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There's lots of touchy-feely stuff between the contestants, hugging, neck rubs, and the like, all of which looks for real. Chalk it up to pre-contest jitters, or their busy schedule of lunches, family association banquets, and video shoots, but could it be that the women are ignoring the fact that up for grabs are scholarships, free trans-Pacific travel, and glory?
Last year, Miss Chinatown 1995, Jamie Chou, was whisked away on a whirlwind tour of the Orient, hitting banquets, fund-raisers, ribbon cuttings, and parades in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao, Mainland China, Canada, and the United States. Even though she admits her friends razz her a bit about being a beauty queen, the UC grad wouldn't trade the experience for, well, the world.
"It's a little bittersweet," Chou says of hanging up her tiara. "I would love to see it continue, but it will give me time to pursue other things." She's starting law school next semester.
This is the fourth year that Lee and the crew of her Oakland-based production company, PUSH Entertainment, have participated in the pageant. Although she usually works with professional entertainers, including a 30-member Polynesian dance group she hired for the Miss Chinatown presentation, Lee says the contestants make up for their lack of technique in short order.
"They're very intelligent, very easy to work with," she says. "Part of my job is to gauge their abilities." You can be a superb dancer or a gifted singer, but the most valuable skill in a beauty pageant is the ability to stay cool and keep a smile frozen on your face. By sheer attrition, some competitors are bound to crack in front of such a large audience, especially pageant greenhorns.
"All the girls have different levels of comfort for being in front of people," Lee says. "Sometimes they will freeze, but I've never seen a disaster. They're all in great shape and have been working out. They know what they're getting into, and they come prepared."
Preparedness is best served by experience. Several of the contestants, who range in age from 18 to 26, have competed and won various royal appointments in pageants such as Hong Kong's Miss Chinese International Pageant, Miss Asia World, and Miss Hong Kong, or San Francisco's Miss Teen Chinatown, Rose Ball, and Miss Asia America.
Where Princesses Dwell
When Contestant No. 9, Grace Maa, immigrated as a child to the United States from her native Taiwan, she learned a quick lesson in how to handle disappointment.
"She came here when she was 7," her mother, Jean Maa, says, "and the only English she knew was 'ice cream.' We taught her that so she could ask for it on the airplane -- she had to ask for it in English. She practiced it over and over. So we were saying, 'Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream,' for three days, but the airplane didn't have any ice cream."
And neither does her room at the pageant's host hotel.
The contestants lodge in San Francisco's Holiday Inn Financial District, which is connected by sky bridge over Kearny Street to Chinatown, where posters featuring photos of the contestants are displayed in the windows of most of the businesses.
Access to the 12th floor of the Holiday Inn, the control center of the Housemother's Suite and portal to the contestants' rooms farther down the hall, is kept secure by sentries in the form of the Escort Committee.
Numbering close to 20, the escorts are a tightknit group of young men, with a watchful eye toward strangers but showing a pleasant if guarded disposition once you get to know them. Sort of like Secret Service agents. According to one of the escorts, their chivalrous duty is to "keep the company of all the women, sort of be an ambassador of the city, and also basically be gophers for the pageant."
One can't apply to become an escort, one is called to duty, with references required.
"We want people who can distinguish between duty first, sort of a right blend between duty and social skills," says an 11-year veteran escort, who claims anonymity. "A lot of it's security, because if we're with the girls, it diverts a lot of the guys from coming and trying to get too friendly with the girls."
Have creeps ever tried to paw the girls? The escort sternly answers in the affirmative, but refuses to divulge any salient details.
Reaching the 12th-floor quarters comes only after close scrutiny, and then at the whim of the housemother and under guard from the Escort Committee.
There, the Housemother's Suite, where 11 women trade shifts supervising and assisting the contestants, is loaded with coffee, fat-free pastries, apples, oranges, and mineral water. But it's best not to pig out before the pageant.
"I think they just pick at their food like little birds," Lee says. "They're very disciplined."
Bea Wong, a co-chair on the Housemother Committee, says she acts as a surrogate mother, handling telephone calls, any medical appointments, and other contingencies. Wong also keeps on the lookout for lechers.
"People know it's happening every year, and the girls are staying at the Holiday Inn," says Wong, who has been a pageant housemother for over 25 years. "So we have to be very careful."