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From iconic beauty queens to ordinary TV artists

By Teenie Ho

For those who grew up in Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s, the annual Miss Hong Kong Pageant was one of the biggest entertainment events of the year.  Families sat around television sets at home, rooting for their personal favourites and sharing in her joy or disappointment at the result. The next day, those results would be discussed in school, at work and on the streets.

Some young women and girls looked up to the beauties on the screen and imagined being in their place, waving elegantly at the audiences, or representing Hong Kong in international beauty competitions and getting a start in the glamorous entertainment industry.

But Hong Kong society has changed since 1973 when Television Broadcast Limited (TVB) first broadcast the pageant. Instead of rushing to wait for the show to start, Hongkongers are just as likely to be channel surfing while the show is on. Today Miss Hong Kong contestants can seem like old-fashioned throwbacks rather than iconic stars.

Winners of Miss Hong Kong Pageant 2013 celebrate after the ceremony

Acca Shum Kwai-ching, one of the top 10 finalists of the Miss Hong Kong Pageant 2013 says the image of Miss Hong Kong has been declining in recent years.  She thinks that rather than a competition for physical beauty and grace, today’s pagaents are a vehicle to recruit attractive young women for the entertainment industry. “The ultimate goal for TVB in the Pageant is to search for potential artists,” Shum says, “I can tell that if the girl is not keen on acting or doesn’t fit the profile of what TVB is looking for, she is less likely to win.”

Although TVB still presents Miss Hong Kong as a paragon of beauty and wisdom, it is increasingly difficult to sell this carefully constructed image to viewers. Compared to classic beauty queens, such as Loletta Chu Ling-ling and Olivia Cheng Man-nga in the 1970s and 1980s, the winners of Miss Hong Kong in the 21st century seem to lack mystique. In the past, winners would spend their year-long “reign” as unofficial ambassadors for Hong Kong, taking part in international competitions and charity activities. Now, they are immediately trained to be actors in TV dramas or as presenters for entertainment shows. In other words, they are not much different from other newcomers in the TV industry.

Veronica Shiu Pui-sie,  Miss Hong Kong 2014, disagrees that the contest is simply a means to find entertainment industry recruits. “I think the winner of each year represents that particular year,” she explains, “and to do that she should use her own way to display both her inner and outer beauty.” Shiu says the audience’s definition of beauty varies over time and amiability now seems to be a more important virtue for beauty queens.

Emphasising the personality of the contestants, today’s production teams try to establish a more approachable image of Miss Hong Kong and contestants are given more individual time to express themselves in front of the cameras and interact with the audience. They often speak to their fans through social media, posting selfies, behind-the-scene details about the pageant preparations and updates from their daily lives. Through blogs and platforms like Facebook they are encouraged to get fans to post messages of support.

Beauty pageants have long been seen as a commercial gimmick for the Hong Kong TV industry to attract the public’s attention, and that extra attention can in turn be monetized. Different companies sponsor the jewellery and luxury goods for the contestants during the broadcast to maximise publicity, while the TV companies sell commercial time during the live competition.

Professor Wong Wai-ching, co-director of the Gender Research Centre of Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, says the TV industry still sees pageants as money-spinners but “classic elegance” is no longer seen as a selling point.

“It’s not like the quality of the contestant in the past was exceptionally better when compared to the present. It’s just a matter of how the producer packages the competition,” Wong explains.

Wong says cultural changes in the past few decades have contributed to the shrinking popularity of beauty pageants. In e late 20th century Hong Kong, there were fewer opportunities for women since they rarely received higher education.  Being in front of millions of viewers on TV was considered to be a tremendous achievement at that time.

“It was not only the contestants who looked forward to the opportunity to climb up the social ladder. Even the audiences were excited to see how average girls went from rags to riches in one night,” she says.

Iconic Miss Hong Kongs like Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Loletta Chu Ling-ling either earned great fame in the movie industry, or married wealthy husbands. Both of these were seen as something to aspire to. Their successes made people recognise beauty contests as an effective channel for women to develop their “careers”.

But as women became better educated and had more career choices, beauty queens began to lose their symbolic status. Even for those who want to enter the entertainment industry, beauty pageants are not the only or even best way to get a foot in the door. A variety of talent shows and artist training programmes are available which lower the value of joining the competition.

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Mok Ho-yan accepts her crown

Witnessing how the nature of beauty contests has changed in the past two decades, Mok Ho-yan, Miss Hong Kong of 1993, links the decline of beauty pageants to the rise of sensationalist tabloid-style media and public scrutiny of contestants’ personal lives.

“In the past, the daily lives of Miss Hong Kongs were kept very secret and they felt like a mystery to the public,” Mok recalls. “The public admired and idolised them because they hardly knew these gorgeous celebrities.”

Today, the private lives of Miss Hong Kongs are constantly exposed and the public may lose interest once their mysterious aura is removed and they are shown to be not that different to the rest of us.

To sell newspapers and magazines, some paparazzi may exaggerate any negative news associated with the contestants and use wording full of sexual innuendo and titillation. Mok believes the image of classic beauty has been degraded as a result and the public’s attention has been deflected from the contestants’ performances in the competition.

Unlike the more restrained media coverage in the past, the paparazzi will now wait outside TVB City on the day applications are accepted to get a first glimpse of the contestants. The private lives of both the contestants and their families are served up to the public once they sign up for the pageant.

Eric Tsang Chi-wai, who hosted Miss Hong Kong from 1992 to 2012, thinks the beauty pageant has become less appealing to young Hong Kong women as they do not want to become the focus of gossip.

Having hosted the show for 20 years, Tsang says falling production values is another reason for the decline of beauty pageants in Hong Kong. “The preparation of Miss Hong Kong Pageant was one year long in the past and the producer was not allowed to get involved in other programmes,” he explains. “But now, the production team cannot concentrate since they only have one week to get ready while dealing with other shows.”

Tsang recalls that in the past, TVB put much weight on the competition and the producers competed against each other to be in charge of this significant event. The live performances were very glamorous and extravagant with themes like Ancient Dunhuang, Exotic Egyptians and Caribbean Pirates.

With limited budgets and fewer producers in recent years, TVB tried to spice up the programme by introducing the public voting system in 2012. Viewers cast their vote online for one of three finalists chosen by the judges. But the poll turned into a debacle when viewers were left unable to vote because of a server breakdown and the winner was picked by judges instead.

The voting results in the next two years were also controversial, with some viewers unhappy that celebrity judges had too much power in pre-selecting the candidates. Eric Tsang admits that the voting system leaves much to be desired and blames a lack of pre-show publicity. “The voting system works in other talents shows because the audiences get to see contestants for few weeks on TV and genuinely wish their favourite to win,” he says, “How can the public vote when they barely know the girls?”

The audiences cannot feel committed to the show, let alone connected to the contestants. Erica Yuen Mi-ming, one of the five finalists of Miss Hong Kong Pageant 2005, says the show’s format has failed to catch up with the changes in Hongkongers’ lifestyle. “It’s not exciting for the audiences to watch a two-hour show with the exact same format as that of 30 years ago,” Yuen points out.

Yuen thinks viewers expect more from both the programme and the beauty queens. To showcase the contestants’ sophistication in the hope of improving their image, she suggests including questions on current affairs and politics in the Q&A session; or giving contestants more time to speak during the live show.

Although viewers are switching off from beauty pageants in Hong Kong, Yuen believes they still have a value that is worth preserving. “Admiring beautiful things is in human nature and there is always entertainment potential in beauty pageants. It’s the format and style we need to change,” she says.

Edited by Vivian Lai