HomeImmigrationChinese farmworkers in mass shooting invisible

Chinese farmworkers in mass shooting invisible

By Lena Li

Last year’s Half Moon Bay shooting in California brought attention for the first time to an unseen and invisible immigrant group — Chinese farm workers. Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu are one of the Chinese farmworker families affected by the shooting incident in Half Moon Bay. In this episode of Chinese Immigrant Stories, Lena had the opportunity to conduct a close-up interview with this farmworker couple and those around them. By telling their story, Lena is presenting you with a deeper understanding of the real-life experiences of this minority immigrant group in the farms of Half Moon Bay. You can watch the Mandarin-language podcast with English subtitles here or read along with the transcript below.

You can also follow this podcast on Spotify,

Apple Podcasts and YouTube Podcasts where you can view it with English subtitles.


00’40: Half Moon Bay Massive Shooting Recap

01’02: The Background of Chinese Farmer Immigrants

02’10: Mrs. Wang & Mr. Liu witnessed the shooting

02’57: Introduction

03’24: Mrs. Wang and Mrs. Liu immigrant story

04’14” Kiki talks about Mrs. Wang and Mr.s Liu’s life on the farm

05’30: The complicated relationships among the Chinese farmers

06’28: About the farm owner and the management 

07’44: Mrs. Wang recalls the massive shooting

08’54: Amy shares her memories about the Chinese farmers

10’30: After the shooting

11’31: Mrs. Wang & Mr.Liu’s thoughts on current life and future plan

12’37: Ending

Lena: On January 23, 2023, at 2:20 pm, a massive shooting occurred in the picturesque and tranquil city of Half Moon Bay. In two adjacent farms, seven farm workers were killed, and one was severely injured. Among the seven deceased, five were Chinese farm workers, and the suspected gunman is a 66-year-old Chinese farm worker, Chun Li, Zhao. 

This shooting became yet another mass shooting in American history. It also brought attention for the first time to an unseen and invisible immigrant community: Chinese farm workers. Before this incident occurred, barely any people knew that Chinese farm workers were involved in labor on the farms in Half Moon Bay. Although this community is small in number, they have had a history of several years of presence in Half Moon Bay.

Currently in China, rural elderly individuals receive an average monthly pension of only about 204 RMB/person, equivalent to $28 per month. Due to the intensification of aging in recent years, the issue of rural elderly care in China has become increasingly critical. According to the latest data, the population of rural individuals over the age of 60 in China reached 121 million in 2020. That’s 23.81% of the total rural population. That’s estimated to exceed 30% by 2028. In this situation, some migrant workers rely on their relatives in the U.S. to sponsor their immigration into the country. They hope to seek a new life and improve their lives in retirement.

Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu are 68 and 69-years-old and among the group of Chinese farm workers. Over the past six years, the couple has taken on various temporary jobs, lived in employer-provided trailers, and earned $10 per hour. Eventually, they settled on a mushroom farm in Half Moon Bay. As one of the farm worker families affected by the Half Moon Bay Shooting incident, Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu witnessed their coworkers fall to the ground amidst gunfire, lying in blood. Such an experience deeply impacted their lives.

Lena: Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu came from Shanxi, China. According to Mrs. Wang, she herself cannot read or write. They still hold on to their dreams despite the obstacles. Mr. Liu’s sister sponsored them into the U.S. seven years ago. It was the first time the elderly couple boarded a plane to the United States. Their children and grandchildren are still in China. Although they don’t speak English and often miss their children, Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu gradually settled in Half Moon Bay, relying on their hard-working spirit.

Through a search in the newspaper by their relatives, Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu found out that the local mushroom farm was hiring. The job claimed to provide meals and accommodation. However, the so-called “accommodation” meant that Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu would live in sheds in the mushroom growing area, and “meals included” only meant they could cook in the sheds. At the senior center in Half Moon Bay, Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu met KiKi, another immigrant from China. KiKi, as a liaison at the local senior center, often organizes programs and choir performances for the elderly in the community. Due to her kindness and ability to speak Chinese, KiKi often helps and takes care of Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu in their daily lives. When asked about the shed Mr. Liu and Mrs. Wang used to live in, as an eyewitness, KiKi described it to me like this:

Kiki: “Her place was a shed, a big mushroom shed. It needed watering every day. So, her room was right next to this rack, very damp! Her window was completely sealed shut. Couldn’t be opened, no windows. One time, I saw it raining, and I said, “Let me drive you home.” When we got back, the water in her room was so high! So, she took that basin and scooped out the water, bucket by bucket. There’s a big ditch behind her shed, and all that water was flooding. The dirty water from the kitchen all flowed back there. Wow! As soon as you opened the door, it stank! That water was all dirty water. She lived in such an environment and had to wade through water to get to bed. After the water receded, the walls were all moldy along the edges.”

