After mass shooting, Alhambra celebrates Lunar New Year Festival and a hometown hero
Sophia Lee does everything she can to expose her two young sons to their family’s Chinese culture.
She enrolled her oldest in a dual immersion Kindergarten class where he speaks both Mandarin and English, and she takes them to Asian restaurants all across the San Gabriel Valley. On Sunday, she dressed 6-year-old Rosco and 2-year-old Skyler in red and blue silk shirts and brought them to the Lunar New Year Festival in Alhambra.
“I hope they hear the music, hear the vendors speaking in Mandarin, just to keep the culture alive,” Lee said.
It was a joyful afternoon in that regard.
But that joy was tempered by the lingering sorrow of what happened one week earlier, when a gunman burst into a ballroom dance studio in neighboring Monterey Park, killing 11 people before barging into another dance studio in Alhambra, where he was disarmed.
Lee, a math professor at Citrus College, had family members too shaken by the shooting to attend the festival. And when she saw a young man on the edge of the crowd start yelling and acting erratically before police approached him, her heart stopped.
“We thought, ‘Should we leave? Should we get out of here?’ We are all on edge,” said Lee, 36.
At the dawn of this Year of the Rabbit, the Alhambra Lunar New Year Festival showed all the paradoxes of a city in mourning: the need to remember, and the need to move on. The need to grieve, and the need to move forward. The comfort in being together, and the fear of large crowds.
The sky was dark, and a chilly rain fell. But thousands of people still gathered on Main Street to watch martial arts demonstrations and lion dancers, to eat Korean bulgogi and green onion pancakes.
Organizers said it was a difficult decision to hold the 30-year-old street festival, which was canceled in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-pandemic.
Tragedy forced the closure of the second day of Monterey Park’s own Lunar New Year Festival last week, prompting Alhambra residents and business owners to do some intense soul-searching. Some vendors, too traumatized by the shooting, pulled out.
Ultimately, the organizing team decided “we had to do it. Even if it doesn’t look like what everyone expected — what it was in years past,” said John Bwarie, chief executive of the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce, one of the lead organizers. “Going on with the celebration creates some sense of normalcy in the chaos people were experiencing.”
The police presence was heavy. The FBI had a booth.
Attendees wrote their hopes for the new year on colorful slips of paper they put on a row of wishing trees:
Wishing for an end to gun violence in 2023! someone wrote.
End COVID-19, wrote another.
And in a child’s handwriting: I wish for PS5 — the latest PlayStation console.
The festival took place just around the corner from Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio, where, just after his deadly rampage on Jan. 21 in Monterey Park, gunman Huu Can Tran, 72, burst in.
Brandon Tsay, whose family owns the Alhambra studio and who works in the ticket office, was in the lobby when he heard metal clinking and saw Tran holding a gun. Tsay, 26, lunged at him with both hands and disarmed him, averting further tragedy.
On Sunday, Tsay, his face solemn as he stood on a stage, received multiple commendations from elected officials.
“Bear with me,” Tsay said in a short address to the cheering crowd.
“The situation still is so surreal to me. … I realized that life is fragile. I feel that we as a community should spend our precious time reaching out to one another.
“I wish for all the victims’ families to be able to heal. I pray for them to be able to find joy again. The start of the new year has been extremely difficult, but we have the rest of the year to spread compassion and build back our community.”
Then Tsay stood beneath a tent, surrounded by police officers, and posed for photos with people who wanted to shake his hand and say thanks. The line stretched more than 50 people long.
Mercedes Ruiz, 37, of Alhambra said she came to the festival because she knew Tsay would be there.
“When you’re used to all the bad news — it’s nice to see him,” said Ruiz, who works in the funeral industry.
Ben Ng, 42, of San Gabriel said he came because of Tsay too.
“We wanted to see a real-life hero,” he said.
“And Lunar New Year is about spending time with family,” added his sister, Phannie Wang, 44, of Rosemead, who was sharing roasted chestnuts with her three children, ages 13, 10 and 3.
This week, Wang said, she told her older children about the shooting, and how to always be aware of their surroundings. Sadly, they are used to having lockdowns at school when there is a potential threat, she said.
Her 10-year-old daughter, Sophia, had something else on her mind as her mother spoke.
“I’m happy to be here to eat food,” Sophia said.
In Costa Mesa, the Tet Festival, the largest Lunar New Year gathering in North America, also continued this weekend.
The three-day celebration at the Orange County Fairgrounds kicked off Friday after its marketing team blanketed Asian American and mainstream groups with assurances of heightened security, metal detectors and bag checks.
Vivienne Cantuba, Maya Kazi and Zaid Ahmed — best friends and high school juniors from Riverside County — came to the Tet Festival together, each wearing áo dài, traditional Vietnamese garments.
The teenagers said they had followed the news of last week’s mass shooting in Monterey Park and the mass shooting two days later in rural Half Moon Bay. But they said they rely on safety advice from their parents and were not afraid to come to the Tet Festival.
“You have to look in front of you and all around you when you’re outside or running errands. … We planned to go here, and we’re not changing plans,” said Ahmed, who is Pakistani American.
“It’s hard to think about people losing their lives when they’re just enjoying their culture,” he added. “Our world is really dangerous right now.”
On Sunday morning, William Nguyen and his friends drove from Hollywood to Monterey Park for dim sum and talked about the “weird feeling knowing something so tragic happened in a place that you’ve always visited.”
“It feels kind of freaky, yet you can’t let it stop you,” he said.
Hours later, Nguyen, 45, and David Luangpraseuth, 38, were excited as they walked into the Costa Mesa festival grounds.
They cheered as a friend did pull-ups at a Marine Corps recruitment booth, impressing kids and adults alike who were trying to win a ball cap or shoulder bag.
“Man, no need to stay away. Craziness is everywhere while we have to continue to live our lives,” said Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American and an advisory board member for Equality California, which advocates for LGBTQ rights.
“Sometimes when there are tragedies around, there’s more security because everyone’s on alert,” said Luangpraseuth, who is 36 and Laotian American.
“Hanging out together brings us all good luck at the holiday.”