Chinese Peaches

The Chinese New Year brings firecrackers, the parade down Kearny, and the Miss Chinatown USA Pageant

Learning to Walk the Walk
Dress rehearsal is held the afternoon of Feb. 24 at the Masonic Auditorium, the venue for the pageant for the last two decades. Attending are more than a dozen photographers, most of them representing Chinese-language newspapers, standing on chairs and crowding up against the stage. There's not a dry mouth in the house.

This is their best chance to get a shot of the girls in costume, both because of the difficulty of taking close-up shots in the Masonic Auditorium and the fact that pageant sponsors don't want rogue free-lance photogs lining their pockets by selling shots of the event.

The contestants, waiting in the lobby for the audiovisual team to finish its preparations, practice their "contestant walk" and dance routines while getting instructions from Denise Lee's assistant. Some of the girls are sitting on the laps of their competitors and making small talk about clothes, shoes, and other mundane topics, seemingly chatting about anything to pass the downtime.

After a quick change into the harem outfits, the contestants soon find themselves crouching single file in the hallway near the entrance of the auditorium, ready for the initial run-through of the first part of the show, titled "Arabia," where they make a grand entrance. Lee instructs them to count off their steps and assigns each a number so they don't bunch up out of the starting block.

"Don't rush it. Don't let your heels do the clicky-clacky thing," the production assistant reminds them, while pointing the girls in the front of the harem line down the aisle toward the stage.

Contestant No. 8, Teresa Lin, still crouching on the floor near the end of the line, pushes her veil aside to explain that because most of the girls are university students, with a few working on Ph.D.s or law degrees, they've had to duck out of school for the week.

"Basically you arrange it with your professor. Do makeup work," says Lin, winner of the Miss Chinese Florida pageant and who is studying English and Chinese literature at Duke. "Some do term papers and biology lab here. I'll probably wait until after the pageant's over to do work."

Sitting just in front of Lin is Grace Maa, winner of the Miss Chinese New York City pageant, who brought a laptop computer to complete some of her Princeton coursework. The Belle Mead, N.J., resident explains that the modern emphasis on academic and economic achievement combined with the struggle to maintain their Chinese heritage is a heavy burden for the contestants.

The harem number is designed to give the audience a sumptuous close-up view of the contestants as they enter the field of com-petition, climbing a portable ramp from the middle aisle of the auditorium to the stage to make their introductions. After the successful run-through of the number, the girls are sent to the backstage dressing room to squeeze into their costumes for the second segment of the show: the Fitness and Form Competition, otherwise known as the swimsuit competition.

The contestants don't seem overly concerned that a couple thousand strangers will be ogling every one of their next-to-naked poses, even though the routine requires them to air their posteriors at three locations on the stage for an extended period of time so everyone in the house gets a glimpse. Perhaps it's because the swimsuits, black one-pieces with red flairs helping to accent their breasts, leave more to the imagination than your average Baywatch butt thong.

It's still rather disconcerting, however, to see a Princeton student who someday could represent you in a court of law strolling about a stage in her beachwear, but to be the best and brightest requires sacrifices. Take a note for making friends in prison, Mel Belli!

The photographers snap to attention during the Fitness and Form rehearsal. These are the money shots. After strutting across the stage, with a few spins at key points to provide a healthy rear view sandwiched around a short introduction, the first few contestants to finish exit stage right and congregate in the front-row seats to assess the competition.

One remaining bathing beauty who's taking her sweet time on the stage -- playing up to the photographers, no doubt -- catches the wrath of the peanut gallery. "Take your turn. Take your turn," a seated contestant audibly mumbles as the girl plays to the cameramen, hoping she'll make her final turn and walk off the stage.

After the excitement of the swimsuit rehearsal subsides, the contestants change back into their street clothes to practice the Q&A period. The queries are almost unbelievably simple. "People say you have a beautiful smile. Do you always smile?" is the stumper sprung on Contestant No. 6, Melissa Wong from Mountain View, Calif., who answers with a simple "yes" while nodding her head and rolling her eyes. There must be a catch.

Following the Q&A tomfoolery, the contestants go backstage to take a short break and gear up for the talent competition rehearsal while other entertainers file into the auditorium for a sound and lighting check.

Hong Kong pop sensation/pageant judge K.C. Lee, who will sing a duet tonight, does a short run-through of one of his slower-paced Cantonese-language hits and finds no glaring weaknesses in the sound system he can fix by complaining.

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