Lena: Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu lived in such conditions for six years. Living in a damp environment for a long time exacerbated her arthritis. Eventually, she could no longer continue working. Despite this, the coworkers who recruited her and Mr. Liu to work on the farm were still unhappy about her free accommodation on the farm. Four months before the shooting incident, a Chinese couple who later died in the shooting had a very unpleasant altercation with Mrs. Wang.

Kiki: “That day we were supposed to do group photo shooting because we had a performance scheduled for October 30th. But she (Mrs. Wang) didn’t show up. I called and asked, and they said she was in the hospital, that she had been beaten up.”

Lena: When it comes to why she was beaten, Mrs. Wang described to me what happened at that time like this:

Mrs Wang: “He was very unfriendly. In the morning, he seemed like specifically waiting in the kitchen to argue with me. I wanted to go in and go to the back to brush my teeth and wash my face, and when I opened the door to come in, he “slammed” the door shut. I opened it, went in, and then he started arguing with me. There wasn’t any reason at all. Then his wife came over and slapped me. (Lena: So you mean his wife came over and slapped you in your face?) Yes. She hit me. Then, the man held me back, and the two of them hit me. Then I fell down, and I cried on the ground. My ear was ringing from the beating.

Lena: After Mrs. Wang was assaulted, her coworkers took her to the hospital. The hospital staff reported the incident to the police. Following this, Kiki helped contact the farm owner who was living in Los Angeles. She wanted the owner to intervene and manage the situation, and demand compensation. However, she says the farm owner ignored the request. He also sent a warning letter later to the couple who had assaulted Mrs. Wang and to Mr. Liu. The owner demanded that both parties sign an agreement promising that such incidents would not occur on the farm in the future. Although Mr. Liu felt aggrieved and resentful, he was pressured to comply due to fears of being fired from his job.

Kiki told me the management responsibilities are delegated to only a manager at the farm since the owner is not there. According to Mrs. Wang’s description, they only report directly to and communicate with this manager on the farm, and have never had any contact with the farm owner or know how to reach the farm owner. Therefore, when they have any issues, they have no other channels or means to reach higher-level management. For these migrant workers, some injustice and unreasonable management practices can only be endured silently. Such chaotic and disorganized management has led to the accumulation of grievances among many employees, and conflicts between them have been continually exacerbated over time.

Lena: Do you Chinese people usually interact with each other a lot? (Kiki: Not united.) Or is it only when you are working that you see each other?

Mrs. Wang: Everyone just looks out for themselves.

Lena: Look out for themselves?

Mrs. Wang: Yes. No one would tell you a single truthful word.

Lena: Mrs. Wang said that before the shooting, she and Mr. Liu had never heard of Chunli Zhao, only finding out afterward that he had worked at the same farm as them. Although a year has passed since the shooting, Mrs. Wang still tears up when recalling the terrifying scene. According to her description, on the day of the incident, she first heard continuous gunfire. When she went outside to check, she found two of her coworkers lying on the ground. Mr. Liu attempted to assist the coworkers on the ground to get up and prepare to take them to the hospital. However, when he moved the unconscious bodies, he was informed that they were already dead. His hands were stained with the blood of his coworkers, and realizing he was assisting the dead startled him. In Chinese secular culture, getting in touch with blood from a dead person is considered extremely bad luck. Since then, Mr. Liu has experienced various traumatic symptoms such as unstable mental state and frequent nightmares.

Mrs. Wang: After this incident, my husband couldn’t work anymore. At first, he couldn’t sleep at night for a whole week. I was terrified too.

Lena: In the year following the shooting incident, the Half Moon Bay government has continued to provide psychological counseling and support for Mr. Liu and Mrs. Wang, along with housing assistance, ensuring they do not return to the site where the terrifying memories are buried.

Amy was an employee of the San Mateo County Children and Family Services Department at the time. As a Chinese immigrant herself who spoke Chinese, she volunteered as a translator for the local Chinese farm workers as soon as the shooting occurred. In her memory, Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu seemed very unsure about their arrival at first. Initially, they were very resistant to the various forms of help provided by the government.

