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'The Long Process of Healing': AAPI Community Members React to the Lunar New Year Mass Shooting

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A woman wearing a navy blue hoodie and black pants places her right hand on the back of a boy wearing a red beanie cap, blue hoodie and dark pants while facing a gate with flowers and candles placed in front.
Inez Arakaki comforts her son Zachary as they visit a makeshift memorial site in front of the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, on Jan. 23, 2023, where 10 people were shot dead, and 10 others injured, late on Jan. 21, 2023. One of those injured died of gunshot wounds, bringing the death toll to 11. (Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images)

It was a joyful kickoff to the first Lunar New Year celebration in Monterey Park since before the pandemic, with large crowds filling the streets in the majority Chinese American city near Los Angeles for live entertainment, carnival rides and plenty of food.

But the celebrations were marred by tragedy Saturday night after a gunman entered a ballroom dance hall and opened fire, killing 10 people, wounding 10 more and sending panicked revelers into the streets. The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services confirmed Monday that one of the four people being treated from the shooting at the LA County-USC Medical Center has died of gunshot wounds, bringing the death toll to 11.

The shooting that left five men and six women dead brought a jarring end to the planned two-day party to ring in the Year of the Rabbit, which on Saturday featured dragon dancers parading through downtown streets decorated with red lanterns.

Sunday's festivities were canceled, though some Lunar New Year celebrations went on in neighboring cities also home to large Asian and Asian American populations.

“We haven’t had a celebration like this in three years, so this was momentous. People came out in droves," said Monterey Park Mayor Pro Tem Jose Sanchez, who attended festivities with his 6-year-old daughter earlier on Saturday. He estimated 100,000 people attended Saturday, and the festival is typically one of the largest Lunar New Year celebrations in the state.

Monterey Park Mayor Henry Lo said the massacre has affected everyone in the community.

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"Our priority is to make sure that those victims [and] their family members are given the assistance they need to heal and to get over this trauma," said Lo. "And as a community, we will need to move forward in the long process of healing as community so that we can together overcome this tragedy."

The massacre sent shock waves through Asian and Asian American communities around the nation, prompting police from San Francisco to New York to step up patrols at Lunar New Year celebrations in their own cities.

On Sunday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed began a Lunar New Year event by holding a moment of silence for the lives lost in Saturday night’s attack.

City Administrator Carmen Chu, who grew up in Southern California, said she has family members who still frequent Monterey Park, and was saddened to hear of the attack.

"As we celebrate the holidays, it’s a time of joy but also a time to remember the people that you have in your life who you love, who you care about, and the community that you hold dear," she said.

Cynthia Choi, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, a Bay Area-based advocacy group, also grew up in Southern California and said AAPI communities are experiencing collective hurt and trauma.

"It's a reminder that regardless of the motivation of what happened, that this is having such a devastating impact on our communities," said Choi. "The sense of safety has been taken away for so long. With the kickoff of the Lunar New Year, many of us across the country and around the world were looking forward to peace and prosperity and a time of celebration. It certainly has been marred because of this tragedy. "

Despite the solemn news, Portsmouth Square, in San Francisco’s historic Chinatown, was filled with families and children eagerly awaiting the promised lai see, red envelopes typically filled with money; for the occasion yesterday, they were mostly filled with chocolate gold coins.

Jessica Kemball, who attended the event with her 5-year-old son,  said she was concerned by the news but thought it was important for her son to celebrate the holiday.

"It’s a cultural link to our Chinese culture," said Kemball. "It’s something that unites my kids with my parents and it’s a tangible way to remind them about Chinese culture and the things that we do." The city's famous New Year Parade is scheduled for Feb. 4.

No motivation for the crime has been given and authorities said the suspect was 72-year-old Huu Can Tran. Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said Sunday Tran killed himself as police officers closed in on the van he used to flee.

Asian American advocacy groups said it was another blow after years of high-profile anti-Asian violence around the country.

“Regardless of what the intent was, the impact on our community has been really profound,” said Connie Chung Joe, CEO of the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. The nonprofit had a booth set up at the festival in Monterey Park, and Chung Joe had planned to attend Sunday.

“Having this tragedy on one of our most important holidays ... it feels very personal to our community,” she said. “There is still that feeling of being targeted, and being fearful, when we hear about a shooting like this.”

The San Gabriel Valley is home to a diverse array of Asian American communities, including people of Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipino descent.

Yingying Guan, 29, saw a mass of police cars Saturday night in Monterey Park and heard helicopters overhead. She didn't learn it was in response to a shooting until she awoke to the news Sunday morning.

Guan doesn’t know anyone involved but said she is devastated for her community.

“It’s supposed to be families gathering together to enjoy and to just have some time to get together," she said. “So many innocent victims.”

Investigators said the gunman opened fire in the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, killing 10 people, Luna said. Then, 20 to 30 minutes later, he entered the Lai Lai Ballroom in nearby Alhambra, before a man there wrested the weapon away from him, according to The New York Times, and he fled, Luna said.

“When something like this happens — and I never thought it would happen in our community — it’s very hard to process,” said Sanchez, of Monterey Park. “There’s so much grief.”

Monterey Park is a city of about 60,000 people on the eastern edge of Los Angeles where nearly 70% of residents are Asian, mostly of Chinese descent. The area became a destination for Asian immigrants during the 1970s and '80s after a real estate entrepreneur named Frederic Hsieh bought land and advertised the area's rolling hills and warm climate in Chinese-language newspapers.

The city's Lunar New Year celebration has become one of California’s largest. Sanchez, who is Mexican American, said it's a Chinese tradition that everyone enjoys and that reflects the diversity of greater Los Angeles.

Its festivities were canceled, but several other events throughout the region, including a parade in the city of Westminster, went on as planned, albeit with extra security.

The dance studio where the shooting occurred is located a few blocks from City Hall on Monterey Park’s main thoroughfare of Garvey Avenue, which is dotted with strip malls of small businesses whose signs are in both English and Chinese. Cantonese and Mandarin both are widely spoken, Chinese holidays are celebrated, and Chinese films are screened regularly in the city.

Lynette Ma, 28, woke up to text messages from worried friends asking if she was OK. She had planned to take her mother to the festival on Sunday. But after hearing the news, they sat in a city park coming to terms with the tragedy instead.

“It was just the most terrible thing,” she said. “It’s just awful because you never expect it to happen somewhere so close to home.”

She said her family will go out to eat to mark the holiday, but it won’t be the same.

Sanchez said a public vigil for the victims will be held in the coming days.

Amy Taxin and Christopher Weber of The Associated Press and KQED's Juan Carlos Lara and Brian Watt contributed reporting to this story.



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