Chinese Peaches

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

"1992 World Magic Champion" Juliana Chan, who is scheduled to perform her sleight-of-hand act shortly before the winners are announced, seems to have arrived in a bit of a snit, however.

"This stage is bad because they can see my back," she huffs to whomever will listen. "Work on the lighting."

Lights, Camera, Action
At 7 p.m. on the evening of the pageant, the Masonic Auditorium lobby starts to fill with the area's Chinese gentry, who mill about under the Nob Hill venue's colorful explosion of mosaic artwork celebrating Masonic accomplishments in the state. The odd-yet-intricate Freemason symbols constructed of tile are as confusing to the uninitiated as Chinese characters are to your average gweilo on the street.

Those who have paid up to $50 for front-row tickets are dressed in their finest suits, evening gowns, and the occasional tuxedo. The assemblage spans a spectrum of ages, although the over-60 crowd seems to be the majority.

One Chinese man who must be in his early 70s is hovering around the box office looking confused, asking those standing in line if it's OK to bring a camera inside. It turns out he is engaged in a futile attempt to scalp a ticket to an event that is actually undersold.

Colorful souvenir books detailing all the events of the New Year Festival and produced by the San Francisco Chronicle are being hawked for $3 at a folding table staffed by Chinese Chamber of Commerce members near the auditorium entrance. The second page of the program includes this gem from Mayor Willie Brown: "The Rat is a very clever and industrious creature," writes the mayor, who has exhibited these traits from time to time, in his introduction, "and I hope that this Chinese New Year rings in an era echoing those qualities."

Outside the auditorium, pageant consultant and Chinese Chamber of Commerce Honorary President Rose Pak finishes a cigarette and greets a pack of off-duty cops -- mostly Asian -- hired to keep order. In the recent political pageant that pitted Pak against Willie Brown's campaign manager, Jack Davis, Pak lost. The press portrayed Pak as a vengeful dragon lady, but tonight she's the sweetest dragon you'll run up against, providing SF Weekly's writer and photographer with VIP tickets to the pageant and later arranging a spot at the China Airlines Benefactor Table for the March 1 Miss Chinatown Coronation Ball at the Hilton.

"I've been doing this since 1980," Pak says. "The young women have changed. ... A lot of them don't even know where their ancestors really came from, so you help them trace them. Some are third generation, some are first generation, but all of them go to college, you know. It's very different from the traditional. There's certain elements of it that are very traditional, but there's certain elements that are not."

The pageant commences with the masters of ceremony, KPST Channel 66 news personality Philip Man-Yin Choi (providing Cantonese commentary) and 1992 Miss Chinatown USA and first runner-up in the Miss International Contest Melissa Wu, reading a very long list of sponsors. Scores of benevolent associations are recognized, to the clapping of the audience. The bilingual commentary, in Cantonese and English, seems tilted to the former, and there's a bit of a laugh lag coming from the audience between translations of jokes.

After about 10 minutes more of name-dropping -- or it could have easily been 20 minutes or a half-hour -- the entertainment starts. The theme of the night, "The Journey to Exotic Lands," will propel the pageant through the Middle East, Polynesia, and China in the space of about 3 1/2 hours.

The PUSH dancers, three women and five men, slink their way down the center aisle toward the stage in halted steps synchronized to the lilting "March of the Siamese Children" from The King and I. To the credit of the audiovisual team, perfectly timed fluorescent lights evoke a mysterious glow from the dancers' underwear, which is only slightly tempered by the silky harem skirts.

The contestants make their entrance from the auditorium lobby. Veiled and holding aloft red, oval-shaped votive candles -- equally at home in a Black Angus or at a backyard barbecue -- the contestants mimic the dancers' moves as they walk down the middle aisle to the stage. The dance beat is fortified by a wah-wah guitar, and as the contestants take the stage a predominantly female scream rises from the crowd.

Compared to the relaxed atmosphere at rehearsal, the production values at showtime prove to be relatively colossal. During the "Arabia" segment, the lighting plays well off the stage props, which include a crouching camel in front of a giant archway and twin towers inscribed with hieroglyphics sitting near the back of the stage.

"And now, the second portion of our journey to the exotic lands," announces emcee Melissa Wu as the pageant takes an abrupt Polynesian turn when the PUSH dancers come onstage to shake it up to South Pacific drum music in grass skirts and coconut bras.

The largely Chinese audience must not be offended by racial stereotypes, because during the following production number, in which the South Seas boys shake their knees and wiggle their rears at the crowd, all to the pounding rhythm of a Polynesian percussion section, the crowd whoops in delight. Again, it's mostly the young females losing their comportment.

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