Chinese Peaches

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

Ghet Tran, clad in a rouge veil and harem skirt, is threateningly swinging a large, curved sword in the upstairs of Grant Avenue's Far East Cafe.

And don't for a minute let this 22-year-old's 100-pound, 5-foot-2-inch frame fool you -- she could just as easily snap your neck with one powerful thrust of her open fist as cut you down to a bloody pile of ribbons with the saber.

But if Tran pulls out the swimsuit, then your fat ass really better be worried.

Especially if you're one of the other 13 contestants unlucky enough to be pitched in beauty-contest battle with Tran in the 38th annual Miss Chinatown USA Pageant, held Feb. 24 at San Francisco's Masonic Memorial Temple Auditorium.

Oaktown-girl Tran joined young Chinese-American women representing the farthest points in the continental U.S. for the pageant, where a $10,000 scholarship and enough jade and gold jewelry to bring Liberace back from the dead hung in the balance.

The methodology behind the Miss Chinatown USA Beauty Pageant compares nicely to the legend behind the Chinese Lunar New Year: The Jade Emperor, contemplating the bestial chaos that reigned on Earth, held a race to help him ascribe an order to the Earth's animals. The first 12 contestants to finish were each honored with a year dedicated only to them in the Chinese zodiac, and were considered the First of the Earthly Creatures. The Rat, being the wily creature it is, finished first.

At the 1996 Miss Chinatown Pageant, held during the two weeks of the Chinese New Year Festival, there will only be eight winners. But the odds aren't bad considering that there are only 14 contestants. (They are numbered 1 through 15, like the floors in hotels: For superstitious reasons there is no No. 13 contestant.)

The winner of the pageant, like her first-place counterpart the Rat, will be revered by people around the world for an entire year. For the losers, there's always the promise of another new year just around the corner thanks to the proliferation of Chinese and Asian beauty contests on every spoke of the Pacific Rim.

The Miss Chinatown USA Pageant commenced in mid-February as contestants were flown into San Francisco by sponsor organizations from as far away as New York, Florida, and Hawaii. Even St. Louis, the capital of bad American beer, sent a representative: Contestant No. 7, Liane Ni (34/24/36, in case you're wondering).

The American kitsch spectacle of swimsuit contests, talent shows, and poise competitions translates surprisingly well to an Asian-American context. In fact, during the roughly weeklong run of rehearsals, competitions, appearances, and celebrations, the Miss Chinatown pageant will assume a streamlined grace one no longer associates with the over-the-top galas of Miss America and Miss Universe.

Still, it's a pageant that seems to have fallen on hard times. "Maybe the concept of a beauty contest is losing its appeal," says Chinese Chamber of Commerce President Sidney Chan, whose group sponsors the event. He believes the public's attitude toward beauty pageants, as well as the interests of its contestants, has changed considerably in the more than three decades Miss Chinatown USA has been held in San Francisco.

"They're more sophisticated, more intelligent, more experienced, and shaped by the events of time," Chan says of the contestants. "These girls are very independent-minded and know what they want to achieve -- not so 30 years ago."

The impact of changed attitudes is palpable, he adds. "We would usually pack a 2,000-seat auditorium. Now we have trouble selling tickets. ... I don't know how much longer a type of event like this can go on."

Stay Cool and Keep a Smile Frozen on Your Face
But go on it does. During the pageant's swimsuit competition, the contestants will take the stage clad in fairly modest, red-and-black maillots. Ethereal, Hawaiian slack-key guitar music will tempt the aspiring princesses to the center of the stage -- one by one -- their exit following a leggy, sauntering breeze of slow half-turns and pirouettes. They will don sheer harem skirts, cover their faces in veils, and, after the winners are crowned, strut their beauty in a fashion show at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero.

But first, the rehearsals.
"Applause, applause, and don't wait till it dies down," commands pageant choreographer and artistic organizer Denise Lee, who is charged with running the women through their paces, "five, six, seven, eight!"

The contestants prance about the neon-orange banquet room of the Far East Cafe, turning on gaffer's-tape marks stuck on the well-traveled industrial floor tile. Each approaches an imaginary microphone and practices her introduction.

You can practically see the ellipses forming on the lips of one contestant as she stumbles for the right words. "I had some more, but I forgot," she says. It's OK -- that's why they're practicing. Some of the young women speak fluent Cantonese, certain to please the judges and crowd at crunch time. As for their English, it's more likely that their vowels reveal the regional accents of Southern California rather than Southern China.

