By Ross Killion, AsAmNews Staff Writer
Three weeks after the murder of Fang Sihui, a worker at a massage studio in Albuquerque, her death is still being felt.
Authorities say Sihui died in a shootout during an attempted robbery at Wonderful Massage on January 24.
“She was a great cook with a knack for fusing Chinese and New Mexican cuisine, a talented untrained singer of Chinese oldies, a health and fitness enthusiast, and an avid hiker with a keen eye for nature photography”, said Rod Honstein to AsAmNews. He met Fang in 2017 when he was looking for a Mandarin conversation teacher for a planned trip to China and the two soon became life partners and best friends. “During the pandemic, we hiked multiple times a week, backpacked the Grand Canyon twice, and summited several mountains in the Southwest including Wheeler Peak, Deception Peak, Cabizon, and Mt. Elbert.”
Fang was born to a family of subsistence rice farmers in a small, impoverished village about 70 kilometers outside Huangzhou in Hubei province, China. Her childhood home had dirt floors with neither running water nor electricity and the family cooked meals over fires. At the age of 16, Fang moved to Shanghai, where she picked up Shanghainese, to work at a restaurant and later as a saleswoman at a furniture store. She decided to move to the US in 2011 because she heard that there was more opportunity and success there.
She arrived in California with only one suitcase, a small amount of money, and did not know a single word of English. She worked in the San Gabriel Valley for two years during which time she learned English to near-perfect fluency while earning a massage therapy license.
She moved to New Mexico in 2013, working between Rio Rancho and Albuquerque for several years, before opening her own massage studio – Wonderful Massage – which quickly became a success with glowing reviews lauding her for curing various spinal and muscular ailments. “This lady started from scratch”, said Honstein. She worked twelve-hour days almost every day of the week and still managed to find time to hit the gym and practice reading English every night.”
About 100 people gathered outside Wonderful Massage in Albuquerque for a candlelight vigil for her recently. Attendees included friends, family, and members of the Chinese American community of the Southwest with some people driving from as far as Las Cruces, Roswell, Arizona, and Colorado.
The vigil began with attendees holding lit candles while chanting 阿彌陀佛 (Āmítuófó), a Buddhist prayer that roughly translates to “may the Buddha preserve us” before singing The Moon Represents My Heart by Teresa Teng, one of Fang’s favorite songs. This was followed by a series of speeches from family, friends, and community members .
Fang Chunxia, Fang’s aunt, who drove in from Salt Lake City to represent Fang’s family because her 70-year old father was unable to fly to the US from China, spoke about how Fang always managed to stay positive in the face of hardship and how her death devastated her family and friends from the US to China.
Several local Chinese massage studio workers shared their experiences of being robbery victims. One woman said she developed hypertension and lives in a constant state of fear after being traumatized by multiple robberies. Another woman, speaking in Mandarin through tears, pleaded for the city to devote greater law enforcement resources to protect the Chinese community. Kay Bounkeua, New Mexico’s first Asian American woman to serve in the state legislature, also spoke about the impact on the Asian community and the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes across the nation.
According to Honstein, after hearing about several robberies targeting Asian-owned massage studios in the area as well as a close call involving an attempted rape, the two purchased a handgun, which they practiced using at a local shooting range, and developed a three-point security strategy. “First, she would try to run away. Second, if that wasn’t possible, she would cooperate and hand over money, valuables, anything they demanded,” said Honstein, “Finally, if she was 100% certain they were planning to kill her, there was a handgun we had hidden in plain sight.”
The last time Honstein spoke with Fang was at 7:45pm on the day she died. Honstein called several times around 9 pm as they usually talked while she closed up the studio but received no response. At 9:38 pm, he received a call from her landlord saying there was heavy police presence outside her business and he drove to the scene from Santa Fe. The police left in the morning after which Honstein entered the studio. “I counted twenty-seven bullet holes.”, he said, “it was unbelievable, the place was completely devastated.”
According to the Albuquerque Journal, police say the surveillance video showed one of the suspects, Jorge Rivera-Ramirez, pretend to be a customer before forcing Fang at gunpoint to unlock the door and let in his alleged accomplice, Juan Carlos Hernandez. Fang tried to flee but was dragged by her hair into the office which was outside the video frame. Investigators believe Fang handed the suspects $500 before retrieving her handgun and shooting at Rivera-Ramirez who hid in another room and, along with Hernandez, exchanged gunfire with Fang until she was fatally shot. According to the Albuquerque Police Department, Rivera-Ramirez crawled out of the studio and called 911 to request treatment for multiple gunshot wounds. Hernandez fled the scene but was apprehended by law enforcement in Seminole, Texas on January 28. Both suspects are under arrest.
“I learned more from her than from anyone else”, said Honstein, “I’ve met people from top to bottom and she was unique in my experience. She was friends with everyone and extraordinary in every way. My job is to tell her story.”
Honstein, along with many attendees at the vigil, expressed great concern about Fang possibly not receiving the justice she deserves. “I am very concerned about the state of justice for brutal crimes these days”, said Honstein.
Fang is survived by her father and sister who live in Hubei, an aunt in Salt Lake city, a cousin and nephew in Shanghai and a niece in Inner Mongolia.
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