‘Doesn’t feel real’: Loved ones mourn 11 victims killed in Lunar New Year massacre
They were the lifeblood of the Star Ballroom Dance Studio.
Cherished parents and adoring grandparents, storytellers and skilled connectors whose collective love for line dancing, tango and karaoke transformed them into pillars of a community that was, to many, like a second home.
And then, in a few terrifying moments this weekend, they were stolen.
The 11 victims killed in a massacre at the ballroom this weekend — all of whom were publicly identified Tuesday — were Xiujuan Yu, 57; Hongying Jian, 62; Lilan Li, 63; Wen-Tau Yu, 64; Mymy Nhan, 65; Muoi Dai Ung, 67; Valentino Marcos Alvero, 68; Diana Man Ling Tom, 70; Yu-Lun Kao, 72; Ming Wei Ma, 72; and Chia Ling Yau, 76.
Nine others were injured in the Saturday attack at the ballroom, where people had gathered for a dance party to celebrate the Lunar New Year in Monterey Park, the heart of the region’s Chinese and Asian American diaspora.
The gunman was identified by police as a 72-year-old Hemet man, who investigators say frequented the Star Ballroom, as well as a second dance hall in Alhambra, which he busted into 20 minutes after the shooting. The suspect, who was disarmed by a man working the front desk at Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio and fled from the second studio and, according to authorities, shot himself to death the next day as police approached his van in a Torrance parking lot.
Authorities were still working to determine a motive, as families and friends of the victims tried to fathom why anyone would target a venue that stood only for generosity and joy.
Valentino Marcos Alvero’s life was defined by a zest for new connections and a fierce devotion to family.
He was, according to a statement from his relatives, a loving father, dedicated son, doting grandfather, generous uncle and a ballroom dance disciple. He relished learning people’s stories and, in return, he shared freely about his own life with such enthusiasm that people couldn’t help but laugh along with his tales.
“The life of any party,” his family wrote.
Siu Fong, who runs a Monday karaoke class at the Star Ballroom, said she sometimes saw Alvero at karaoke gatherings at a local senior center. He didn’t know Mandarin, she said, but still made a point to listen to songs on YouTube and memorize them — once, she said, he performed a Mandarin duet with another singer.
“He sang the song perfectly,” Fong recalled. “A very strong voice.”
According to the Philippine consulate general in Los Angeles, Alvero was Filipino American, and his family described him as a devout Catholic. In its statement, the family lamented he had not received his last rites, a sacrament administered before death, and asked priests and fellow Catholics to pray for him by his full name, as well as for the other victims.
Like Alvero, Yu-Lun Kao spent as much time as he could on the dance floor.
He danced Saturdays at the Star Ballroom and Sundays at Lai Lai, according to his longtime dance partner, who survived the attack and identified herself by only her first name, Shally.
She met Kao 15 years ago and often called him up when she had free time. He went by Andy, but she nicknamed him “Mr. Nice” for his generosity and willingness to dance with less skilled newcomers.
“Andy, I’m at the ballroom now,” she’d tell him, and he’d come right away. “Any hour we had time, we never wasted. Dancing makes you happy.”
One time, she recalled, she and her husband went to a steakhouse with Kao, who promptly disappeared from their table. They soon found he’d joined a private party in the restaurant, dancing with the people he’d just met.
On Tuesday, neighbors who had grown accustomed to seeing Hongying Jian — known to friends as Nancy — outside her home were struggling to make sense of the attack.
Jian enjoyed playing volleyball, singing, dancing and playing the piano, said her next-door neighbor, Serena Liu of San Gabriel. Jian often offered to make her food, she said.
“She used to say she can make friends with anyone,” said Liu, 33.
Another neighbor said that she and Jian had bonded over their love for plants — they often exchanged pots, she said, and Jian had recently given her a bunch of tomatoes, as well as a scarf on her birthday.
Xiujuan Yu had been celebrating with friends Saturday night when the shooter opened fire, according to her niece, Kathleen Fong.
“After days of uncertainty, anxiety, and waiting in worry, we received the news that my aunt was indeed among the deceased,” Fong wrote on a GoFundMe fundraiser.
Her aunt emigrated from China in 2010 with her husband and three children and was eager to “craft a new future for their little family,” Fong wrote. For years, she said, her aunt and uncle worked long hours in a variety of labor-intensive jobs to piece together enough to make ends meet and save for their children’s educations.
Two of Yu’s children — twins — are pursuing degrees in sports medicine and kinesiology at California State universities, Fong wrote, adding, “She will never be able to witness what she dreamed of for all these years.”
“This still doesn’t feel real,” Fong added. “We never even got a chance to properly say goodbye.”
Like Yu, Diana Man Ling Tom had planned to ring in the Lunar New Year by dancing alongside her friends.
She was, according to a statement released by her family, a hardworking mother, wife and grandmother who “always went out of her way to give to others.”
In their statement, the family members condemned “this senseless act of violence” and asked people to consider donating to a fund to help cover costs for Tom’s funeral.
Tom, who died of her injuries Sunday, was among four victims of the shooting treated at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. Two other survivors — a 73-year-old woman and 54-year-old man — were released from the hospital this week. The final patient remains hospitalized in critical condition, a hospital official said Tuesday.
After immigrating to the U.S. with his wife, Ming Wei Ma — who a friend said was once part of a well-known dance group in China — eventually carved out a hybrid role at the Star Ballroom. He managed the studio but also took classes himself.
Known to friends as Mr. Ma, several former students and fellow instructors said he went out of his way to encourage others.
Yvonne Yiu, the former mayor of Monterey Park, started taking lessons at Star Ballroom three decades ago and described Ma as a talented and positive teacher.
They sang and performed a duet together on the first day she met him, Yiu said, adding that Ma’s favorite song was titled “Please Follow Me.”
“Eventually I would like to follow you to heaven,” she said, “and sing and dance with you again.”
On the webpage of a fundraiser set up to cover funeral costs, dozens of people — some friends, but also strangers — left messages for Ma and his children.
I remember your dad and his smile and laughter. He loved you so. There is no sense to this.
Could’ve been my mom.
He was truly a hero! Thank you for being an amazing and respectable citizen of society.
Mymy Nhan’s relatives said in interviews that they would remember her for her love of dance, fashion and family.
“She was always such a good supporter for all of us,” said Allen Nhan, her nephew.
He lives in Texas now, but as a boy, he said, he loved catching up with his aunt at family get-togethers for birthdays, Lunar New Year and Christmas.
“She was always checking in on progress, whether it be high school, basketball games, or now that I have a son, it’s always a constant checking up on us and seeing how we are,” he said.
He spoke with his aunt recently, he said, after the death of his grandmother, whom his aunt had been a caregiver for. She asked him to bring his baby — not yet six months old — to Southern California so she could meet him.
“Then this happened,” he said.
Since the shooting, he said, he has spent time watching videos of her twirling along the ballroom floor.
“She dressed up for it, wore the shoes, went the full nine yards for it,” he said.
“That’s such a cool community,” he added, “to have people come together and be able to do something that they love.”
Times staff writers Brittny Mejia, Hayley Smith, Jeong Park and Nathan Solis contributed to this report.
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