East Vancouver, 1987
Ladies and Gentlemen! Mga Binibini at Ginoo! The next contestant —ang susunod na kalahok ay Miss Tisha kumakanta— is Miss Tisha singing ‘Cha! Cha! Cha!!!’”
A flourish of timbales spilled from the speakers as Tisha’s sleek brown legs scissored across the showy carpet in the basement ballroom of a budgetary Kingsway hotel.
It was the talent portion of the Miss Philippines International Contest. I was the awkward punk in the front row come to cheer her on.
Also at the front were fellow choir mates Giovanni, tenor fashionista and openly gay Grade 11 sophisticate; and Angelico, Grade 11 bass singer. Angelico was officially not gay though I did run into him one year at Gay Pride dancing shirtless with a lot of men who were.
There was Gurpreet, my modest gal pal from the alto section. She’d go on to become a major Bollywood star. And Gloria, lead in school plays…and a Christian. It was Gloria who ended up with the bird’s-eye view of Tisha’s spandex crotch during the leaping splits finale.
“Fantastic dance, Tisha!!! Kamangha-mangang sayaw, Tisha!”
I loved Tisha, but even at 13 years old was already a bitter feminist conflicted about my presence at a beauty showdown.
But I wasn’t no fun at all. I realized how hard Tisha had been working at performing arts, bikini and shaving. At intermission, still panting from the song and dance number, Tisha introduced me to her quite old beaming father in a loose brown suit.
“Nice to meet you, sir,” I said, shaking his hand. “I sincerely hope your daughter wins this sexist contest.”
Gurpreet and I were sitting tensely on the plastic protector covering her family’s long brocade sofa.
Her mother had honoured my visit by serving tea and sweets in the living room of the family’s Vancouver Special on 62nd near Fraser.
The room was normally off limits to children and reserved for family gatherings —or for one of Gurpreet’s ancient grandfather’s epic 6-hour naps. A garlanded shrine over the fireplace celebrated Guru Nanak.
We did our best to snack in a formal way, but were soon overcome by giggling. Annoyed, Gurpreet’s grandfather shuffled in, spoke sharply in Punjabi. Gurpreet jumped up and slid on her slippers.
“I have to make my grandpa a chapatti,” she said, dashing out. “I’ll be right back!”
“How come he doesn’t make his own chapatti?!” I protested, but Gurpreet was already halfway to the kitchen.
“Jeez!” I said, running after her, sliding on the waxed floor in my socks. “That’s pretty sexist!”
After intermission, Tisha came out in a pink dress and gave a moving speech about church work or community service then returned five minutes later in a string bikini for the bathing suit round.
Tisha was so astonishingly “developed”, I could hardly believe my eyes. She performed several full-body turns in front of the judges then joined the other girls standing contrapposto in the line.
Fully compared, the girls tip toed out in their high-heel bathing sandals, returned 10 minutes later in resplendent evening gowns. There were sparkling strips and splashes of colour and solid-toned but built-up dresses with towering puffed shoulders or billowing tulle underskirts.
Royal music played. The girls tittered and rustled under the ballroom’s average lighting. Then a bushel of red roses traveled from one side, landed in the arms and a tiara landed on the head, and by these unmistakable indications we realized Tisha had overcome triple handicaps of short hair, braces and a very slight moustache to be crowned Miss Philippines International British Columbia 1987!!
Mr Whyte was in a reverie as he accompanied us on piano while we sang Debussy’s “Beau Soir” in four parts.
Entranced, he dipped his chest towards the keys then tossed his head back as music trickled out of his piano like rivulets and tinkling bells.
Mr Whyte was a true artist but had a hard time keeping the choir populated in a school better known for weapons confiscations. We were a “chamber choir” because that was the nicest way to say “small choir.” But I liked it that way, and everyone loved Mr Whyte except Gio, who got in cunty arguments with him over artistic differences.
I sang well but couldn’t read music with any proficiency, so ended up singing by ear an alto collage of all the best parts from the other sections.
I’m only now realizing that this is why Gurpreet, who could read music, was always covering her ear when she sang next to me.
In the halls, my friends were Patty and Geneva.
Geneva was also thirteen, but Patty was thirteen-going-on-thirty. That is what happens, I suppose, when you have a naive mother and a sleazy mustachio-ed stepfather who seems like a slightly dumb 1970s con-man.
