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Monterey Park’s Asian diaspora adopts new rite: Mourning after gun violence

A woman cries during a memorial at Monterey Park City Hall in Monterey Park, Calif., to honor those killed and injured by a gunman at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)
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MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — At makeshift memorials, bowls of oranges and incense sticks waft sweet smells into the air, assuring the soul’s smooth journey into the next life in accordance with Buddhist tradition. Mourners gather for prayer meetings at local churches, seeking peace and consolation. One victim’s family asked for rosaries and Masses in their honor.

As this community known as the “first suburban Chinatown” begins to mourn the 11 people killed when a gunman burst into a dance studio as Lunar New Year celebrations were starting, they are pulling from traditions old and new to adapt to a uniquely American ritual: Mourning after a mass killing.

What for many in the Asian diaspora is typically a private period of reflection is now public as photos of victims are displayed, officials like Vice President Harris arrive with bouquets of flowers, and city leaders convene vigils to help a community where many hail from countries with far less gun violence.

Compounding the loss is the symbolism of the tragedy’s timing. Embedded in the 15-day Lunar New Year celebrations is the belief that what happens during this period sets the tone for the rest of the year. City residents and neighbors in the greater San Gabriel Valley are now trying to reframe the cultural tradition, so that instead of horror, this year is defined by a collective search for harmony.

“For all of us, this is something very new,” said Henry Lo, a Monterey Park city council member whose mayoral term just ended. “We’ve never had such an incident happen here. We’re learning as we’re doing.”

For decades, Monterey Park has been a beacon for Asian immigrants — a place that can feel less like an enclave and more like an extension of one’s birth country, while simultaneously serving as a gateway to the rest of the United States. Today, the city’s leaders describe it as the heart of Asian American culture and activism, and a place where diaspora communities can thrive alongside of, and commingle with, American tradition.

But this is one American ritual they never thought they’d have to confront.

Nearly a week after Huu Can Tran, 72, attacked Star Ballroom Dance Studio, the city’s leaders are planning vigils, setting up memorial sites and struggling through the painful process of public mourning while honoring the city’s diverse mix of religions.

After a public prayer circle earlier in the week was conducted entirely in English, residents pushed for a city vigil on Tuesday to better reflect Monterey Park’s identity and the identities of the dead. At the Tuesday event, clergy offered words of comfort in Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese and Spanish. More than half of Monterey Park’s residents were born in another country, according to census data. Nearly 40,000 of the 61,000 people who live there identify as Asian, and about half identify as Chinese. Thousands more have ties to Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea and a host of other countries across Asia.

That multiculturalism is reflected within Monterey Park’s houses of worship as well.

Dumpling and noodle houses dot boulevards running alongside the bell tower of St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church and a Southern Baptist church with long-established Chinese, Vietnamese and Taiwanese congregations. Down the block, Buddhist temples share strip-mall storefronts with sushi joints and immigration law offices. Jehovah’s Witnesses assemble on street corners around city hall, offering passersby copies of their literature.

Jesse Chang, a pastor and the executive director of Catalyst San Gabriel Valley, a nonprofit organization that works to build connections between local faith groups, said faith leaders have been channeling their efforts toward helping the community realize that the shooting does not need to define the future of Monterey Park.

“This first stage is trying to mourn,” he said, “and do that with all the different diversity of our community.”

During the most recent vigil, Jason Chu of the nonprofit group Hate Is a Virus took the microphone in the parking lot outside the dance studio and pleaded with the community to choose solidarity in the face of tragedy. The Venerable Chang Ju, a Buddhist nun, encouraged generations of residents to press their palms together as she chanted a mantra for compassion. The point, organizers said, is to confront the suffering together.

“I just felt less alone coming here,” said Brittney Au, a community leader with Compassion in SGV, which organized a recent vigil.

Traditionally, families of Chinese descent would mourn privately, inside homes, temples or churches, said Min Zhou, a sociologist and the director of UCLA’s Asia Pacific Center. The families of those killed have said little publicly outside written statements to news outlets as they withdraw to grieve. The coroner’s office has not released the bodies, and it is unclear when funerals will begin.

But public mourning events are particularly important in an immigrant community where people may not have the same strong social networks that they did in their homeland, Zhou noted.

“The importance is to show that we belong to a community,” she said. “We belong here. We belong to the community and we are part of it. It is very important we are not alone.”

For practicing Buddhists, the aim of new year’s festivities is setting good intentions for what’s to come. At the Wong Tai Sen Taoism Center in Monterey Park, red lanterns dangle from every corner of the ceiling bearing slips of paper with wishes for prosperity, love and peace. But after the loss of life, center supervisor Dave Huang said disciples may instead be in search of answers.

At the altar of the Taoist saint for which the center is named, visitors are invited to shake a bamboo cylinder full of slender sticks to reveal a clue to what the future holds. Each stick bears a number, which corresponds to a drawer containing pieces of paper with written fortunes. When a stick falls out during the shake, a worshiper grabs it and matches it to the corresponding fortune. It’s a deeply personal and solemn rite.

“It’s a way of asking the saint to guide your soul to understanding,” Huang said. “It’s like our telecom to the gods.”

He and others are trying to encourage disciples to engage in conversation about their trauma, which can feel taboo during the Lunar New Year season. Custom dictates that it is best to avoid anger and sadness during the festivities, for fear of inviting more.

“But we are trying to teach people to share their feelings or help them find tools to share,” Huang said.

The urge to resist those centuries-old ways and open up is an example of how Chinese immigrants “are assimilating into the American way of mourning,” Zhou said.

That mix of new and old has been on display at vigils and altars near the dance studio: Some leave notes and flowers, others incense and stacks of money — meant to show the dead they are not forgotten, and that they will be taken care of in the afterlife.

“Now, it’s across the family line, across the ethnic line, across the racial line that people are getting together,” Zhou said of the gatherings in Monterey Park in recent days. “That empathy is very moving.”

City leaders have emphasized the long road ahead, all the work that will have to be done when the TV cameras leave and the spotlight dims.

“This isn’t something that will happen in the next few days and be over,” said Thomas Wong, the city council member whose district includes the dance studio. “It will be a long process.”

At Union Church Los Angeles, co-pastor Julie Baez is concerned about what she calls “aftercare,” or the ongoing services community members will need once national attention shifts to other crises. Her multicultural church is planning a dinner as part of the coming Lantern Festival, which is celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunisolar Chinese calendar month. She is bringing in speakers and grief counselors to talk about what it means to celebrate the lives and not the loss.

“If we can share our connections to one another and this place, it can bring healing,” she said. “We may not understand how each other mourn, but we can be respectful, kind and hug them through it.”

The city is offering mental health and counseling services, but Wong said officials recognize that “there’s going to be a lot of very private grieving and people who aren’t comfortable talking about their grief and how it’s impacting them.”

But the vigils — and their multiracial, multigenerational crowds — are a start, he said.

“We’re all struggling through this together,” Wong said. “We’re going to keep listening to these stories to make sure victims are remembered and honored. What that looks like and the shape it takes, we’re not sure, but we want to make sure there’s space to honor the victims in the right way and give the community the chance to come to terms with this as much as possible.”

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.