Doting aunt, dance-loving mother, ‘Mr Nice’: community mourns Monterey Park shooting victims

Family accounts tell an interwoven story about the hope of starting afresh in a new country and shared joy

Along with dancing, Muoi Dai Ung loved eating and gambling – and sometimes, according to her family, she tried to do all three at once.

At a candlelight vigil held by the city of Monterey Park on Tuesday night, city councilmember Thomas Wong shared a statement written by Ung’s family, which likened Ung to her community: “complicated, messy, easy to love and sometimes hard to understand from the outside”.

Ung, 67, was killed late Saturday night when a gunman entered Star Ballroom dance studio in Monterey Park, California – a city with a significant Chinese American population and widely known as the first suburban Chinatown – and started shooting, killing 11 and wounding nine.

The victims, all of whom were in their 50s, 60s and 70s, had gathered at the studio to ring in the lunar new year, an annual holiday celebrated across many Asian communities and cultures. Along with Ung, they are Xiujuan Yu, 57; Hongying Jian, 62; Lilan Li, 63; Wen-Tau Yu, 64; Mymy Nhan, 65; Valentino Marcos Alvero, 68; Diana Man Ling Tom, 70; Yu-Lun Kao, 72; Ming Wei Ma, 72; and Chia Ling Yau, 76.

“Our community honors its elders, too many of whom were taken from us last Saturday night,” Wong said in his speech. “They built the foundation of this city. Tonight, let us commit not to let hate and violence destroy all that we have built together.”

The GoFundMe pages and family statements that appeared in the days following the shooting all told an interwoven story about the hope of a fresh start in a new country, and joy shared in a tight-knit community.

Like many Asian immigrants who call southern California home, Ung was a Chinese and Vietnamese refugee who fled Vietnam with her family members in the 70s and 80s. It was in Monterey Park where she and her best friends “saw themselves” and could bond with those who had similar experiences.

A view of the inside of the Star Ballroom dance studio as seen through a window.
A view of the inside of the Star Ballroom dance studio as seen through a window. Photograph: David Swanson/Reuters

“The stories we all share make her not only my aunty; she is also yours,” Ung’s family wrote. “The uncles that were also brutally murdered were not only my uncles; they are also yours. They are our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters. They are our family.”

Just last month, Ung reunited with her daughter, whom she hadn’t seen in years after they migrated to different countries.

“My cousin has come to see her mother, and now to bury her.”

Xiujuan Yu immigrated to the United States from China in the 2010s to “craft a new future” for her family, including her husband and three children.

“What was meant to be a night out celebrating the lunar new year with friends ended up being a devastating and life-changing event for my family,” Kathleen Fong, Yu’s niece, wrote on the GoFundMe page she set up for the family.

“She will never be able to witness what she dreamed of for all these years.”

The dance community dubbed Yu-Lun Kao “Mr Nice” for being welcoming and always offering to teach the basics to newcomers.

US vice-president Kamala Harris leaves flowers at a makeshift memorial at the Star Ballroom dance studio.
US vice-president Kamala Harris leaves flowers at a makeshift memorial at the Star Ballroom dance studio. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

According to the GoFundMe page organized by Francois Ung, Kao protected his dance partner – Ung’s wife Shally – by “taking a bullet for her”.

“My wife and I lost a kindhearted friend and her dance partner of 15 years,” Ung wrote. “Yu Kao (Andy) was a great dancer and frequented the dance studio every weekend at Star dance studio and Lai Lai.”

Mymy Nhan, known simply as Aunt Mymy to her loved ones, was “everyone’s biggest cheerleader”.

Despite not having children of her own, Nhan was like a mother to her nieces and nephews, according to niece Fonda Quan. She’d left late for the dance studio on Saturday night after squeezing in extra quality time with Quan’s son.

Valentino Alvero’s family said he loved ballroom dancing, his community, and was the “life of any party”. Alvero was Filipino American and a devout Catholic; in their official statement, his family requested all priests and Catholics to pray for him by his full name: Valentino Marcos Alvero.

“My dad loved God, he loved people, and he loved to dance. I hope he’s dancing now, in that great gig in the sky,” Alvero’s daughter Kristenne Alvero told Rolling Stone.

For many of the dancers who frequented the Star Ballroom dance studio, Ming Mei Ma’s smiling face was the first to greet them when they walked through the doors.

The names of the eleven people killed are written on hearts as people gather for a candlelight vigil.
The names of the eleven people killed are written on hearts as people gather for a candlelight vigil. Photograph: David Swanson/Reuters

Ma managed the Star Ballroom dance studio after emigrating with his wife from China, where he’d been a part of a dance group. In a 2016 interview for the Pasadena Star-News, Ma expressed his desire for the studio to be a gathering place where people of different cultures can connect.

“I want to provide an active place for the Asian community of Monterey Park to help prolong their life and improve their health,” Ma told the newspaper. “Having a place where people from all over the world can come together and communicate through dance is how I can help.”

Hongying Jian, also known as Nancy Liu, came to the US from China more than 25 years ago and was a Star Ballroom regular along with her husband, Jeff Liu, who was with Jian Saturday night and received minor injuries that sent him to the hospital.

Jian is described as a plant lover and someone who always offered food to her neighbors. Jian’s nextdoor neighbor said Jian had been planning to return to China to see her mom, who is in her 90s – a trip she’d had to push back year after year due to the country’s Covid restrictions.

In a statement provided to the LA Times, Diana Tom is described as someone who always went out of her way to give to others.

Tom died from her injuries after being transported to the hospital, bringing the death toll to 11.

“Auntie Diana was a hardworking mother and grandmother that loved her family,” family friend Kristie Hang wrote on Twitter. “She was the life of any party she walked into. She loved to travel and was an avid foodie as well. But she loved, loved, loved to dance.”


Taylor Weik

The GuardianTramp

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