactly why she would enter. And, with her Irish blood, she made the height requirement easily.”
Murphy delivers her introduction. Her grandfather, she says, was Chinese and the pageant has sparked her interest in her Chinese heritage.
At 20, she’s a born-free, the Immorality Act, colour bars and the disadvantage of being mixed-race should, officially at least, belong to her mother’s time. But her mother is worried. The pageant proclaims its goal as “helping global Chinese come closer and to set a new standard of beauty for modern Chinese woman, revered for her beauty, compassion, vigour, fortitude and intelligence” and they say they are not after a Chinese national necessarily but someone with Chinese ancestry, drawn from the “cosmos” of its modern diaspora. Berenice isn’t sure it extends to her part-Chinese daughter.
She may have reason to be concerned. In 2009, China was plunged into heated debate over a mixed-race finalist in a Chinese talent show. Lou Jing, born to a Chinese mother and an African-American father and raised solely by her mother, became known as the Black Pearl and the target of China’s racial intolerance.
The South African contestants are a mixed bag. There are second- and third-generation South Africans who speak little or no Mandarin, or even Cantonese, the language their parents would have grown up with. There are Chinese nationals, like Vivian Wang (21), who arrived in the country as a 16-year-old from Fujian and others who are the South African-born children of migrants who arrived in the post-1994 wave of migrants.
“We’ve all managed to get along as a group and we have helped each other. Chinese girls are generally just a lot friendlier,” says Tayla Lai Thom. The 22-year-old University of Pretoria student is third-generation South African. She doesn’t speak Chinese but she knows her skin colour speaks volumes.
She says: “I am proud of being Chinese and I think my Chinese ethnicity is an advantage.”
Being Chinese in Africa in a time when China’s footprint is enlarging on the continent holds its own agency. South Africa’s biggest trading partner today is China and the South African beauty pageant organiser, Sandy Huang, says the fact there is now an African regional finals marks a turning point for the community.
“You can only have a pageant in a society that has a stable, relatively prosperous community,” she says in Cantonese, herself a recent arrival, having married a Chinese South African. Huang adds that she tried canvassing for contestants in the rest of Africa. There were none.
“All the responses came back with ‘never mind finding a pretty girl, we can hardly find a girl here’,” Huang says, with a laugh.
New waves of migrants to South Africa over the past 20-odd years has boosted the numbers of Chinese in the country, estimated to total about 300 000 today. It’s from this sector of the community that Huang sought sponsorship for the local pageant. The pageant’s rights are held by Phoenix Satellite TV, with its head offices in Hong Kong.
A week later and finals day arrives. The Lyric Theatre at the Gold Reef City Casino in Jo’burg fills up noisily and the prime seats are reserved for judges, sponsors and representatives from the South African government. Political alliances are key to the success of many new Chinese migrants.
Behind the curtain, the finalists are fretting. They all have plasters on blistered, aching feet. Someone calls out for a safety pin, someone else needs a false eyelash attached, and someone else tugs one last time at a strapless gown.
Then it’s action time. Two MCs take to the stage, conducting proceedings mostly in Mandarin. The finalists go through the motions in their evening gowns, in bikinis and in cheongsam, the traditional Chinese dress. They smile, remember the choreography, and speak earnestly about plastic surgery – “even if money was not an object, I wouldn’t use plastic surgery to change a single thing about me” – filial piety and promoting cultural exchange between China and Africa. Always they remember to smile.
One MC takes a swipe at the finalists who don’t understand Mandarin. He shakes his head. His ridicule is veiled by his Mandarin but evident in the guffaws from the audience.
Africa’s first winner
But the show goes on. The girls put their weeks of practice into action. They have rehearsed their answers, they don’t trip over their flowing gowns and, yes, they remember to smile. The curtain drops once more as the judges deliberate. The winner will walk off with R100 000, a trip to China to represent the region and the title as Africa’s first Miss Chinese Cosmos.
There is a drum roll and the lights flicker with dramatic effect, then the winner is announced – it’s Kelly Murphy.
“I did think that not being Chinese would be a disadvantage; but I never thought I would win,” she says.
Berenice is shocked; she is also beaming. Murphy’s win defines the purists, the pejoratives and the prejudices. She will go to China and find out a bit more about her grandfather and the DNA she has inherited.
“I’m definitely going to have to brush up on some Mandarin before I go to China,” says Kelly, flashing a perfect smile. “I have the feeling that this is just the beginning of the journey for me.”