Patty could barely conceal her contempt for either of them, but at least her mom let us stay downtown until 11 and had no idea when we were on acid.
Geneva was blonde, blue-eyed and rapacious. Quite soon I concluded that if we liked the same boy I might as well relent.
Geneva was nice, but she changed her style depending on whoever was around. When she was with Patty and I, she dressed punk, but changed to preppy clothes to hang out with her boyfriend, Pat. Later on, she’d put on gangster clothes to hang out with a gang chick called Killeen.
It drove me crazy. “Geneva!” I told her. “Each of these looks has critical politics!”
“Yeah, but does my ass look fat?”
Pretty soon it was clear that more or less the only thing Patty, Geneva and I had in common was our desperate desire to have sex and our inability to do so because we were 13 and ridiculous.
I even tried to have sex with Patty’s brother, which she wasn’t too happy about. I don’t think he was, either.
One Friday night at a sleepover in Geneva’s pink and purple room, we consulted a Ouija board on the matter.
“Each put two fingertips on the pointer,” Patty instructed.
“How come you know so many Satan things?” I joked.
Geneva’s purple candle was spookily illuminating the underside of Patty’s pixie nose. She ignored me.
“Oh sacred Ouija!!” she intoned.
“Isn’t it ‘Wee-ja’? It says ‘Wee-ja,’” I said.
“It’s pronounced ‘Wee-jee,’” she responded, rolling her big doll’s eyes. “Don’t interrupt.”
“Oh holy spirit, Ouija!!” she started again. “Is Pat gay?” Pat was slightly frigid.
The pointer glided across the board. “No.”
“I pulled it,” I joked.
Patty and Geneva frowned.
“Oh precious spirit, Ouija!” Patty continued. “How old will Geneva be when she loses her virginity?”
The pointer swung. “14.”
“Wow!” we all said. Pat was 17.
“Oh darling spirit, Ouija!” I stated. “How old will Patty be when she loses her virginity?”
The pointer swung across the board. “14,” it said.
“Oooo,” we all said.
“Ouija!” Patty said. “How old will Cali be when she loses her virginity?”
I came in last.
“It’s cuz you don’t ask nicely!” I accused.
Patty and Geneva snickered.
And though we all tried to speed things up after the Ouija session, our virginities were lost at exactly the ages predicted.
On a sunny Saturday in spring, the choir staged a car wash outside J.O. school to raise money for plane tickets to a choir competition in Ontario.
“Do I have to go to the car wash?” I whined to my parents .
“Do you have to go to Ontario?” they responded.
I shlepped to the car wash.
For the first two hours, very little money came in as we —well, mainly Mr Whyte— washed about six cars.
Then Gio got a capitalist brainwave. “Tisha,” he said. “Go up the block in your bikini top and wave the sign.”
“And don’t block your boobs with the sign!” Angelico clarified helpfully.
Tisha obliged. Within minutes, cars started flying into the parking lot. This was good, I suppose, except it meant I actually had to wash cars.
I washed two-and-a-half cars before throwing my sponge in the bucket. “This car wash has become sexist!” I declared. “Anyone want something from McDonalds?”
Geneva got model-scouted!” Patty, impressed, told me at the lockers.
But turns out it wasn’t not John Casablancas or anything. Geneva’s hairstylist had asked her to ‘model’ in his styling competition.
“Not only that,” said Patty, “he told her to bring friends, and in exchange we’ll all get a free colour, cut and style as well as one free tanning session!”
“Free is quite feminist,” I assured her.
We showed up at the salon after school, and Geneva’s tanning-bed-roasted stylist gave us the skeptical once over. “I’ll take you if you sign this release immediately.”
We signed it without taking our eyes off the tanning beds. Then we put on those little plastic pin-prick spectacles and laid in the machines for 45 minutes in our underwear.
None of us changed colour whatsoever, and it’s unclear when I decided artificial tanning is feminist.
In Ontario, I was billeted with a nice but uptight Christian family that didn’t understand my punk fashion choices.
“At our church, we subscribe to a natural, wholesome appearance for women.” The family’s thin, crisply-dressed patriarch told me this while serving Brussel sprouts at the family table.
“Prescribing how women should look is sexist. Pass the potatoes.”
