The personal problem I had when reading “The Queen of the Chinese Colony”—that as a self-identified member of the Chinese diaspora, I did not feel like either Miss Honduras or Miss Costa Rica could represent me—however trivial or idiosyncratic, is indicative of a larger dilemma in studies of diaspora: the inadequacy of representation. As Lok Siu explains, the Chinese diaspora in Central America and Panama is comprised of multiple groups of immigrants from different regions in Mainland China and Taiwan, who encompass different timelines and histories of immigration. Though most members of this diaspora share Spanish as a common language, the experience of Central American-ness (in addition to that of Chinese-ness) is different for members of the diaspora in each of the six countries that participate in the Federation of Chinese Associations.
Given the multiplicity of identities, it makes sense that convention attendants had such heated and emotional reactions to choosing an ideal representative Queen. After all, as Siu intimates, “What is at stake in the beauty contest involves not only who gets to represent the Chinese diaspora, but also what qualities are deemed to be idealized characteristics of that diaspora” (75). The choice of Queen, then, is a means of providing voice and agency (however limited) to members of a diaspora who are trying to shape and define their identity.
The attendee’s reactions and Siu’s reading the pageant through the lens of representational politics both bring to the forefront several questions about a pervading anxiety regarding representative figures in diasporic discourse. Much of the debate surrounding works of Asian American literature, for example, centers on the limits of its representational abilities. Korean American readers were irate at So Far from the Bamboo Grove for its demonization of Koreans and insufficient condemnation of Japanese war crimes, while the Japanese American author of the book apologized but maintained that her novel represented an autobiographical experience. Often, these debates between public and private, individual and collective, stem from a conscious knowledge that public choices made by individuals in a marginalized group inform and are consumed by an outsider audience.
If this is the case, however, what is the purpose of representation in the Queen of the Chinese Colony pageant, a contest that seems largely geared towards a diasporic audience? By nature, a “representative” not only speaks for a body, but also implies that the body for which it speaks is necessarily separate from other bodies with potentially competing interests. Are non-Chinese Panamanians, a potential outsider body, aware of the Queen and the implications of her victory? Is the pageant supposed to determine Chinese-ness for the Chinese or for Panamanians? Moreover, Siu suggests that the attendees are hyperaware of the complex politics behind immigrant identity, and that different Chinese immigrant groups vie for primacy, but what are the actual political gains from this victory, especially if the men who organize and judge the pageant stay the same?