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Atlanta spa shooting victims highlight struggles for Asian and Asian American immigrant women in low-wage jobs

Many of the victims had come to the U.S. in search of a better life, following the difficult path of immigrant women before them

People leave flowers at the memorial outside of Gold Spa on Friday in Atlanta. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

The three workers at Gold Spa in Atlanta had come to the United States in search of a better life, following the difficult path of many other immigrant women before them.

Suncha Kim, 69, did not speak English when she arrived with her son in tow around 1980, and picked up odd jobs washing dishes and cleaning office buildings. Hyun Jung Grant, 51, worked so much that one of her sons recalled that he and his brother were left with another family for at least a year. And Soon Chung Park, 74, had moved more than 800 miles to Atlanta from her family in the New York/New Jersey area.

The women, all originally from South Korea, were among eight people killed on Tuesday when a gunman opened fire at their workplaces and shot his victims in the head and chest.

Three other victims — Yong Ae Yue, 63; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44 — were also Asian women and workers or managers at the three businesses that were attacked.

Two other people — Delaina Yaun, 33, and Paul Andre Michels, 54 — were also killed Tuesday. Yaun and her husband had decided to treat themselves to a couples massage and were in separate rooms when the gunman entered and started shooting, according to DeLayne Davis, a relative. Yaun was killed. Her husband escaped. Michels, a handyman at Young’s Asian Massage, was an Army veteran, family members told news outlets.

Lawmakers addressed hundreds of demonstrators on March 20 and demanded justice for the eight people shot dead at three spas in the Atlanta area. (Video: Robert Ray /The Washington Post)

The violent end to their lives has opened a window into the experiences of low-wage immigrant Asian and Asian American women in a stigmatized profession, and has ignited a difficult national conversation about race, class and gender in the United States.

Their deaths have drawn an outpouring of support for more to be done against violence targeting Asians and Asian Americans. A GoFundMe for one of the victim’s families has raised $2.5 million in one day.

But to the women’s families, they were remembered for the ordinary, everyday things — their passion for road trips, soap operas, music, cooking. And, most of all, their devotion to family.

One was a former elementary school teacher, another a former dancer. One felt called by her Catholic faith to volunteer for those less fortunate than her.

At least four were U.S. citizens.

Several had limited English ability, making it difficult to find jobs, and a couple saw their marriages to American men end in divorce, leaving them in a precarious financial situation.

One was a single mom whose sons are now alone without other relatives in the United States, while another left behind a large extended family grieving for her.

At least two were grandmothers.

‘Immense courage’

Suncha Kim’s life of 69 years was about self-sacrifice and taking care of others.

Kim, a naturalized U.S. citizen, leaves behind two children, three grandchildren and her husband of more than 50 years.

When her own mother died when she was in middle school in Korea, Kim suddenly found herself the head of the household, taking care of three younger sisters along with her father, who worked in local government.

Kim married when she was in her 20s to a Korean man, and they had a daughter and son. Around 1980, family members said, Kim and her son moved to the United States, and her husband and daughter joined them a few years later. Whenever her children and grandchildren would later ask her about the move, she would say “it was for better opportunities and to provide the children a better environment.”

But life in the United States was tough.

Kim spoke very little English, and she pieced together two to three jobs at a time to survive. Her first job was at an army station in Texas, where she worked in a restaurant doing dishes. She also worked at a convenience store and at George Washington’s Mount Vernon property, and she used to pick up extra cash by going out late to clean offices after hours.

“This took immense courage, and my grandmother was a fighter,” her granddaughter wrote in a letter posted to GoFundMe to raise money for her funeral and a memorial.

“She always put her children first. Every conversation started with her asking, ‘Are you okay?’ And the children would say, ‘Yes, we are good,’ and she would respond: ‘If you are good and happy, I am happy,’” added a family member, who asked not to be identified for privacy reasons.

But Kim made time to help others.

Kim was Catholic, and she volunteered by cooking and fundraising for various organizations. One of the causes she was most passionate about was the Global Children Foundation, a nonprofit established in 1998 after the economic crisis in South Korea to help children going hungry due to their families’ financial hardship but that later expanded to help children all over the world.

Family members said she was given the President’s Volunteer Service Award during President Barack Obama’s term for the volunteer work she did in the D.C. area to help feed the homeless.

Kim’s husband used to work at a convenience store and a travel agency but is now retired.

The last time family members saw Kim was last week, when she made a large plate of japchae, a traditional noodle dish, for everyone and sent them off with homemade kimchi.

In a letter that was read to President Biden during his visit to Atlanta this past week, a family member spoke in Kim’s voice. It mentions that Kim voted for Biden, loved her adopted country, and it describes her family with pride.

“I have three beautiful grandchildren. One has graduated from college. One is in middle school aspiring to one day speed skate for the U.S.A. in the Winter Olympics. One is currently attending college. ... The only thing that would have made me the happiest in life was to grow old with my husband and watch my children and grandchildren live the fruitful life I worked so hard to give them,” one of Kim’s children wrote on her behalf.

One of Kim’s children called on Biden and lawmakers to help ensure justice and charge Robert Aaron Long - the 21-year-old White man facing murder charges in the shootings — with a hate crime: “Please stand up for us. We beg that you do not allow the death of my mother and the death of all victims of hate crimes to die in vain.”

An elementary school teacher

Hyun Jung Grant’s life revolved around supporting her sons.

