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Lunar New Year parties tinged with fear after Monterey Park shooting

A dragon dances before thousands of spectators on Seventh Street during the Lunar New Year parade in D.C.'s Chinatown on Sunday. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Passion Julinsey joined the throngs watching a Lunar New Year parade of paper dragons and drums snaking through D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood Sunday afternoon, even though her mother warned her to stay home.

The mass killing of 10 people after a Lunar New Year event in Monterey Park, Calif., a majority-Asian American suburb of Los Angeles, cast a dark cloud over what was supposed to be one of the most festive weekends of the year.

Residents in Monterey Park, Calif., shared their experiences of hearing about the shooting that killed 10 people at a ballroom dance hall on Jan 21. (Video: Joyce Koh, Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman/The Washington Post, Photo: Philip Cheung/The Washington Post)

Despite her mother’s fears of another attack, Julinsey, a 49-year-old Thai American, showed up to the festival, believing that celebrating an important Asian holiday is an act of solidarity.

“I had to be discreet,” she said. “I am out here, maintaining distance from the stage. But you can’t stop living. It’s a festive occasion. You can’t live in fear.”

Asian Americans across the United States woke up to the horrific news out of California for the first day of Lunar New Year, reviving fears about hate crimes and reigniting questions about whether to venture into the public. The mass killing had ripple effects for celebrations across the country, with several events in Southern California canceled and police increasing patrols and other security measures in the District, New York City, Houston, San Francisco and other cities with large Asian American communities.

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Authorities on Sunday did not reveal any information to suggest the shooting in Monterey Park — which also left 10 others injured — was a targeted attack on Asians or had any connection to the Lunar New Year. The suspect is an Asian man, police said, and the shooting at a dance studio happened after Monterey Park’s Lunar New Year eve event was scheduled to end. Police have not yet revealed a motive in the killings. The 10 victims, who have not yet been identified, were “probably” all of Asian descent, police officials said.

“Even though it may not be hate-motivated, what we saw is our community members were targeted,” said Manjusha Kulkarni, co-founder of the Stop AAPI Hate advocacy group and executive director of AAPI Equity Alliance in Los Angeles. “They are very worried about going out to these celebrations and instead of being a day of joy and celebration and renewal, it’s instead fear, anxiety and tremendous trauma.”

When Kulkarni joined a call of other Asian American advocates and government officials Sunday, she said one participant said they would not celebrate New Year events and another found comfort in being out with the community after a tragedy.

Activists say the conflicting emotions about attending Lunar New Year events are not just about what happened in Monterey Park, but are part of a years-long reckoning with what it means to be Asian in America.

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Community leaders say they’ve been contending with a wave of anti-Asian hate since the pandemic started in China — and some have braced for it to get worse as China now confronts a massive surge of infections. The 2021 slaying of six Asian women in an Atlanta-area spa shooting also shook the community. Earlier this month, an Indiana University student was stabbed on a bus by an assailant who allegedly told police she did it because the victim was “Chinese.”

All of this has culminated in a fragile sense of safety, Asian American activists say.

In the Los Angeles area, some responded to the mass killing and manhunt for the killer by canceling events on Sunday, including a celebration scheduled in Pasadena, Calif., at the University of Southern California Pacific Asia Museum.

The museum said the festival was canceled because of “the deadly mass shooting in neighboring Monterey Park,” adding in a statement that the decision was made out of “respect for the victims and an abundance of caution.”

On Instagram, an account run by Citadel Outlets, an outlet mall near Monterey Park, made an abrupt shift from celebratory videos to canceling the mall’s Lunar New Year celebration after Saturday night’s events. The mall cited “an abundance of caution and the utmost regard to the safety and well-being of our guests,” according to its Instagram story. Mall officials have also increased security for those going to shop on Sunday.

Other events recognizing the Lunar New Year — which stretches over several weeks and is celebrated by more than 1 billion people worldwide across multiple cultures — continued on Sunday, with revelers welcoming in the new Year of the Rabbit, traditionally a symbol of peace and hope under the Chinese Zodiac.

But the mass violence left a sense of shock hanging over many gatherings. After attending a Lunar New Year event in Queens, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), tweeted: “All were dismayed and devastated about the shooting in Monterey Park.”

Amanda Nguyen, who advocates for Asian Americans as chief executive of the civil rights organization Rise, said she was raised with the tradition that whatever happens on Lunar New Year sets a precedent for the rest of the year — weighing on her as she balances mourning and celebration.

“There is definitely an urge to release those emotions, but I want to make sure I don’t cry for the rest of the year,” Nguyen said. So she tempered her mourning with visits to a Buddhist temple and NASA’s Johnson Space Center while seeing loved ones in Houston.

“Joy is the most radical form of rebellion,” she said.

Around the country, law enforcement also increased its visibility at Lunar New Year celebrations as government leaders tried to assure residents there was no threat.

In Virginia, Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis joined fellow officers for festivities at Eden Center, a Falls Church-area development packed with Vietnamese restaurants and shops.

There were no threats, but a Fairfax County police spokesman, Lt. Jason Chandler, said, “We had a large presence at the event today to let the community know we support them and we’re celebrating Lunar New Year along with them.”

Still, Hua Zou thought twice about going to the D.C. parade with his wife and daughter and knows others who stayed home.

“I do feel worried for myself and the community, said Zou, 34. “If it could happen there, it could happen here, too.”

But he and his family were resolved to bask in the New Year parties, as was Tim Yan, who drove an hour from Virginia to livestream the parade.

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“The first day of the New Year, visiting friends to celebrate together, that’s our tradition,” Yan, 34, said, adding he felt a “little” scared by a surge of anti-Asian hate he has noticed in recent months.

“Sometimes, when I walk on the street, I hear people yelling at me to go back to ‘my country,’” Yan said. “It makes me upset.”

But on this day, he was happy to celebrate, and he said he felt safe.

Justin Moyer contributed to this report.

More on the California shootings

The latest: California has grappled with two mass killings in three days. A weekend shooting at a dance studio in Monterey Park left 11 people dead, and seven people were killed in related shootings at two locations around Half Moon Bay.

The victims: The identified Monterey Park shooting victims include a “loving aunt” and a joyful dancer. The people killed in the gunfire were all in their 50s, 60s and 70s, police said. Authorities have not released the victims’ identities in the Half Moon Bay shooting.

The suspects: Police identified the Monterey Park suspect as Huu Can Tran, a 72-year-old man of Asian descent, who was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound Sunday. Authorities arrested 67-year-old Zhao Chunli in connection with the Half Moon Bay shootings. He admitted to the shooting rampage at two farms and said he was bullied.

The weapon: Officers have described three guns they linked to the Monterey Park attacker: A rifle found in his home, a handgun recovered from his van and what they said was a modified semiautomatic taken away at the second dance studio. In the Half Moon Bay shootings, authorities recovered a semiautomatic handgun from the vehicle the suspect was located in. California’s gun laws are some of the strongest in the nation.