Chinese Peaches

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

Grace Maa, when asked what she would do to get more kids interested in Chinese school if she were the principal, makes a move to the inside along the rail when she suggests that karaoke be brought into the classroom. The crowd gives a collective nod to the notion.

Talent Bouts
As in most pageants, the talent quotient in the Miss Chinatown USA contest varies wildly -- almost violently -- making the performances the most touching segment of the pageant. Here the contestants are at their most human, the furthest from mechanized perfection.

Although some stand out as clearly accomplished zither players, tap dancers, and singers, others flirt with wild time-signatures and otherworldly performance themes.

Highlights include Pearl Tan's electric guitar solo to the tune of Santana's "Europa" -- you can't get more multicultural than listening to an Asian-American who picked up the guitar only three months ago playing a song written by a Chicano about Europe; Teresa Lin dressed like an Indian squaw bleating the theme to Disney's Pocahontas; a fiery, patriotic, and entirely self-choreographed tap dance to "You're a Grand Old Flag," complete with Melissa Wong sparkling like the Fourth of July in red, white, and blue sequins; and an ambitious if a bit off-key rendition of the show-stopping, jaw-dropping Whitney Houston atrocity "Greatest Love of All" by Elizabeth Wong.

But when all else fails, just go out and kick some ass, sister.
"Ghet Tran is going to perform the sword for you tonight," says Wu, reiterating the evening's leitmotif, "because she wants to prove that Chinese women are strong, independent, and self-sufficient."

Tran, who earlier karated the fortune cookie in two, appears to the accompaniment of what sounds like a soundtrack to a Hong Kong action movie. Currently studying criminology and psychology, Tran cuts the air with precision. She punctuates her swordsmanship with a few karate kicks and chops and ends the routine suddenly when two young men appear from out of nowhere holding two boards with their hands. Tran makes easy work of the wood, chopping it in half with quick thrusts of her palms.

Almost as soon as Tran's last martial arts display is lying in a pile of sawdust on the stage floor -- a symbolic ending to the talent segment -- the tension rises as the seven judges confer. While the august committee members hunch over in their prime center-auditorium seats to scribble on the judging forms, magician Juliana Chan takes the stage. She shoots playing cards wildly into the crowd and pulls an impossible number of colored ribbons from her sleeves, all to the fast beat of Chinese technopop.

The judges finally turn the envelopes over to runners, who take them to the emcees. The crowd starts getting riled, shouting out their favorites with wild abandon. It's not immediately clear who is screaming the loudest: the girls in the audience (who probably are friends with some of the contestants), or the men (who are, after all, probably just loud men).

Newsman/emcee Choi whips the audience into a further frenzy by pausing for dramatic effect before announcing each winner in Cantonese, which is quickly translated into English by Wu. He starts with the lower-echelon awards, such as Miss Photogenic, Miss Talent, and Miss Congeniality, won by Tampa's Teresa Lin, Hawaii's Christina Lin (who played the zither), and Los Angeles' Yennis Wong, respectively.

The fever pitch increases the closer Choi gets to the top: New York's Jennifer Chin nabs Fourth Princess and Liane Ni from St. Louis secures Third Princess.

The emcees slow their delivery of the treasured information as the crowd burns: Stacey Jue places as Second Princess and Teresa Lin scores again with the dual titles of First Princess and Miss Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Ghet Tran can kick for joy all year, too, being named Miss Chinatown San Francisco by the judges.

The excitement reaches its zenith with the announcement of the new Miss Chinatown USA.

And the winner is ... Choi waits some more, perhaps at the risk of a fight breaking out or the roof caving in from all the shouting.

And the winner is ... Grace Maa!
There's very little fanfare for the new queen, no Miss Chinatown song, no tears of joy from the winner, just a quick fitting of the tiara, the draping of the robe, and the presentation of the scepter.

Almost immediately, the lights go up and the crowd disperses as if drawn out of their seats by magnets.

The Winner's Circle
Only four members of the Maa family are here to share the glory.
"I'm so ecstatic," says Grace's excited younger sister, Carol. "This is fantastic. Everything I'm saying is an understatement."

She then rattles off a long list of of her big sister's accomplishments: National Merit Scholar, first-place essay in the state during the National History Day competition, an athletic scholarship, top half of 1 percent in her senior class in high school, winner of a lip-sync competition.

"She's good at wrestling, too," her mother, Jean Maa, adds without a hint of irony. "She's a special girl." She explains that like many Chinese families, her relatives are scattered all over the world.

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