by Alain Deng
Plane ticket? Check. Dazzling outfits? Check. Perfect hand-waving technique? Check.
In May, I packed my bags and headed west to the great, beautiful, diverse city of Oakland, California, to compete in the inaugural Mr. Hyphen Pageant.Â Yes, you heard me right.Â A male pageant!Â Tongue firmly in cheek, the event was sponsored by Hyphen Magazine, a grassroots publication on issues of interest to the Asian American community.
The publishers of Mr. Hyphen wanted to create an event âwhich recognizes the importance of arts and activist organizations in the Asian American community. [An event] that spotlights some of the great work they do, and some of the great people who do it. It also involves men strutting the stage in their jimmies, one of whom will win a rhinestone belt. Yes, friends, tonight, weâll be exploding Asian Americaâs best-kept secret: our men, who save the world without taking themselves too seriously â who quick-change from suit to spandex and make it all look good.â?
Howâs that for setting expectations?
Walking into the Oakland Asian Cultural Center the night of the event, I could feel the nerves building. Since this was the first ever Mr. Hyphen competition, I had no idea what to expect. Despite missing the one brief rehearsal and informational meeting, the producers laid out the event in a simple format so all participants could focus on their performance, not logistics. As the crowds grew inside the auditorium, and last-minute sound checks and fittings performed, the nerves faded away to excitement. This would turn out to be an amazingly fun ride.
The show opened on a hip, easygoing vibe with each contestant introducing himself and the organization he represented. Navigating the barren stage and hitting my mark perfectly, I announced my arrival and gave a big shout out to GAPIMNY. The other contestants represented a diverse group of organizations: Mario âNomiâ? Demira from the Filipino Community Center, James Espinas from the Vietnamese Artist Collective, Kevin Liao from the Chinatown Community Development Center, Robin Sukhadia from Project Ahimsa, and Brian Wang from the Asian American Theater Company.
The pageant went full-throttle after the intros with the talent segment of the competition. Singer-songwriters, performance monologues, rock out anthems, emceeing, and multimedia musical exhibitions were all in the offing. Yet no âThis is the Momentâ?? The horror! After a brief intermission, the show continued.
With a fashion show! Who doesnât love a fashion show? Local designers J9/D-Force and Kimiko Fisika outfitted the guys with their innovative, yet comfortable threads. Not to be outdone, we each then had the freedom to select our own outfit for the infamous âsleepwearâ? round. Some skin never hurts to drive the (mostly female) audience into a frenzy.
As no pageant would be complete without the obligatory interview segment, Mr. Hyphen must also be able to think on his toes and articulate a vision for his reign. All of the contestants rose to the challenge and mixed personal, political, and inspirational messages beyond just expressing a wish for âworld peace.â?
In the end, I didnât win. Robin Sukhadia was crowned the inaugural Mr. Hyphen. Yet the experience was unlike any other I have had at an event run by and for the API community. Despite being the only contestant representing the East Coast (though Iâm originally from the Bay Area), I quickly won over the audience and gained my very own cheering section. The beauty pageant/fashion show phenomenon in the API community also took a twisting by featuring men competing for the title, the belt, and the crown, turning what could have been a staid concept into something a bit subversive. It should definitely be noted that lots of straight guys were there too, supporting their brothers, the organizations they represented, and Hyphen Magazine.
Be sure to check out coverage of Mr. Hyphen in an upcoming issue of Hyphen Magazine.