Amy: At first, they really didn’t want to have anything to do with the county or city government. When asked if they needed clothes or food, they would always say, “No, no need.” In my impression, things were quite chaotic at that time. They didn’t know where they were going or how long they would stay in the hotel. Also, the relationships among the Chinese farmers on their farm felt very complicated. Although they were sent from the farm to a safer place, they were completely unfamiliar with it. They couldn’t understand the TV or anything else. When it comes to such incidents, in Western culture, we immediately seek mental care, right? We want to send social workers and so on. But I think, maybe Mr. Liu, Mrs. Wang, and other Chinese farmers may not understand what that is, nor accept it.

Lena:It’s hard to imagine what Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu went through on that chaotic day. They were faced with the shooting, the loss of their coworkers, unfamiliar government officials and many reporters with no family by their side. It may have been the most helpless day of their lives, especially as illiterate migrant workers. KiKi said that when she saw Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu that night, although they were in a warm room, both were wrapped in blankets, shivering uncontrollably. Their inner fear and unease were palpable. Unfortunately, on the third day after the shooting, both Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu contracted COVID-19. Even when Mr. Liu was still running a fever, their coworker from the farm kept calling, demanding that he return to work.

Mrs. Wang: He just told my husband to go back to work. He said, “The boss arranges your tasks. Closing the farm at night, opening it in the morning”, all of this is unpaid for us.

Lena: Even though Mr. Liu’s mental and physical health still bore the immense impact of the shooting incident, for some people, life still goes on, work must be done, and money must be earned. Humanity seemed numb and pale at that moment. Finally, with KiKi’s encouragement and assistance, Mr. Liu chose to resign.

Kiki: When he wrote the resignation letter, I helped him apply for unemployment compensation. However, his unemployment compensation was ultimately denied.

Lena: Throughout their immigration journey, Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu have faced many challenges, but they still hold hope for life. Regarding the assistance provided by the government over the past year, which includes housing and food vouchers, the elderly couple expresses deep gratitude. For them, as long as they have a place to live, work to do, and food to eat, there is nothing to complain about. During the interview, Mr. Liu remained mostly silent. Despite his declining health, the elderly couple persists in wanting to stay in the United States and plan to apply for citizenship, hoping to reunite with their children in this country in the future.

Lena: During these six or seven years, do you miss your family in China?

Mrs. Wang: Yes, I miss them a lot. I often miss my children and grandchildren. When we first came here, we at least found a place to eat and live. Because we are both retired in China, we used to stay at home to take care of our grandchildren. Coming here feels like we are earning money again.

Lena: So you feel there’s something to look forward to, a goal?

Mrs. Wang: Yes, exactly.

Lena: You want to achieve that goal.

Mrs. Wang: Yes, to achieve that goal. Then we can work.

Lena: Do your family members, like your children, often say to you, “Mom and Dad, are you working too hard over there? If you’re too tired, come back?”

Mrs. Wang: They have said that, they have said, “Don’t work there anymore. You’re old, you can come back.” But we don’t want that. Since we’ve come out, we want to pursue this opportunity. 

Lena: I understand, you are saying that since you’ve come out, you want to see this journey through to the end and make it successful.

Mrs. Wang: Yes, exactly.

Lena: Chinese renowned writer Lu Xun once said: “There was no road in the world, but as more people walked, it became a road.” In Mrs. Wang and Mr. Liu, these two Chinese farmworkers, I see a valuable quality shared by the immigrant community: no matter the hard challenges they face, their gaze is always forward, never backward. Perhaps it is easy to return back to where you came from during the process of pioneering a new road, but overcoming the unknown and always moving forward is not something everyone can achieve.

After the Half Moon Bay shooting incident, the government made many improvements to the local farms and labor environment, such as establishing an anonymous reporting hotline, allowing every employee to have a channel for complaints. If you are experiencing inequality in the workplace that is harming your basic rights or if someone you know has experienced similar situations, please courageously pick up the phone and report it to the local labor office. The labor commissioner hotline in California is 833-526-4636.

Let’s hold kindness in our hearts for every immigrant friend from around the world. Together, let’s build a healthy and supportive community.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this story. It makes many good points.

    I used to watch a lot of crime show documentaries, but it became clear that the victim was nearly always photogenic and often from a relatively comfortable background, with no resemblance to the missing children whose photo I see on the Walmart wall, or from circumstances anywhere close to those such as described in this story.

    There is a large portion of our population who are being marginalized in several different ways, who then ‘do not seem to matter’. Please continue to bring such situations to our attention and keep up the GOOD WORK.


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