The next day, the choir met for lunch at a fast food place. “Wanna trade families, Gloria?” I proposed. She ignored me.
After lunch, we took a scenic boat tour on the St. Lawrence River. There a giant pre-historic glacier created the Thousand Islands by yanking off mountain tops and scattering them in the river.
I think it was a cheaper tour though because I don’t remember seeing the castle.
The best sight of all, anyways, was Mr Whyte up on the top deck, leaning back with his legs up and eyes closed as wind blew through his greying blond hair.
Quieter. Quieter!” Mr Whyte yelled during rehearsal in the old church in Kingston where we were scheduled to compete.
The church interior was very beautiful. The walls were cream-coloured and the high parts filled with leaded windows terminating in elaborate ribbed vaultings and spandrels.
After the rehearsal, Mr Whyte took me aside. “For the competition tomorrow, could you please tone down your look?”
“But Mr Whyte,” I told him, “it’s my self-expression!”
“I know,” he said, “but it’s also a little weird.”
That night in my room at the Christians’ I took the subversive safety pins out of my concert blouse, and the following morning, we watched our rival choir perform. “That’s Mr Whyte’s nemesis choir from Ontario,” Angelico whispered. “They won last year.”
The acoustics in the Kingston Church were also superb, and when it was our turn to perform for the judges, we sang Debussy and Brahms very prettily.
Then the judgement came in: “Too quiet.”
As Mr Whyte picked up his music and closed the piano, he couldn’t even look at us.
When we got back to Vancouver, Patty, Geneva and I went straight to the salon for our dye jobs.
“I request blond,” I told Geneva’s stylist.
“Well, you’re getting black,” he stated coldly. “Your hair’s been dyed too much. It won’t bleach properly anymore.”
When the process was over, Geneva was even blonder, my perm was refreshed and Patty and I had hair blue-black as a crow’s wings.
“Will it bleach properly now?” I chided the stylist.
The hair show on the weekend was very busy. Beauty professionals wearing cordless earpieces whizzed by carrying garment bags and hair blowers whil others wrangled teen “hair models” to-and-fro like deer in headlights.
First to “Costume!” where we were hustled into oversized military fatigues suggesting “Beauty is a battle.”
Then in “Make up!” our faces were powdered pale as burgundy circles were rouged around our eyes over matching burgundy lips.
After that handlers herded us single file into the wings to wait for our turns on stage, and from that vantage, we could see that almost every girl exiting the stage had a radical haircut and was crying.
My stage fright mounted as I wondered if any of this was feminist, but before I could bail, a handler with a headset ordered me onstage with two other girls and we emerged into a blinding cacophony of staccato strobe lights punctuating a war-inspired techno soundscape.
Geneva’s stylist plonked me in his chair and quickly sectioned out a strip of my hair from ear-to-ear. Then, painfully and without warning, he razored off that strip about an inch from my scalp, leaving a fan of spiky short hair sticking straight up across my crown between dangling longer strands permed tight as a poodle’s.
Shoved out of the chair thereafter, I did my best to parade my hair fan as prescribed and without crying, hither-and-thither in the flashing lights and music as the judges assessed.
Dismissed from the stage, I changed into my street clothes in a lightless backstage closet, dropped my fatigues on the floor and rushed out without speaking to anyone.
I already hated my appearance so much I had to bathe in the dark. I didn’t dare look at myself now.
A few days later, I ran into Gurpreet at the bus stop near the school, took off my headband to reveal my brutalized hair. Her big brown eyes looked astonished.
“I like the colour, though,” she said. “The black really brings out your blue eyes.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said.
Then I noticed the band of short yellow hairs running between her nose and upper lip.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I tried to bleach my moustache,” she said, “but it just turned yellow.” Her big brown eyes looked sad.
“You could shave it!” I declared.
“No!” she said. “It’ll just grow thicker.”
“Oh, shit…Hey, don’t worry, Gurpreet,” I put my arm around her shoulders. “You can barely even notice it.”
But as we both waited glumly for the bus, the yellow moustache showed quite brightly.
Cali Haan is a writer, former reporter and former tree planter. Her writings and artwork have won nominations and prizes, including Official Selection: Solo Flights Emerging Playwright’s Contest. She recently placed in four successive Vancouver Story Slams.