The first beauty pageant that June Gong Chin ’58 won earned her $500, a portable TV, a transistor radio and 25 pounds of Chinese sausage. Her title: Miss Chinatown New York 1957. A sausage maker was one of the pageant sponsors.
Chin had been a reluctant entrant. All she’d wanted was a weekend in New York City with her sister Lillian Gong, a medical researcher at NYU. But Gong’s friends persuaded Chin to enter, going so far as to buy her a plane ticket when she said she couldn’t stay because she had to drive back to UNH to get to class on time.
“School was my priority,” Chin says.
It was October; she remembers because it was Double Ten Day, or National Day, the holiday that celebrates the founding of the People’s Republic of China, held annually on Oct. 10. Chin was wearing a cheongsam (a short Chinese dress with a slit up the side) and borrowed high heels.
“It was freezing standing up on that stage,” she says. “They interviewed us in Chinese and found out mine was lacking. Being the third of three daughters, my dear parents gave me the Chinese name Jun Tai, which means ‘turn next child into a son.’ As a result, in the Chinese interview, responding with my Chinese name resulted in a roar of laughter.”
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Chin was born and raised in Miami. Two of her siblings became doctors, another an attorney and the other, a teacher. Chin, a home economics major, planned on teaching.
“My father always stressed the importance of education,” Chin says. A scholarship made UNH affordable but there was a secondary reason Chin decided to come to Durham. It was the chance to make her own way.
“I was the youngest of five siblings whose exceptional trails pioneered new heights,” she says. “From kindergarten to senior high school, teachers asked me, ‘June, are you going to be as outstanding as your sisters and brother?’”
A popular student, Chin was class secretary her freshman, sophomore and senior years and a member of Alpha Chi Omega. She was named Miss Freshman of 1955 and was the varsity football queen in 1956. The following year, she was first runner up in the 1957 Miss New Hampshire contest and tied for Miss Congeniality.
“So get this, here’s this Chinese girl from a little town in Miami and she’s first runner up, Miss New Hampshire 1957? Me? Really? I couldn’t believe it,” Chin says.
In 1958, again at the urging of others, Chin entered the first-ever Miss Chinatown USA competition—and won. Up until then, the pageant had been limited to young women from San Francisco, where the pageant was held. That year, however, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce decided to open the contest to women from all over the country. Chin’s argument against entering because she’d miss classes was lost when she learned the contest was taking place in February, during winter break.
For the talent segment of the pageant, Chin, who was president of the UNH dance club, performed a modern dance to George Shearing’s “A Foggy Day in London Town.” She also had to answer questions in English and Chinese. (There was no swimsuit competition.)
After graduating that June, Chin traveled around the country and represented the United States abroad in the Far East.
Settling in San Francisco, Chin spent two years working at the California Food Research Institute before marrying Poo Quong Chin, a prominent structural engineer and president and CEO of Chin & Hensolt Engineers, the company behind San Francisco’s TransAmerica Pyramid and Candlestick Park. Once their two daughters were grown, Chin went on to have a second career as an interior decorator.
“It always tickles me to think about; I never would have entered a contest in my life,” Chin says. “It was so serendipitous. Here’s this little girl who only went to New Hampshire to go to school and all this happened.”
Originally published in UNH Magazine Spring 2016 Issue
I know June Chin through my parents. June, or "AJ" (Auntie June) as she lets me call her, is such an amazing example of love, care, concern and generosity! She was present and available in very hard times, and she is celebrative and supportive in the very good times. I love my "AJ." What an amazing life she has led filled with love and humility! I'm so privileged and blessed to know her and to be loved by her. I thank my God, Jesus Christ, for June Chin.
— Jon Neuenschwander
I've known June since 1949. We went to Jr. High and High School together. She's always brightened any room she entered. Simply, a wonderful person. I for one am not surprised she went on to achieve whatever she put her mind to. It's wonderful after these many years we are still in contact with one another.
— Pat Deene
I remember June. She was beautiful and congenial. It was interesting to know how her life is unfolding.
— Catherine Trombly Latham '58
This is well written article that taught me something new about my new friend and mentor June Chin! She's a joy to be around, I can see how she won so many pageants!
— Deborah Johnson