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A safe haven for Asian immigrants now shares in the tragedy of gun violence

Shopkeepers observe police activity Sunday near the dance studio where a gunman killed 10 people and injured another 10 in Monterey Park, Calif., the night before. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)

MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — Here between the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains and downtown Los Angeles is a place that decades ago made history, becoming the nation’s first Asian-majority city after years of determined emigration from Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China.

Now its history includes a grimmer development, one it shares with an increasing collection of American cities and suburbs: A shooting killed at least 10 people and wounded 10 others as they joyously marked the start of the Lunar New Year inside a popular dance hall.

The man who carried out the Saturday night shooting has been identified as Huu Can Tran, a 72-year-old old man of Asian descent. He was found dead on Sunday behind the wheel of a white van, and his motive remains unclear. But in the cool winter light of day, this city of about 60,000 people has turned sharply from a venue for celebration to one of grief, from suburban calm to frightening revelation.

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 its remove from Los Angeles County’s more violent neighborhoods, Monterey Park is just as vulnerable to gun violence in a state that has tried more than most to corral it with laws and regulations, many of its fearful residents said in the aftermath. Investigators are still determining if its ethnic character played any role in the attack, city and regional officials said.

“When people ask me about Monterey Park, I think about the food, the people, that I can go outside at 12 a.m. and feel safe,” said Eric Ching, who passed by a center set up here for victims and families Sunday afternoon to pay his respects.

“Now that’s shattered,” Ching said. “I’ve never even seen a fricking gun in Monterey Park, and it’s here.”

Because of the city’s history as the country’s first Asian-majority suburb, Monterey Park’s Lunar New Year celebration attracts many people from around the region to its wide avenues for two days of festivities. The target and timing of the shooting raised fears here that the motive could involve anti-Asian bias, prevalent across the state since the advent of the covid-19 pandemic.

This was the first in-person celebration to mark the start of a new year according to the traditional Chinese calendar since the start of the pandemic. The festival commonly draws more than 100,000 visitors, and this year thousands crowded the city’s small downtown, lining up to sample pork buns and shrimp dumplings. Children giggled as they spun around carnival rides, and revelers bought trinkets commemorating the Year of the Rabbit.

The shooting occurred hours after the street events shut down for the day.

In a statement condemning the violence, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass (D) said that “as investigations determine whether these murders were motivated by Asian hate, we continue to stand united against all attempts to divide us.”

The shooting took place in the heart of the city, at the crossroads of Garvey and Garfield avenues, not far from the Hong Kong Supermarket and a collection of banks whose names, like many other businesses here, are spelled out in Chinese characters.

Within sight of the dance hall stood the ceremonial entrance to the festival’s tented booths. A sign atop the makeshift gateway wished all a “Happy Year of the Rabbit.”

A shopkeeper near the shooting site, who identified himself as Yin, said the city is largely safe. He has owned his shop for 15 years, and blames the attack squarely on the shooter’s ability to get his hands on at least one firearm.

“Chinese immigrants are pretty good at following rules, so the cause of this is guns,” Yin said. “If you have a gun, you’re more likely to use it. Maybe only one person was the target, but with guns there are more victims.”

Monterey Park City Council member Thomas Wong, who represents the district where the shooting occurred, was born and raised here. He spent the day checking on family and friends.

His loved ones are okay, he said, but he’s waiting anxiously for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to release victim names — like most everyone else here.

“I’m in grief, in shock,” he said. “I’m still trying to process, and we’re all struggling to make sense of something so senseless.”

Wong said that, while a motive for the attack is still under investigation, it’s impossible to ignore the backdrop: The last few years have been marked by an alarming increase in anti-Asian violence and hate crime reports.

“The context is certainly concerning and brings those fears up, whether they’re founded or not,” he said. “Regardless of the motive and whether this was a hate crime, the fact of the matter is this type of violence is sparking fear in our community, in our Asian American community.”

Community members in Monterey Park, Calif. are reeling after a gunman killed 11 people at a dance hall Jan 21. (Video: Alice Li, Rich Matthews/The Washington Post)

About 65 percent of Monterey Park’s residents are of Asian descent. While initially a migration from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1970s, the nationality of Asian arrivals has broadened over the years. Today it is not uncommon to see Thai, Vietnamese and Burmese restaurants — and languages — over storefronts.

The migration of Asian and Latino minorities to suburbs such as Monterey Park was the result of “post war economic mobility and the legal and informal erosion of discrimination in housing,” wrote John Horton, author of “The Politics of Diversity: Immigration, Resistance, and Change in Monterey Park, California.”

Four decades ago, the scholar Timothy Fong began researching how Chinese migration to the city was stirring tensions among the White and Latino residents.

The work became the material for his book, “The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park,” which noted that Monterey Park’s development “is unique and worth our attention because of the political entanglements that took place in the city.”

In an interview Sunday, Fong said this city marked a new trend in American immigration: Non-White people with money migrating to a specific city in large numbers and bringing their culture with them with the goal of preserving it.

“People weren’t used to that,” Fong said. “They were used to that old story that immigrants were poor, worked hard and then assimilated.”

Today the city maintains a distinctive, highly visible Asian American culture, as well as a working-class bustle and striving immigrant character, sitting as it does at the edge of a more identifiable Los Angeles County wealth.

The city bumps up against upper-middle-class Alhambra, which leads into the wealthy suburb of South Pasadena, its boutiques, Apple store and sidewalk cafes crowded Sunday afternoon.

But the street scene here was far different, sidewalks and storefronts decorated with remnants of a New Year’s celebration and draped with police tape sealing off major downtown streets.

Molly Li was out with her husband and 2-year-old son, strolling a block not far from the crime scene and feeling newly scared about living in a place where she had long felt secure.

“Before this, I always thought Monterey Park was the safest place in America,” she said, citing the community’s large number of Asian American residents. Li is Chinese, and the city has always felt like home. “Today, I think it’s not safe anywhere.”

Li, 40, knew the dance studio but did not know anyone who was there on Saturday. She said she spent the morning reading updates online, getting more and more nervous for her young son.

“Some people are just crazy,” she said.

A few blocks away, at a park next to City Hall and the police department headquarters, a group gathered to play pickleball. Minh Au stood beside the court, awaiting his next match, and said he considered staying home that morning after he heard about the shooting.

Police had not released any information about the gunman’s motive, but Au immediately thought the attack was a hate crime, targeted at Asian Americans like himself.

“It’s pretty scary that it was this close,” he said.

Au has lived in Monterey Park for eight years and said he’s never experienced bias. He felt comfortable leaving his house that morning because the court was just a couple hundred feet from the police station — and he said it was important to forge ahead with daily life. But when he heard the gunman had yet to be apprehended, he reconsidered his decision.

“That’s really bad,” he said. “I may just go home then.”

Maham Javaid and Ben Brasch in Washington 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’s facing charges in court.

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.

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