“She was a single mother who dedicated her whole life to providing for my brother and I. It is only my brother and I in the United States. The rest of my family is in South Korea and are unable to come,” her son Randy Park, 23, wrote in a GoFundMe letter.

Park started the fundraising effort after he and his brother, Eric, were told they would be forced to move from their home.

“Losing her has put a new lens on my eyes on the amount of hate that exists in our world,” he wrote on the page.

Before she moved from South Korea, Grant was an elementary school teacher, according the Daily Beast, and in her spare time loved dancing and listening to electronic music. Park and his brother grew up in Seattle but moved to Atlanta about 13 years ago for more opportunities.

“Obviously, she didn’t have much money when she came. For at least a year, she had to leave us with another family,” Park told NBC News. “We never saw her; we would just get calls from her. We didn’t have cellphones at the time.”

Grant hid her job at the spa from them, Park said, saying instead that she worked at a makeup store.

This week, co-workers of Park remembered Grant visiting her son at the Tree Story Bakery and Cafe in Duluth, Ga., where he worked.

“I could see the joy in her eyes every time she would see him working,” said bakery worker Isaac Cho. “I could tell from that that she was a very loving mother who cared for her family.”

‘Everybody said she was going to live past 100 years old’

At 74, Soon Chung Park was the oldest of the shooting victims.

She spent most of her life in the New York City metropolitan area and moved to Atlanta several years ago to be closer to friends, said Scott Lee, her son-in-law. She helped manage one of the spas, and cooked lunch and dinner for the employees, according to Lee and local community members.

“She just liked to work,” Lee said in an interview. “It wasn’t for the money. She just wanted a little bit of work for her life.”

Outside of the spa, Park was fit and active, Lee said.

“She was very healthy,” he said. “Everybody said she was going to live past 100 years old.”

Lee said he had grown close to Park since marrying her daughter a decade ago. They lived under the same roof in Lyndhurst, N.J., before she relocated to Georgia. She was a dancer when she was younger, he said, and sometimes, the two of them would dance together. When they spoke, she made a point to refer to him by his given name rather than his in-law title in Korean — a reflection of their deep bond, he said.

Park missed opportunities to visit the family last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. She was planning to move back into Lee’s home in June when her apartment lease in Atlanta ended, according to Lee. Most of her family still lived in the Northeast.

Lee recalled: “We always said to her, ‘Come back and be with us.’ ”

‘My mother didn’t do anything wrong’

A fourth woman from Korea, Yong Ae Yue, 63, died across the street from Gold Spa at the Aromatherapy Spa after she opened the door reportedly believing the shooter might be a customer.

Her sons, in a statement shared by the family’s attorney, BJay Pak, thanked “those who have reached out to provide support and words of encouragement.”

“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved mother, and words cannot adequately describe our grief,” they said.

One son, Robert Peterson, 38, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she was laid off amid the pandemic and was excited to return to work. She frequently spent her time cooking Korean food, visiting friends and watching movies and soap operas, reading or with her dog, Iyong, a Shih Tzu mix. He said she had come to Georgia in the 1980s after meeting his father, who was an American soldier.

“My mother didn’t do anything wrong,” Peterson said to the newspaper. “And she deserves the recognition that she is a human, she’s a community person like everyone else. None of those people deserved what happened to them.”

‘The kind of lady that she wanted to depend on herself’

Xiaojie Tan, or Emily, as she was known by some friends, immigrated to the United States from the Nanning region of southern China about 20 years ago, Tan’s ex-husband, Jason Wang, said in an interview Saturday. Within a year or two, Tan sent for her daughter to join her.

Wang said Tan managed Young’s Asian Massage and described her as an “extremely hard worker” and “good business lady” who devoted her life to building personal care businesses, including nail salons and spas.

“She donated and gave money to her employees, and treated them so well,” said Wang, 47. “She was always celebrating their birthdays, doing good things for them.”

Wang was Tan’s second husband. They met in 2012, after Tan separated from her first husband.

At the time, Tan owned Young’s Nail Salon, where she met Wang. The couple married in 2013. Around the same time in 2017, Tan soon launched two other businesses, Young’s Asian Massage and Wang’s Feet and Body Massage.

“She worked a lot, and she was the kind of lady that she wanted to depend on herself,” Wang said.

Daoyou Feng began working with Tan at Young’s Asian Massage in recent months, according to Tan’s friend Greg Hynson, 54. Feng’s relatives could not be reached.

Tan had one daughter, a recent graduate from the University of Georgia, and valued her U.S. citizenship and always fretted around election time about who she would vote for.

“She loved this country,” Wang said. “She really wanted to know which candidate was good, and she always asked me, ‘What is your idea?’ Because she was an immigrant and sometimes always have time to read all of the news, she wanted to be very, very careful” in making her selection.

Xiaohua Pettit, who grew up in the same city in China as Tan, recalled how her friend taught her the ins and outs of nail care when Pettit was looking for a new profession in the United States. She said Tan forwarded money to her family in China and sent back other gifts for her parents.

“She didn’t do much for herself, but she helped everyone else,” said Gary Pettit, Xiaohua Pettit’s husband.

“I cannot describe how sad I am,” Wang said. “She is a nice lady. She worked so hard. She is a good wife. She is a good mother.”

Tim Craig reported from Atlanta. Mark Shavin in Duluth, Ga., and Lateshia Beachum, Alice Crites and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.