Chinese Peaches

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

All this, of course, is the big buildup to the swimsuit competition, where the contestants not only get to put their privates on parade but also have up to a minute to explain all of their accomplishments.

Wu begins the introductions as the Hawaiian music is cued up: "Stacey Jue. She stands 5 feet, 4 inches tall, 105 pounds; her measurements are 34, 24, and 34."

The crowd goes nuts after Jue's dimensions are revealed, and Choi starts in on the Cantonese translation as the sultry Hawaiian music rolls in like soothing waves in the background.

Contestant No. 1 Jue has a sugary-sweet, cute-as-a-button, and perhaps permanently affixed smile. Her demeanor is straight out of Disneyland, where she worked as Minnie Mouse earlier in her career. These qualities belie the fact that she's subjecting herself to this type of public gawkfest, but she confidently legs it out to center stage, takes a full turn, and approaches the microphone, playing her warm and sunny composure to the hilt.

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I am Stacey Jue from Huntington Beach, California," she says, listing her educational feats at the University of California at Irvine. "I would just like to just wish everyone a happy new year, with happiness, health, and prosperity. Gung hay fat choy. Thank you."

The slack-key guitar coos Jue through a few turns and off the stage, where Contestant No. 2, Elizabeth Wong from Sacramento, Calif., waits for her moment in the sun, so to speak. Wong's intro and the next 12 are almost exactly the same as Jue's.

Oddly enough, the boisterous crowd now is relatively silent when a contestant walks the stage, except for a noticeable rise in the applause meter after a contestant's self-introduction or when a familiar face, or suit in this case, takes center stage. The crowd also gives an appreciative hand to the contestants who speak Cantonese in their introductions.

Having visited the Middle East and Polynesia, the pageant next moves on to familiar territory, China. Having the best seat in the house is Buddha, looming very large in statue form at the back of the stage. Hong Kong pop music thumps through the PA as three female PUSH dancers in jade outfits flutter across the stage waving red fans. They are joined by their male entourage bedecked in hip, Hong Kong-style formalwear.

The contestants, now clad in traditional cheong sam Chinese evening dresses with mandarin collars, are gearing up for the Q&A period, which counts for one-third of the final score and will separate the grain from the chaff.

"Don't they all look very elegant and graceful?" asks emcee Wu, herself looking resplendent in a white evening dress, with her hair up and pearls hanging around her neck. The girls have been instructed to promenade to the front of the stage -- to show off their stunning dresses -- turn and walk to the back of the stage, where they will be joined by other contestants to wait until they face the music.

Contestant No. 7, Liane Ni, has other ideas, however, and accidentally walks off the stage, behind the curtain, to the laughter of the crowd. She reappears unscathed, her composure evident in a confident stride and steadied head straight out of finishing school.

The questions, which prove to be much harder than in rehearsal, are sealed in oversize fortune cookies and rolled out onto the stage on a food cart. The luck of the draw determines which contestants get what questions.

"Tonight's contestants will prove that Chinese women are not only beautiful, but also talented," Wu explains. "And very strong, too," adds TV man Choi, reiterating a theme that is stressed throughout the night. Choi chooses a cookie from the food cart. Before he can crack it open and ask a question of Contestant No. 15, Ghet Tran, she takes the initiative. A martial arts enthusiast who will later break boards in half with her bare hands during the talent competition, she karate chops the cookie to the delight of the roaring crowd.

"The Chinese traditionally celebrate the New Year with firecrackers," Wu starts out the query. "If the government banned firecrackers for safety reasons, what would you use as a substitute to still maintain the celebration?"

A New Year without firecrackers? Tran, showing that she could have a career in politics, tackles the problem with dexterity:

"Well, first of all, I don't think anything can replace firecrackers," Tran answers. "The Chinese light firecrackers to scare away the evil spirits and bring in the New Year. So, if the government banned them it would be very unfortunate. But if that does happen, what we'll have to replace them with is safe fireworks that don't make a lot of noise, but it would represent the Chinese culture and the Chinese heritage."

The other contestants are grilled with questions on Chinese philosophy, and asked how to preserve Chinese culture. The women kowtow to tradition, answering the questions conservatively, and if their responses sound lame, just ask yourself: When was the last time Miss Michigan gave her inquisitors some lip?

Pearl Tan, the truly congenial Contestant No. 5 from Cupertino, Calif., suffers an awkward silence in the middle of answering her question, with long pauses in the middle and a quick if haphazard ending. Her onstage fidgeting causes an uneasy feeling to circulate in the auditorium as she struggles to maintain composure. Her score must be bottoming out.

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