In the wake of the 2023 Monterey Park mass shooting, community members reflect on the need for mental health resources.
Before, when asked about her hometown, Leila Wu, a 19-year-old college sophomore, would preface it by saying “near Alhambra” or “near Pasadena.”
Now, she doesn’t think that will be necessary. “Whenever I tell people I’m from Monterey Park from now on, all they’re going to remember is the shooting,” says Wu, a lifelong resident of the city who described “that community and that safety” as “kind of destroyed.”
The Monterey Park community is still reeling from the January 21 mass murder of eleven people at Star Ballroom Dance Studio. The victims were Ming Wei Ma, one of the studio’s managers; Mymy Nhan, who joined the ancestors she had paid homage to earlier that day; Diana Man Ling Tom, who loved dance; Xiujuan Yu, a hardworking mother of three; Valentino Marcos Alvero, the life of the party; Yu Lun Kao, a contractor in construction; Hongying Jian, a volleyball enthusiast; Wen Tau Yu, a pharmacy student; Chia Ling Yau, who enjoyed music, dance, and travel; Muoi Dai Ung, a refugee from Vietnam; and LiLan Li, described as “a pillar of strength and optimism.”
While police officers responded within a few minutes, the shooter fled the scene, showing up armed to a dance studio in neighboring Alhambra about 17 minutes later. There, he was disarmed by 26-year-old Brandon Tsay, whose family has operated that dance hall for three generations.
The shooter fled again, evading authorities for over 12 hours before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Wu heard police sirens going by her house all night. She criticized the police response: “They didn’t tell anyone to stay home or to be safe. That was all [done by] our community.”
On that night, Jason Jem, a 67-year-old retired clinical psychologist, was out dancing too—just a few miles away from Star Ballroom Dance Studio, which he’d visited countless times over the last several decades. When he found out about the shooting, he felt “shock” and “dismay with America, the American people’s adolescent love affair with guns.”
The unrelenting nature of mass shootings in America also weighed on Wu, who felt “cynical” that anything would change: “This is just going to keep happening again and again.” Gun Violence Archive has tracked more than 50 mass shootings since the one in Monterey Park.
Mental illness “doesn’t just happen to us [in the United States]. It’s universal,” said Jem. “But it’s this country. Some people, somebody with mental illness, you put a gun in their hand and you have tragedy.” While California has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, advocates for gun safety say federal intervention is needed to curb mass shootings, which seems unlikely with a Republican-dominated House.
The first suburban Chinatown, Monterey Park has been a sanctuary for Asian Americans in Los Angeles County for decades. The timing of the shooting on Lunar New Year’s Eve, combined with the ties that dance halls have to the Asian American community, stoked fears that the shooting was a hate crime. While this ended up not being the case, “to have something like that happen on Lunar New Year’s Eve… That’s why it felt so personal,” said Wu.
This shooting comes in the wake of years of collective trauma faced by Asian Americans, adding to a mental health crisis. The number of reported anti-Asian hate crimes surged 177 percent in 2021, according to the California Department of Justice, the third year in a row. That statistic is likely to be an underrepresentation, as most hate crimes are never reported.
But to Myron Quon, an attorney who leads the nonprofit Pacific Asian Counseling Services, anti-Asian hate is nothing new: “The rest of the world is catching up.” Quon is accustomed to waking up to a flood of concerned texts from friends on the East Coast whenever something happens to Asian Americans, like the 2012 white supremacist mass murder of seven Sikhs in Wisconsin and the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings that killed eight, including six Asian women.
But this time, the tragedy hit closer home—literally, as Quon lived just a mile and a half away from Star Ballroom Dance Studio. He quickly mobilized his organization and people he knew from the local nonprofit and government sectors to help provide assistance.
It’s assistance that’s sorely needed—the physical and mental health consequences of surviving a mass shooting can be lifelong. Asian Americans are less than half as likely to receive mental health treatment compared to other groups, and a meta-analysis of over a dozen studies showed that limited language proficiency (60 percent of older Asian Americans have limited English proficiency) is associated with underutilizing mental health services.
This poses particular challenges for older Asian Americans, who were disproportionately Star Dance’s clientele—all of the victims were middle-aged and elderly Asian Americans. Cultural stigma and language barriers prevent individuals from seeking care, while underfunding and burnout limit how much care is even available. “There are not enough people who are willing to help poor people anymore. And then if you want to help poor Asian people, there’s even less of us,” said Quon.
But Monterey Park demonstrated remarkable resilience soon after the tragedy, as people tried to keep living and move forward. “I do think that the community was able to come together,” said Wu, noting the many people who came to vigils to commemorate the victims. She finds comfort in processing her feelings with others and discussing how she would advocate for change.
Jem organized a support group of ballroom dance instructors and studio owners around Los Angeles to support Maria Liang, the owner of Star Ballroom Dance Studio. He wants to have a meeting of dance enthusiasts at the studio after the traditional 49-day mourning period. “Just to show people to not be afraid.”