'Queer' Chinese-American Wins Pageant, Defies Stereotypes

Mr. Hyphen, a signature event of Hyphen magazine, celebrates Asian-American men who are committed to strengthening their communities through a contest structured like a beauty pageant. The prize is a $1000 donation to the winner's nonprofit organization. Host Michel Martin speaks with winner Kyle Chu, a self-proclaimed "queer Chinese-American and San Francisco native," to learn why he chose to compete, how gender and racial stereotypes have affected him personally, and what social changes he strives to accomplish for the Asian-American community.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, another conversation with a genius. Jason Moran is known for expanding the boundaries of jazz music. He's our latest Wisdom Watch conversation. We've been visiting with some of the most recent winners of the MacArthur Fellowship, to pick their brains about creativity, their ideas and whatever else makes them tick. We're trying to see if the genius might be contagious. That's in a just a few minutes.

But first, we want to tell you about another winner, this time of, well, I guess you could call it a beauty contest for men - and for Asian-American men, at that. But maybe that's not surprising because Hyphen magazine, which sponsors the contest, is all about turning stereotypes about Asian-Americans inside out. And this weekend's Mr. Hyphen contest did just that.

Unidentified Woman: The winner of Mr. Hyphen 2010 is Kyle Chu.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Mr. Hyphen 2010 describes himself as a queer, 4th generation Chinese- American from San Francisco. He's a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College. He won with a silky smooth introductory video, high marks for his drag performance in the talent competition and for his ability to look good and smart in the fashion competition and a question-and-answer session in front of an audience at San Francisco's Brava Theater. And Kyle Chu joins us now.

Welcome and congratulations.

KYLE CHU: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here today.

MARTIN: How are you describing the contest? I mean, I didn't feel right about beauty contest, but I didn't know what else to say, 'cause beauty is part of it - or handsomeness. How did you describe it, and why did you want to participate?

CHU: The reason I applied is I can actually attribute it to a really positive internship experience with the Center for Asian-American Media, which is the organization I represented. I wanted to show my appreciation for them in proportions larger than a fruitcake, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Okay.

CHU: And so I feel like Hyphen was a great fit for that because Hyphen magazine and the Center for Asian-American Media have parallel mission statements in that they both want to attest to that diversity of the Asian- American experience.

MARTIN: Well, you had a lot going on in your performance, and in the talent competition, you decided to do a drag performance, right? To the song by Queen called "Don't Stop Me Now." We'll just play a short clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP ME NOW")

MARTIN: What were you going for here?

CHU: Well, I remember the day I found out I had become a finalist, and I was sitting on the bus listening to Queen on my iPod. And I was thinking: You know what would be really me is if I dressed in drag for it and did a little dance number. And I decided, you know, that was the truest thing to myself. So that's what I decided to do. Not to mention the fact that I studied drag back in college, and it's a queer tradition that tries to draw attention to the fact that gender and gender roles are, in fact, learned and not inherent. And I wanted to show that there's more than one way to be masculine, and you can be a sexy man in a wig, too.

MARTIN: In your introductory video - which you mentioned that all the entrants this year had to present a video as part of their application. And one of the things you talked about is the imagery of Asian-Americans in popular media. I have a question - that you talked about the chicken-wielding immigrant who's barking in broken English. You really think that that's all there is now? You know, I don't know. I mean, obviously, most minority groups, women - I really don't know who really likes his or her portrayal in Hollywood. But I am wondering why you really feel, is it that present an issue, still?

CHU: I really do think it's that present an issue. I actually studied a lot of media representations of Asian-Americans in college. And I found that a lot of them stem from the war era: World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, et cetera, et cetera. And I feel like these stereotypes have, in fact, mutated and acclimated to whatever is socially viable at the time. So there is much work to be done.

MARTIN: How do you think - or do you think this has affected your own life?

CHU: It's mostly affected me socially, and it's kind of colored the roles my friends or people I've just met expect me to fit.

MARTIN: Really? Like how? Can you give an example?

CHU: Yes. This was one of the questions in the question-and-answer portion of the pageant. And the story I shared is very personal to me and I consider it a huge watershed in my life. So, when I was a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence, I was dating a guy who happened to be white and we were in a rather intimate situation when he called me a chink.

MARTIN: Wow.

CHU: And at the time, I just remember my visceral reaction, because we were very physically close, was to shove him off me. I was already appalled that he'd even use that word, but I think the fact that he was right there in front of me made it even more psychically damaging.

MARTIN: Why do you think he thought he could say that to you?

CHU: My best guess is that it's about the media he's consumed or some sort of strange dynamic I didn't really pick up on because it totally came out of left field.

MARTIN: Wow. I'm sorry to hear that.

CHU: Yeah. So, basically, I was really upset and I was confounded, bewildered and most of all, I felt really unarmed. And I had a ton of things to say to him, to yell at him, but none of it came out. And I didn't want to feel unarmed again. I had this immediate urge to read everything I could get my hands on, so, God forbid, if something like this happens again, I would have, I guess an arsenal of knowledge to defend myself with - so I could say something.

MARTIN: Hmm.

CHU: And it was at that point in my college career that I got really into Asian-American studies. And I felt, every piece I read, I was regaining parts of myself that I didn't even know I was without. And I think, in finding Asian- American studies, I really found myself.

MARTIN: Wow. Thank you for that.

CHU: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: So what are you going to do with your reign as Mr. Hyphen?

CHU: I'd like to draw attention not only to the Center for Asian-American Media and their various events and projects, but also a lot of other Asian- American arts organizations, especially ones that spotlight those who may not have a lot of media coverage, such as, you know, queer emerging artists or maybe Southeast Asian artists or biracial artists.

MARTIN: Well, good luck. If you're ever out our way we'd love to see you.

CHU: Okay.

MARTIN: All right. Kyle Chu is the winner of Mr. Hyphen 2010. That is a charity pageant competition that challenges stereotypes of Asian-American males. He's also a member of the Center for Asian-American Media. And Kyle Chu was kind enough to join us from our member station KQED in San Francisco.

Thank you again, and congratulations.

CHU: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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