Lee says she's never witnessed any unsportsmanlike conduct between pageant rivals, in part because Miss Chinatown USA is regarded largely as a community event, unlike that Atlantic City cesspool of controversy, sins of the flesh, and human degradation, the Miss America Pageant.

There's lots of touchy-feely stuff between the contestants, hugging, neck rubs, and the like, all of which looks for real. Chalk it up to pre-contest jitters, or their busy schedule of lunches, family association banquets, and video shoots, but could it be that the women are ignoring the fact that up for grabs are scholarships, free trans-Pacific travel, and glory?

Last year, Miss Chinatown 1995, Jamie Chou, was whisked away on a whirlwind tour of the Orient, hitting banquets, fund-raisers, ribbon cuttings, and parades in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao, Mainland China, Canada, and the United States. Even though she admits her friends razz her a bit about being a beauty queen, the UC grad wouldn't trade the experience for, well, the world.

"It's a little bittersweet," Chou says of hanging up her tiara. "I would love to see it continue, but it will give me time to pursue other things." She's starting law school next semester.

This is the fourth year that Lee and the crew of her Oakland-based production company, PUSH Entertainment, have participated in the pageant. Although she usually works with professional entertainers, including a 30-member Polynesian dance group she hired for the Miss Chinatown presentation, Lee says the contestants make up for their lack of technique in short order.

"They're very intelligent, very easy to work with," she says. "Part of my job is to gauge their abilities." You can be a superb dancer or a gifted singer, but the most valuable skill in a beauty pageant is the ability to stay cool and keep a smile frozen on your face. By sheer attrition, some competitors are bound to crack in front of such a large audience, especially pageant greenhorns.

"All the girls have different levels of comfort for being in front of people," Lee says. "Sometimes they will freeze, but I've never seen a disaster. They're all in great shape and have been working out. They know what they're getting into, and they come prepared."

Preparedness is best served by experience. Several of the contestants, who range in age from 18 to 26, have competed and won various royal appointments in pageants such as Hong Kong's Miss Chinese International Pageant, Miss Asia World, and Miss Hong Kong, or San Francisco's Miss Teen Chinatown, Rose Ball, and Miss Asia America.

Where Princesses Dwell
When Contestant No. 9, Grace Maa, immigrated as a child to the United States from her native Taiwan, she learned a quick lesson in how to handle disappointment.

"She came here when she was 7," her mother, Jean Maa, says, "and the only English she knew was 'ice cream.' We taught her that so she could ask for it on the airplane -- she had to ask for it in English. She practiced it over and over. So we were saying, 'Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream,' for three days, but the airplane didn't have any ice cream."

And neither does her room at the pageant's host hotel.
The contestants lodge in San Francisco's Holiday Inn Financial District, which is connected by sky bridge over Kearny Street to Chinatown, where posters featuring photos of the contestants are displayed in the windows of most of the businesses.

Access to the 12th floor of the Holiday Inn, the control center of the Housemother's Suite and portal to the contestants' rooms farther down the hall, is kept secure by sentries in the form of the Escort Committee.

Numbering close to 20, the escorts are a tightknit group of young men, with a watchful eye toward strangers but showing a pleasant if guarded disposition once you get to know them. Sort of like Secret Service agents. According to one of the escorts, their chivalrous duty is to "keep the company of all the women, sort of be an ambassador of the city, and also basically be gophers for the pageant."

One can't apply to become an escort, one is called to duty, with references required.

"We want people who can distinguish between duty first, sort of a right blend between duty and social skills," says an 11-year veteran escort, who claims anonymity. "A lot of it's security, because if we're with the girls, it diverts a lot of the guys from coming and trying to get too friendly with the girls."

Have creeps ever tried to paw the girls? The escort sternly answers in the affirmative, but refuses to divulge any salient details.

Reaching the 12th-floor quarters comes only after close scrutiny, and then at the whim of the housemother and under guard from the Escort Committee.

There, the Housemother's Suite, where 11 women trade shifts supervising and assisting the contestants, is loaded with coffee, fat-free pastries, apples, oranges, and mineral water. But it's best not to pig out before the pageant.

"I think they just pick at their food like little birds," Lee says. "They're very disciplined."

Bea Wong, a co-chair on the Housemother Committee, says she acts as a surrogate mother, handling telephone calls, any medical appointments, and other contingencies. Wong also keeps on the lookout for lechers.

"People know it's happening every year, and the girls are staying at the Holiday Inn," says Wong, who has been a pageant housemother for over 25 years. "So we have to be very careful."

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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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