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1st San Francisco Miss Chinatown still breaking barriers at age 99

1st San Francisco Miss Chinatown still inspires at age 99
1st San Francisco Miss Chinatown still inspires at age 99 03:34

SAN FRANCISCO -- A native San Franciscan who became the first Miss Chinatown 76 years ago recently received a sparkling new crown.

Penny Wong is royalty in Chinese American history. The 99-year-old current San Mateo County resident was crowned queen at the first Miss Chinatown beauty pageant in 1948.

She said she hadn't planned on entering the contest, the Chinese American version of the Miss America pageant, organized by civil rights group Chinese American Citizens Alliance.

"One lady came up and asked me, 'Why don't you join them?' 'Oh, all right.' So I did," Wong said.

Penny Wong
Penny Wong was crowned queen at the first Miss Chinatown beauty pageant in 1948. KPIX

She found herself breaking barriers. After all, it was a big deal to parade in a bathing suit when you're not swimming. But she became known for taking chances.

"I was surprised that I won. Honest, I was surprised," she said.

Suddenly, she got invited to a lot of parties.

"I don't call myself a celebrity. I'm just like everybody else," she laughed. "I just had a little more fun, that's all."

She paved the way for younger women like Cynthia Yee, Miss Chinatown San Francisco 1967, who admired Wong's boldness and confidence.

"She was the first to be in a bathing suit to win a contest. That was a no-no in 1948," Yee said. "She just made important strides and steps for Chinese American women."
Those women include Yee's group, the Grant Avenue Follies. The dancing senior citizens who call themselves "GLAM-mahs" from San Francisco's golden age.

They recently honored Wong with a *crystal* crown to replace the now-discarded paper one that came with her title. 

"It's been a long time. She deserves a crystal crown, don't you think?" Yee smiled.

After winning Miss Chinatown, Wong did office work and some modeling. The native San Franciscan married her late husband, Andy and had three children. The couple also owned a nightclub, the Sky Room and other businesses in Chinatown where she lived most of her life.

"She definitely is a role model for all Chinese American women in her life, having children, having a career, having a business and encouraging everybody to get out and live," said Yee.

Wong chuckled, "I had a lot of fun and to this day I still have a lot of fun."

These days, Wong holds court with her younger friends on the Grant Avenue Follies whom she has supported for years. With age, Wong has experienced some hearing and memory loss but she still plays a mean game of poker, exercises and loves to laugh.

The mother of three also has five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

What's her secret to long life?

"Drink a lot of water," she laughed.

It's no secret that the first Miss Chinatown still reigns when it comes to living life to the fullest.

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