By Julia Tong, AsAmNews Staff Writer
As a 39-year resident of Monterey Park, Peter Ng passed by the Star Ballroom Dance Studio every day on his way to work. When news broke of a shooting at the studio on Chinese New Year’s Eve, he was shocked and devastated.
“This tragedy, when it hit, it just shatter[ed] everyone’s heart,” he said. “I just cannot find a word to express the level of sadness that we have felt for the victims, family, and for the friends—which many of them are mine too.”
The shooting in the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, which was a community center and hub for exercise and companionship for many elderly Asian Americans, rocked the Monterey Park community. However, in the wake of the violence, local organizations banded together to support those affected by the shooting. In an Ethnic Media Services panel, representatives from four different community organizations discussed their efforts to raise funds, provide counseling and mental health services, and other critical resources to the local community.
As CEO of Chinatown Services Center, Ng was at the forefront of those efforts. He maintains that staying united is critical to support all affected by the tragedy.
“We must be strong and share this feeling with each other,” Ng said. “And then hopefully, by way of reaching out and with all the community support, we can recover from it and be strong again.”
A rapid, grassroots emergency response
Local organizations responded swiftly after news of the shooting broke.
In the hours after the tragedy, Chinatown Community Services publicized a phone number for community members to call in for support. The organization’s Director of Behavioral Health also brought a team of counselors and social services workers to standby at the trauma center set up at Monterey Park’s senior citizen center.
In the days since the shooting, the team has begun receiving calls from affected families and traumatized victims. Per Ng, the organization expects to receive more calls in the near future.
“We know [it] take[s] time for everyone that [was] impacted to open up,” he said. “And that is very normal.”
Community organizations also collaborated to ensure the Monterey Park community had information about resources they could reach out to for support. For instance, they worked together to distribute AAPI Equity Alliance’s resource guide with information on counseling and mental health services, legal aid, in-language support lines, medical centers, government organizations, and other crucial resources in eight different languages.
In addition, Asian Americans Advancing Justice SoCal, Chinatown Service Center, the Asian Pacific Community Fund, AAPI Equity Alliance, and numerous other organizations created a GoFundMe page within 12 hours of the shooting. The initial goal for the fund was set at half a million dollars. Days later, donations had already reached nearly a million dollars.
Chun-Yen Chen, Executive Director at the Asian Pacific Community Fund, was encouraged by the outpouring of support from across the nation.
“You can see the love, the money, the care, the wellness, you want to do something to help our community,” she said. “That’s really [what] gave me hope.”
The next step, Chen says, is immediately distributing those funds to those in need. She recognizes that Chinese families may be reluctant to open up or ask for money, especially during the New Year. Still, she said, it is important that victims reach out to the Asian Pacific Community Fund to receive the support they need.
“We quickly gather the funds for you, not for us,” she said. “100% [goes to] the victims and the survivors. And we’ll do everything possible to help you to go through the necessary step[s].”
The difficulty Chen faced distributing funds underscores one barrier faced by all organizations: not knowing the identity of the victims. On one hand, this is due to important ethical factors. While the names of victims are typically publicized in American media, many Asian families may not necessarily want the names of their loved ones publicized. Being featured in the media against their consent can retraumatize mourning families.
However, the greater problem is what Connie Chung Joe, the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Community Fund, describes as a “disconnect” between government response and organizations providing support on the ground.
Due to privacy reasons, government relief workers are the only ones with access to victims’ information. However, they lack the language proficiency, cultural awareness, and knowledge of how the local Chinese and Asian community works. Furthermore, they often fail to engage with those existing support networks: It took four days for officials to contact Joe’s organization, despite her already speaking to numerous officials at the federal, state, county, and city level.
Instead, Joe stressed, it is crucial for the government to allow trusted community organizations to lead crisis response efforts. For instance, officials should distribute the AAPI Equity Alliance resource guide to victims, or connect them with organizations that have already mobilized to support them.
“Some of [the victims] are not comfortable talking to [officials], or they’re not ready yet to talk to [officials],” said Joe. “They trust their community partners, like Chinatown Service Center, and that’s where they’re going to go.”
“We’re going to go through this together with you… We need to keep dancing.”
Though the motive of the shooter has not been established, many in mainstream media point to a nationwide mental health crisis of depression and social isolation.
According to Ng, Asian seniors tend to be a particularly underserved population, especially throughout the pandemic. This is due to factors including language barriers, a reluctance to open up and reach out for support, and social isolation.
In response, Chinatown Service Center has planned a series of mental wellness first aid workshops that teach the AAPI community how to tell when others are feeling depressed or traumatized, and, if needed, where to get them professional support.
“That is important—to open them up instead of let[ting] them be, leav[ing] them alone,” Ng said. “That’s not the way it is. You got to embrace each other.”
Though mental health issues are important, Joe stresses the importance of avoiding portraying elderly Asian Americans as “dangerous or volatile.” After all, the Monterey Park and Halfmoon Bay shootings reflect a nationwide problem: There have already been over 30 mass shootings in 2023 alone.
“I want to be careful [to not take] what we’ve seen here and try to make it a portrayal of the entire community, and somehow make it seem like there’s something going on with Asian American seniors or the immigrant community that has turned them violent— which I think is a very dangerous kind of portrayal for media to have,” she says.
Regardless, all leaders were touched by the support they’ve received from around the world, in the form of monetary contributions, calls, and messages of support all the way from the very highest levels of government. They maintain that the Monterey Park community will be resilient, even after the traumatic events that occurred.
Chen especially hopes that the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, long a centerpiece of the community, will continue to operate in the future. She has deep ties to the studio: It is where she took her children to ballroom dance lessons, where her family found community with the retirees, teachers, and dancers that frequented the space.
To the owners of the studio, she says, the community “will be back.”
“We’re going to go through this together with you. I think this [is a] very powerful message to show the support of love. We need to keep dancing.”
“Please do not let Lunar New Year’s Eve [be] your last dance ever.”
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