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‘I feel so scared’: Workers near Monterey Park shooting site try to carry on with Lunar New Year

Men hold up their hands during a vigil for Monterey Park shooting victims.
Faith leaders and community members gather Sunday for a vigil honoring those killed in a mass shooting in Monterey Park.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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Xiang Chen didn’t want to work on Sunday. She was frightened.

Her family’s Chinese restaurant, Spicy Duck Wang La Ya, is located on West Garvey Avenue just a few doors down from Star Ballroom Dance Studio, the site of the mass shooting that left 10 dead and 10 others injured in Monterey Park on Saturday night.

“I feel so scared,” said Chen, who explained that dance instructors at the studio would regularly pick up food from the restaurant, where the spicy duck necks, a specialty, glisten behind glass in a display case.

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But Chen, a restaurant server, felt obligated to be there, in part because of a Lunar New Year tradition. In Chinese and other Asian cultures, the holiday, whose festivities began on Saturday, is marked with the bestowing of red envelopes filled with cash. And the tradition extends to restaurants, with owners typically doing the giving to workers.

A gunman opened fire at a dance studio in Monterey Park, killing 11 people and wounding 9 more. Tens of thousands had gathered earlier nearby for a Lunar New Year festival.

So Chen made her way to Spicy Duck Wang La Ya, in the Taipei Center strip mall, and delivered a red envelope to the restaurant’s chef.

“We do it every year,” she said.

Chen wasn’t alone. Proprietors and staff at eateries on and around West Garvey Avenue, which was host to a large Lunar New Year’s Eve celebration on Saturday, said that the red envelope tradition had been upheld over the weekend despite the pall cast by the mass shooting.

It made for a strange mix of sentiment. Magnanimity and sorrow. Gratitude and fear.

“Everybody was very happy” on Saturday, said Annie Li, a server at Longten Cafe, also in the Taipei Center. But by the end of her shift on Sunday afternoon, she was anxious to go home. “People are really scared.”

A shopping center in Monterey Park at sunset.
The Taipei Center on West Garvey Avenue in Monterey Park is home to Spicy Duck Wang La Ya, left, and Longten Cafe, right.
(Daniel Miller / Los Angeles Times)

Roger Yeh, owner of MoMo Bakery, also on Garvey, had planned to distribute red envelopes to his workers on Saturday, but was discouraged by the crowds that filled his establishment, which is known for its savory pork pastries.

“It was so packed,” said Yeh. “I didn’t want people to see there was money.”

After he learned of the shooting, Yeh, who lives in Palos Verdes, weighed whether to come to his Taiwanese bakery on Sunday to hand out the envelopes. “I could have given it to them” on Monday, he said. “But I thought maybe [Sunday] is better.”

Yeh was glad he carried on the tradition Sunday.

“It’s strange,” said Yeh, who immigrated to the Southland from Taiwan in 1981. “It’s a mixed feeling — my sentiment goes up and down.”

String lights hang over the entrance to the Star Dance Studio Ballroom.
A view of the entrance to the Star Dance Studio Ballroom in Monterey Park.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In addition to the odd tenor of the gift giving, workers and operators at the eateries near the site of the shooting contended with a slow business day. Typically, servers and others said, Lunar New Year makes for a day of brisk sales. But after the shooting, patrons stayed away from establishments that had counted on being thronged.

“My friends told me they’re scared to come to Monterey Park,” said Chen.

She noted that pig’s feet would normally be a big seller on Lunar New Year — the animal is considered lucky in Chinese culture — but “not today.”

It was quiet at nearby A.B.C. Cafe, a restaurant on North Garfield Avenue. Around dinnertime, a worker snipped the tips of green beans with red-handled kitchen shears in an otherwise unoccupied section of the eatery. Diners filled only two tables.

Sunday had been “very, very slow,” according to a server at A.B.C. who declined to give her name. “My boss is not here,” she apologized.

Some people still ventured out for their scheduled Lunar New Year celebrations. Owen Wang said he and his wife went forward with a planned dinner at Longten Cafe because he wanted to support the restaurant. Wang said he had come for the dried beef noodles, while his wife, Trang Lai, explained that she had wanted the Korean-style beef steak.

Normally, he said, the restaurant, a Hong Kong-style cafe, would be “packed” on Lunar New Year.

“It should be very busy and loud,” he said outside the restaurant, under a darkening sky that moments earlier had been a striking shade of cantaloupe. Instead, their meal on Sunday had been subdued, with only a handful of other patrons dining there. Still, Wang said, “We loved it.”

Yeh said that MoMo Bakery had brought in just one-third of the business it would have otherwise done. It was a little after 6 p.m. as he sat at a table toward the rear of the establishment trying to make sense of the shooting.

“It’s a quiet community,” said Yeh, who also owns a MoMo Bakery in Alhambra. “People here are peaceful.”

Suddenly, Gov. Gavin Newsom and his aides swept into the bakery via the rear entrance. Alerted to the presence of the politician, Yeh’s jaw dropped. “I’m a Republican,” he said, giving a wry smile.

He hurried to introduce himself to Newsom, who ordered a green tea, Yeh said. While they chatted amiably and posed for a photograph, a member of Newsom’s small entourage said he would not be available for an interview with The Times.

Before long, Newsom departed through the bakery’s front entrance, and Yeh returned to the table where he’d been sitting. He tried once more to process his emotions. He was feeling buoyed, but shocked by the encounter.

It was, Yeh said, a surreal ending to a strange and sad day.


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