Chinese Peaches

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

Mom says that the family is scheduled to fly back to the Garden State the next day, but they are trying to find a way to stay in San Francisco for the rest of the festivities.

The glory of Miss Chinatown does not let loose its dying breath at the end of a runway. Both winners and losers still have three functions in which to muster smiles before leaving town: the Harrah's Coronation Ball, the Miss Chinatown USA Fashion Show, and the Chinese New Year Parade.

At the March 1 Coronation Ball, a formal dinner and dance event held at the Hilton and sponsored loudly by Harrah's Lake Tahoe, we see the first casualty of the pageant when one of the girls is too ill to attend.

While in the bathroom, some of the others joke that their cheong sams are starting to bust at the seams since they resumed eating. The pageant is starting to take its toll.

The Coronation Ball is the last event where the girls will be showered with so much individualized attention, allowed their spot in the sun decked out in full regalia.

"The cape -- I won't see that till next year," sighs Maa. "They even took my scepter away."

After the ball, the contestants will have to earn their keep by modeling at the 33rd annual Miss Chinatown USA Fashion Show and face the screaming, unpredictable mass of humanity lining the streets for the parade.

At the March 2 fashion show, the girls are in their element. Even though they had only put in three hours practicing the militaristic gait, twists, and turns of the contemporary fashion model, they operate with the precision of a Marine drill team, swinging their arms with "goin' somewhere" determination, snapping their heads with the obligatory hair flit and turning on a dime to strike a voguish pose while their counterparts continue their strident walk back down the runway.

The lord of discipline training the girls for the fashion show is Jhoanne Loube, who notes that she's labored with Bill Blass, although her efforts today would qualify her as more of a miracle worker.

"We had a great time with them," she says. "They were very good up the platform. They had attitude. The contestant smile and the contestant walk were our two hurdles."

All the barriers are down at the parade, and it's almost a bittersweet affair because all of the attention showered over the contestants in the last week-and-a-half will soon explode in a hand-waving, smiling tornado on wheels ripping through a record crowd of 350,000 along the parade route up Market Street, past Union Square, and down Kearny into Chinatown.

The girls laugh with each other and complain a bit about having to wait so long due to their floats' near-last positions on the schedule -- just ahead of a giant float of a rat carrying the relatively unappetizing slogan "Say Cheese" on its side. The rat has a hole in its butt for workers to access its innards.

Contestant Jennifer Chin takes the opportunity to grumble that she did better at the Miss Asia America competition, which is open to all Asian races, because they asked two questions rather than one.

As the contestants' two floats are readied for their ride to glory, the Escort Committee gathers one last time for an outline of their mission. "Go up to the corner," says the head escort, telling them to count off. "Our job is to make sure no one gets on that float!

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