By Erin Sherbert
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And don't for a minute let this 22-year-old's 100-pound, 5-foot-2-inch frame fool you -- she could just as easily snap your neck with one powerful thrust of her open fist as cut you down to a bloody pile of ribbons with the saber.
But if Tran pulls out the swimsuit, then your fat ass really better be worried.
Especially if you're one of the other 13 contestants unlucky enough to be pitched in beauty-contest battle with Tran in the 38th annual Miss Chinatown USA Pageant, held Feb. 24 at San Francisco's Masonic Memorial Temple Auditorium.
Oaktown-girl Tran joined young Chinese-American women representing the farthest points in the continental U.S. for the pageant, where a $10,000 scholarship and enough jade and gold jewelry to bring Liberace back from the dead hung in the balance.
The methodology behind the Miss Chinatown USA Beauty Pageant compares nicely to the legend behind the Chinese Lunar New Year: The Jade Emperor, contemplating the bestial chaos that reigned on Earth, held a race to help him ascribe an order to the Earth's animals. The first 12 contestants to finish were each honored with a year dedicated only to them in the Chinese zodiac, and were considered the First of the Earthly Creatures. The Rat, being the wily creature it is, finished first.
At the 1996 Miss Chinatown Pageant, held during the two weeks of the Chinese New Year Festival, there will only be eight winners. But the odds aren't bad considering that there are only 14 contestants. (They are numbered 1 through 15, like the floors in hotels: For superstitious reasons there is no No. 13 contestant.)
The winner of the pageant, like her first-place counterpart the Rat, will be revered by people around the world for an entire year. For the losers, there's always the promise of another new year just around the corner thanks to the proliferation of Chinese and Asian beauty contests on every spoke of the Pacific Rim.
The Miss Chinatown USA Pageant commenced in mid-February as contestants were flown into San Francisco by sponsor organizations from as far away as New York, Florida, and Hawaii. Even St. Louis, the capital of bad American beer, sent a representative: Contestant No. 7, Liane Ni (34/24/36, in case you're wondering).
The American kitsch spectacle of swimsuit contests, talent shows, and poise competitions translates surprisingly well to an Asian-American context. In fact, during the roughly weeklong run of rehearsals, competitions, appearances, and celebrations, the Miss Chinatown pageant will assume a streamlined grace one no longer associates with the over-the-top galas of Miss America and Miss Universe.
Still, it's a pageant that seems to have fallen on hard times. "Maybe the concept of a beauty contest is losing its appeal," says Chinese Chamber of Commerce President Sidney Chan, whose group sponsors the event. He believes the public's attitude toward beauty pageants, as well as the interests of its contestants, has changed considerably in the more than three decades Miss Chinatown USA has been held in San Francisco.
"They're more sophisticated, more intelligent, more experienced, and shaped by the events of time," Chan says of the contestants. "These girls are very independent-minded and know what they want to achieve -- not so 30 years ago."
The impact of changed attitudes is palpable, he adds. "We would usually pack a 2,000-seat auditorium. Now we have trouble selling tickets. ... I don't know how much longer a type of event like this can go on."
Stay Cool and Keep a Smile Frozen on Your Face
But go on it does. During the pageant's swimsuit competition, the contestants will take the stage clad in fairly modest, red-and-black maillots. Ethereal, Hawaiian slack-key guitar music will tempt the aspiring princesses to the center of the stage -- one by one -- their exit following a leggy, sauntering breeze of slow half-turns and pirouettes. They will don sheer harem skirts, cover their faces in veils, and, after the winners are crowned, strut their beauty in a fashion show at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero.
But first, the rehearsals.
"Applause, applause, and don't wait till it dies down," commands pageant choreographer and artistic organizer Denise Lee, who is charged with running the women through their paces, "five, six, seven, eight!"
The contestants prance about the neon-orange banquet room of the Far East Cafe, turning on gaffer's-tape marks stuck on the well-traveled industrial floor tile. Each approaches an imaginary microphone and practices her introduction.
You can practically see the ellipses forming on the lips of one contestant as she stumbles for the right words. "I had some more, but I forgot," she says. It's OK -- that's why they're practicing. Some of the young women speak fluent Cantonese, certain to please the judges and crowd at crunch time. As for their English, it's more likely that their vowels reveal the regional accents of Southern California rather than Southern China.
Lee says she's never witnessed any unsportsmanlike conduct between pageant rivals, in part because Miss Chinatown USA is regarded largely as a community event, unlike that Atlantic City cesspool of controversy, sins of the flesh, and human degradation, the Miss America Pageant.