Monterey Park's safe haven for Asian communities is shattered by mass shooting

MONTEREY PARK, Calif. –  As he visits neighborhoods and checks in on residents throughout the city where he grew up, Thomas Wong is navigating bouts of shock and relief.

Wong, a longtime Monterey Park City Council member, said the shock comes from knowing that his hometown suffered the worst mass shooting in the United States since a deadly school attack in Uvalde, Texas, in May. The killings took place hours after Lunar New Year celebrations. 

The relief comes from knowing the suspected killer in Monterey Park can no longer hurt anyone.

"We see (mass shootings) proliferate in other parts of the country, but you never expect it to happen in your own backyard," Wong said Monday in between consoling fellow residents. "To start off the year like this is an unimaginable tragedy."

Two days after the shooting that killed 11 people and wounded nine Saturday at a dance hall in Monterey Park, about 9 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, residents are doing their best to cope. In the tranquil community of mostly Asian American residents descended from China, Vietnam, Thailand and other nations, the tragedy stands out.

As customers came into Golden Liquor Store to buy lottery tickets or soda on Monday, owner Barry Jiang said they tried their best to create a sense of normalcy.

Yet almost one by one, Jiang said, customers asked him, "Are you OK?"

Steven Zhang, who owns a traditional noodle shop, said he was receiving significantly more to-go orders from customers who felt unsafe dining in.

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Monterey Park is a 'gateway for Asian businesses'

Monterey Park is a majority-minority city of about 60,000 people. About 65% of its population is of Asian descent, according to U.S. Census statistics. The city's second-largest demographic is Hispanic (26.9%) and white (5.6%).

Wong said there was a wave of immigrants from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1970s and '80s who instead of settling near and around LA's Chinatown chose to locate in suburbia. Soon, a broader wave of Asian nationalities arrived not only in Monterey Park but also across the mountainous San Gabriel Valley.

"Monterey Park is seen as a gateway for Asian businesses and economic diversity," Wong said.

Barry Jiang, 38, reads the headlines in a Chinese language newspaper in his business,Golden Liquor in Monterey Park, Calif. on Jan. 23, 2023. Jiang is one of numerous people from Asian countries that immigrated to the U.S. and specifically to Monterey Park.
Barry Jiang, 38, reads the headlines in a Chinese language newspaper in his business,Golden Liquor in Monterey Park, Calif. on Jan. 23, 2023. Jiang is one of numerous people from Asian countries that immigrated to the U.S. and specifically to Monterey Park.

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'This is the place people start their dreams'

Monterey Park is a refuge for many Chinese immigrants, residents said.

Zhang, the noddle shop owner, said he moved to the city from Xian in central China in 2011. Seven years later, he bought a home with his wife in El Monte, about 15 minutes east of Monterey Park.

Zhang said “family houses” – essentially boarding houses – are easy to find. For $10 to $15 a night, you can find a place to sleep, Zhang said. The city is full of job agencies and immigration lawyers who help people obtain work visas.

"This is the place people start their dreams," Zhang said.

Wong said the area offers a level of comfort where English isn't always the primary language. He said many residents hold working-, middle- and upper-class jobs. Wong said the professions range from cleaning services to restaurant owners to corporate executives and even city leaders like himself.

Steven Zhang hand pulls noodles at his restaurant Noodle Art in Monterey Park, Calif. Jan. 23, 2023. Monterey Park’s Asian cuisine is a big attraction.
Steven Zhang hand pulls noodles at his restaurant Noodle Art in Monterey Park, Calif. Jan. 23, 2023. Monterey Park’s Asian cuisine is a big attraction.

"It's across the board," Wong said, adding that elders are revered and respected.

"It's expected that it is the younger generations' responsibility to take care of them, and our community has built the infrastructure and services to do just that," Wong said.

That includes establishments like the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, where the shooting happened. Most of the 11 dead were over 50, including several who saw the dance studio as "a haven" from the stress of everyday life.

The Star is "the only nice dancing ballroom in this area," said Joom Pfrunder, 67, an immigrant from Thailand. She goes to the studio every other month for events organized by the Thai community.

The dance floor is high quality and vast, fitting hundreds of people at a time. The prices are reasonable, the building is accessible and always busy, Pfrunder said.

"It was the place where you meet" people," Pfrunder said. Now, she worries "everybody is going to think twice before going back there again."

Ballroom dancing is especially popular among older people, Pfrunder said. "It's very relaxing. They enjoy dancing with their loved ones, husband, (and) friends," she said. "It's tragic to hear that someone could go in and start shooting like that."

'We have a lot of healing to do'

Connie Joe Chung, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Los Angeles, said the area celebrating the Lunar New Year in public for the first time since the pandemic made the weekend all the more special.

"We've been scared to be in public settings, one due to the pandemic, and two, making ourselves more vulnerable to being attacked due to all of the anti-Asian hate," Chung said.

Monterey Park is also near upper-middle-class Alhambra, another predominately Asian-populated suburb. Alhambra Mayor Adele Andrade-Stadler said Monday she grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and moved to Alhambra when she got married.

She noted that all three cities, Alhambra, Monterey Park and San Gabriel, are close regional partners. Andrade-Stadler said she and two other councilwomen were at the Monterey Park Lunar New Year celebration Saturday night before the shooting.

"We three cities are connected politically and through our work as councilmembers. We're all close," she said. "We all grew up together in the political circles. We attend each other's Chinese New Year's celebrations."

Chung, who also lives in the San Gabriel Valley, added, "For something like (the shooting) to happen during a big celebration has been a big hit to us."

Lily Nitta, 52, who lives in Alhambra, held a candle alongside hundreds at a vigil at the Monterey Park city hall Monday night. Pastors and community leaders led the crowd in prayer.

"I wanted to be here to pray for those that are suffering. I feel a little bit lost for those who live in Monterey Park and the surrounding areas," Nitta said. "It's such a helpless feeling."

Gerry Bonilla, 40, lived in Monterey Park for more than seven years. While the gathering in front of city hall offered a moment of peace, he said it felt like an illusion when news began to trickle in from northern California Monday night of yet another mass shooting. 

"It seems there's a lot of trauma that created this," Bonilla said.

On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted that he met with Monterey Park city leaders and residents.

"The strength of this community is incredible," Newsom said. The governor lamented that the nation is being "terrorized by this constant stream" of gun violence.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis echoed a similar sentiment during an impromptu briefing Monday in Monterey Park.

Solis said that "while we are all grieving," residents will be resilient.

"There are some special things to be thankful for," Solis said. "The community has come together. Many people are coming forward to provide initial support to many of our (Asian American Pacific Islander) residents, many of whom are now in solace and witnessing things that are unheard of.

"We know we have a lot of healing to do."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Monterey Park's safe haven for Asian communities shattered by shooting