California mass shootings add to Bay Area Asian Americans’ years of pandemic trauma (2023)

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Bay Area

Roland Li,Claire Hao,Ricardo Cano

California mass shootings add to Bay Area Asian Americans’ years of pandemic trauma (11)

On Lunar New Year’s Eve, Stop AAPI Hate co-founder Cynthia Choi went to bed hopeful. Before going to sleep, she sent out a tweet: “I am all in for a year of calm, kindness and peace.”

The next morning, Choi woke up to the news of the Monterey Park (Los Angeles County) mass shooting, where 11 Asian Americans were killed at a dance studio. A day later, while working to coordinate responses to the first shooting, Choi learned of the mass shootings in Half Moon Bay that left seven Asian and Latino victims dead.

“Instead of attending what I was hoping to be community gatherings celebrating the Lunar New Year, I’ll be attending vigils,” said Choi, whose organization tracks hate, violence, harassment and discrimination against Asian and Pacific Islander Americans.

The mass shootings in Half Moon Bay and Monterey Park around the Lunar New Year holiday have compounded pain and fear in Asian American communities, adding to a period of heightened animosity and hate crimes amid the pandemic, and further traumatizing a community already on edge, local groups and scholars say.

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“They’re tragic events, especially on Lunar New Year, that horrified the community already traumatized by the anti-Asian violence,” said Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University “It just prolongs and extends this period of collective racial trauma.”

For the past few years, Asian enclaves, including Chinatowns, have been like “ghost towns” because of community members’ fears of contracting COVID-19 and because of racist scapegoating blaming Asian people for the pandemic, Choi said. Asian restaurants lost $7.42 billion in revenue in 2020 alone, according to a study from researchers at the University of Michigan, Boston College and Microsoft Research.

The long-awaited hustle-and-bustle of this year’s festivities are “marred” by the two mass shootings, Choi said. The Monterey Park shooting spread unease and dampened celebrations across the country, including in San Francisco.

California mass shootings add to Bay Area Asian Americans’ years of pandemic trauma (14)

The age of the suspects in both shootings was unusual: Huu Can Tran, 72, the alleged gunman in Monterey Park, was the oldest mass shooter on record, according to data tracked by the Violence Project, a nonprofit research group in Minnesota. Chunli Zhao, 66, the suspect in Half Moon Bay, would also be among the oldest mass shooters.

“The fact that the perpetrators were elderly Asian men is striking and speaks to their particular mental health status as minorities in society,” Jeung said. “Asian American elderly (people) do have high rates of social isolation and loneliness.”

They can face social barriers including not speaking English fluently and in some cases may lack family support, particularly if their relatives remain in Asia, Jeung said. The Lunar New Year holiday, while a celebration, can also add to stress, he said.

According to census data, 65% of Monterey Park’s 60,000 residents are of Asian descent. Half Moon Bay’s 11,300 residents are 5.4% Asian, 31.9% Latino and 59.2% white.

The two shooters may have been driven by personalgrievances to kill people they knew in places they’d frequented and worked, authorities said. In the immediate aftermath of the Monterey Park shooting when little information was available, some feared the shooting was fueled by anti-Asian racism, echoing the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings where eight mostly Asian victims were killed and a prosecutor brought hate crime charges.

“I know that there has been a lot of attention on the identity of the shooter. But I think in both these instances, it should not in any way delegitimize or diminish the pain and the fears that our communities are experiencing,” Choi said.

As she strolled through Portsmouth Square in San Francisco’s Chinatown late Thursday morning, Lily Chan lamented that the torrent of mass shootings coincided with Lunar New Year celebrations.

“What is this world coming to? Why is there so much gun violence?” she said.

She was surprised by the quiet scene at the park in the heart of Chinatown, where a small group of older men played cards amid empty bench seats during a time of year when the neighborhood historically has brimmed with foot traffic and festivities.

Like many, Chan said she has grown numb to the pervasiveness of mass shootings throughout the country.

“It’s just sad because then I think about all the politicians who come out to say, ‘Oh, we’ll pray for you, we’re thinking of all the families of the (victims).’ But then nothing ever gets done,” Chan said. “The NRA (National Rifle Association) is just so strong that nothing ever gets done through the government.”

Congress passed a gun control bill last year that expanded some mental health services and increased background check access for juvenile and mental health files, along with increasing penalties for gun trafficking, but critics say the bill didn’t go far enough. A national ban on assault weapons expired in 2004 and was not renewed, though California has a statewide ban.

The Jan. 28, 2021, killing of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai American resident shoved to the ground on his morning walk in San Francisco, galvanized the community, as did other attacks on Asian Americans around the Bay Area.

California mass shootings add to Bay Area Asian Americans’ years of pandemic trauma (15)

Discontent over public safety and education helped fuel a rise in Asian American activism in San Francisco last year, leading to the recalls of three school board members and District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Local activism also led to the formation of groups and coalitions to raise awareness about anti-Asian bias and create resources within Asian American communities, which are coming together at this moment.

Ratanapakdee’s death led to the creation of organizations like Dear Community, which is hosting a vigil for the Monterey Park victims on Thursday from 5:30-7 p.m. at Portsmouth Square.

Asian Americans are “notorious” for not speaking out about mental health, said Tâm Ngô, board president of Dear Community.

“We internalize generations and generations of pain and trauma, which has now manifested itself into the tragedy that we’re speaking about today,” Ngô said.

California mass shootings add to Bay Area Asian Americans’ years of pandemic trauma (16)

City officials recently touted a drop in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2022, with police receiving just six reports in 2022, down from 60 in 2021 and the nine reported in 2020.

But Jeung warned that hate crimes have always been underreported and data is incomplete, so it’s hard to say if safety conditions are improving significantly after incidents surged during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, around half of the 60 hate crime incidents were tied to one suspect, who allegedly vandalized Chinese-owned businesses.

The shootings occurred during a critical time for San Francisco’s Chinatown, said Malcolm Yeung, executive director of Chinatown Community Development Center, which provides local services and manages affordable housing.

Foot traffic to the area during the Lunar New Year week “sets the tone for the entire year,” and many merchants reported the busiest activity “that anyone can remember“ on Sunday, even after the shooting in Monterey Park, Yeung said. “I think that’s got to be an indication that folks are hopeful. I hope as a community and city we can carry that forward.”

The impact of the shootings, if any, on visitor enthusiasm will be seen in the coming days and weeks, especially during the Chinese New Year parade on Feb. 4.

“We have to continue to celebrate. We have to continue to come together and find the joy in our communities,” Yeung said. “If we don’t, then the reality is all this hate stuff is working.”

Ngô said she hopes Thursday’s vigil can be one opportunity for the community to come together to find comfort and strength.

“While we can’t change what has happened, we can definitely set the tone that human connection is here,” Ngô said.

Roland Li, Claire Hao and Ricardo Cano are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email:,,; Twitter: @rolandlisf, @clairehao_, @byricardocano

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