Mass shooting in Monterey Park shatters the hope and joy of Lunar New Year

Hacienda Heights, CA - January 22: A state law enforcement agent passes a group of dancers before their performance during a celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year at the Hsi Lai Temple on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023 in Hacienda Heights, CA. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times).
A group of dancers prepares to perform during a celebration of the Lunar New Year on Sunday at the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

It was supposed to be a day of heralding the birth of spring with symbolic rituals like wearing red for good luck and eating long-life noodles to ensure good health.

Instead, those who celebrate Lunar New Year woke Sunday to news of a mass shooting at a dance studio in the majority Asian suburb of Monterey Park that left 10 people dead and another 10 wounded.

For many Asian Americans, hope for the new year was shattered.

Lunar New Year is the most important holiday for those who trace their roots to China, Vietnam and some other Asian nations.

The holiday is celebrated in many ways, including eating dumplings for wealth and good fortune, slurping noodles to symbolize a long life and enjoying dragon and lion dances that confer the spirit of these animals — bright, energetic and powerful — to onlookers, helping them to face challenges.

A mass shooting at this time is not just heartbreaking; for some, it casts a shadow of bad luck over the coming months.

“It’s always sad for a tragedy like this to happen, but it’s especially sad when it's a time when people are supposed to be happy and looking forward to a bright future,” said Yulan Chung, executive director of the South Coast Chinese Cultural Center in Irvine. “It’s like when you are having a wedding — you don’t want anything to go wrong.”

For many, the topic of death is taboo at this time of year. To even discuss it is considered bad luck, creating an inauspicious start to the next 12 months.

Some celebrants avoided mentioning the words "death" or "dying" after hearing news of the shooting, turning instead to euphemisms like "tragedy."

In text messages, some Asian American elders refused to speculate on the motivation of the shooter, asking for prayers at temple altars instead.

Nikki La of Huntington Beach heard about the fatalities from her father, who advised her to "please be careful" and keep close to home.

Still, La attended the Tet Parade on Sunday in Little Saigon, squeezing tight among throngs to witness sparkling floats and political dignitaries waving from chauffeured cars. Some revelers wore cat costumes, since this is the year of the cat for Vietnamese people. (It's the year of the rabbit for Chinese people.)

"It's so, so sad, but we want to start the year as we intended," said La, who is Vietnamese American. "My family looks forward to this celebration, and it's important to continue with our lives as we normally would."

La, 43, will wait for another time — after the holiday — to talk about the shooting and other difficult topics with her 10-year-old son.

"He's very curious and very observant about the world, and you know, our kids always hear about the big news," said La, who works as an office manager at a law firm. "But we're keeping it gentle. A new year can start softly, and I always remind him to be aware of your surroundings."

High school teacher Ky Phong Tran spent the days leading up to Lunar New Year tidying his Torrance home, hanging red and gold decorations and going to the bank to exchange a few hundred dollars for crisp new bills to stuff into red envelopes.

Some believe it's wise to start the new year with a clean house. And Tran would present the red envelopes to his children and young relatives, the gift symbolizing wishes of good fortune.

On Saturday evening, Tran, who is Vietnamese American, and his wife, who is Chinese American, gathered with family to eat Peking duck and long-life noodles at Duck House in Monterey Park. Afterward, they stopped by Premier Dessert Art for Taiwanese shaved ice. Both spots are near the scene of the mass shooting, which erupted a few hours later.

The news terrified the family, as did word that the suspect fatally shot himself in the parking lot of Tokyo Central, the market in Torrance where Tran shops every Thursday after his child’s soccer game.

Tran wonders if the shooter, identified by law enforcement as Huu Can Tran, 72, “was looking at this as an important holiday and decided, 'I’m going to ruin it for you.'"

“I think he’s gone beyond logic or tradition,” said Tran, 47. “I love this holiday. This is our holiday, and to have this happen is unreal.”

An estimated 2 billion people across the world celebrate the Lunar New Year. Its origins date back as far as 3,500 years, to the Shang Dynasty in China.

In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a legislation declaring Lunar New Year a state holiday.

The holiday has a different resonance than the western new year, said Judy Wu, a professor of history and Asian American studies at UC Irvine. While both involve reflecting on the past and thinking about goals for the future, Jan. 1, with champagne and a countdown, often feels like an add-on for those who celebrate Lunar New Year.

“You clean your house, you pay your debt, you start the new year with hope,” Wu said. "People take multiple days off from work, they travel to go home, and it's an important time to connect with family."

Emily Cen, 24, of Covina and her boyfriend, Kevin Xu, 24, of Temple City, were among the throngs arriving Sunday afternoon at Monterey Park’s Wong Tai Sen Taoism Center, grasping sticks of incense to make offerings for the new year.

“I came here with my parents yesterday night as well,” said Cen. “We have a tradition of burning incense for good luck for the whole year. This year, it was welcoming the goddess of wealth to our family.”

Cen had planned to bring her sister Doris, 11, to the city’s Lunar New Year celebration Sunday, but the shooting left them fearful of venturing into the area. Instead, they went to the temple to continue traditions that have brought them comfort since childhood and to wish for good luck.

Late Sunday morning, after learning that the mass shooting may not have been a hate crime, Cen felt some relief.

“Last night, I thought it was because of Asian hate,” she said. “Today, when we found out it wasn’t, we felt a little better. I’m wishing for more peace in the future.”

This year, big crowds were expected to return to Lunar New Year festivities, many of which were canceled during the pandemic.

“It’s like if a mass shooting happens on Christmas Eve,” said Elizabeth Wang, a pastor who was staying in the Monterey Park area for the weekend.

Sun Luu, a 26-year-old performing arts teacher who lives down the road from the ballroom dance studio where the shooting occurred, said he looks forward to the Monterey Park Lunar New Year festival every year.

He woke to a deluge of calls and texts asking if he was safe.

“It had perverted what was meant to be a sacred, holiday gathering in celebration of the new year,” he said. “And it’s painful to know the suspect is Asian. To know that it’s also from someone who I imagine is part of the community or at least could be part of us … that’s just something I haven’t quite grappled with yet.”

At the Tet Parade in Little Saigon, Kameron Au waited with her daughters to greet the lion dancers after a morning of exchanging family blessings and distributing lucky red envelopes of money.

Au, a financial officer from Huntington Beach who is Chinese American, said she is superstitious about discussing death at this time of year. But that's why she felt she had to be out and about in the wake of the tragedy.

"I want to celebrate the holiday openly, to start the year happy instead of in fear," she said. "If I'm living in fear at the beginning of the year, I will live in fear the rest of the year. We want to welcome what makes us happy."

Times staff writer Debbie Truong contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.