Spend even a few minutes in Monterey Park, and complete strangers will greet you with a smile.
That’s what Byron Morales, 32, learned when his family moved to the L.A. County suburb of just more than 61,000 people from East L.A., where he grew up facing gang violence.
Today, the electrical lineman has a wife and boys ages 1 and 3, and considers living in the small San Gabriel Valley City — about 7 miles east of Downtown L.A. — “a game-changer.”
“Everyone mixes. All my friends are Asian,” Morales said as he folded his clothes Sunday afternoon, Jan. 22, at Sunshine Coin-Op Laundry. “It’s pretty cool, and you get to learn a different culture.”
Pre-pandemic, the city was known as among the best places to live in America. And it still is, as the city continues to boast its No. 3 slot for Money Magazine’s 2017 “Best Places to Live” list, a designation based on the cities’ economy, cost of living, education, housing, crime, amenities and ease of living.
But on a weekend that was supposed to be full of celebration, the quiet that has defined this community, known for its immigrant population and close-knittedness, and as a landing place for people from China and Taiwan, was shattered. A community was shaken to its core after a gunman entered Star Ballroom Dance Studio on Garvey Avenue and left 10 dead and another 10 injured.
It was the deadliest such shooting in the U.S. since Uvalde, Texas, in 2022, when an 18-year-old man opened fire at a school, killing 19 students and two teachers.
Monterey Park is a city with 66% Asian residents, dubbed a “suburban Chinatown.” Angelinos know the best Asian cuisine can be found along Garvey Avenue. Traditional dishes such a spicy hot pot, baozi and cold noodle restaurants dot the streets. The famous dim sum spot, Mama Lu’s Dumpling House, is mere steps away from Star Dance.
Together, the spots generated a vibrancy that traditionally attracted tens of thousands to events like this weekend’s Lunar New Year celebration.
It was a vibrancy that then owner Ming Wei Ma was tapping into with his Star Dance studio.
“I want to provide an active place for the Asian community of Monterey Park to help prolong their life and improve their health,” Ma told the Pasadena Star-News back in 2016. “Having a place where people from all over the world can come together and communicate through dance is how I can help.”
Chester Chong, the chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles, has known Ming Wei Ma for years. The business was a hub that mainly served Cantonese-speaking patrons and taught dance of all styles to locals during the day. At night, he said, the place transformed into a dance hall with live music.
Banquet halls are a pinnacle of Chinese culture and celebration. The tradition dates back well into ancient Chinese history. The extravagance of a host’s menu is a mark of social status and respect. Its in these spaces that elders and their younger generation can come together.
Currently, there is no reported motive for the gunman’s violence, but Chong believes that no matter what the reason for the shooting, it has made locals fearful to come back to Monterey Park’s main business district.
“There are too many guns on the street,” he said. “People are scared to go out.”
U.S. Rep Judy Chu, a three-time Monterey Park mayor, whose 28th Congressional District includes the city, visited the area near the shooting on Sunday.
Chu, who has lived in the city for 37 years, said the dance studio hosts ballroom dancing in the heart of downtown and is frequented by residents.
“They work hard at their businesses and this is a way for them to let off steam, get some exercise and refine their art,” Chu said as she stood outside the yellow crime scene tape on Garvey Avenue.
Chu on Sunday urged legislators to do more to protect the public from gun violence by passing laws that close what she said are “loopholes” that allow gun buyers to avoid background checks by purchasing firearms at gun shows, online and in private sales.
Others refuse to allow this tragedy to define their hometown.
Raymond Cheung, board member for Arcadia Unified school district, remembers growing up in Monterey Park. It’s where his friends and family are, he said. It’s where he feels the deepest sense of community and belonging.
Less than a mile from the shooting is the dance hall where Cheung and his wife hosted their wedding banquet. For him, these are the moments and the places that define Monterey Park.
“The whole thing about Lunar New Year is to be able to celebrate with your family and just be together and just have hope for the future. And I think really, that’s what we need,” he said, “The whole essence of hope. togetherness, community family is exactly what we need. And there are going to be people who are afraid to go out today but you know, I think that’s why it’s all more important that we do that. Even if it’s a mix between celebration and grieving. It’s really important that we continue to do that today.
“For us right now. We just got to focus on love and kindness,” Cheung added.
To those in need of trauma or crisis support in Monterey Park, Alhambra and surrounding areas Langley Sr. Citizen Center on 400 W Emerson Ave is providing care.