Monterey Park, Calif., Jan. 27 (Una): For decades, Monterey Park has been a haven for Asian immigrants seeking to maintain a strong cultural identity—and a culinary paradise worth visiting for anyone near Los Angeles craving authentic Asian cuisine.
Signs across the vibrant suburb are written in both English and Chinese. Families are raising bilingual children, The Associated Press reports.
And residents in their golden years enjoy karaoke, the Chinese court game mah-jong and – as the outside world learned last week after a horrific mass shooting – ballroom dancing.
“It is a very quiet and unassuming place. “And we take care of our own,” says Denny Moe, a second-generation American who runs the famous Mandarin Noodle House that his grandfather started.
That sense of peace was shattered after a gunman killed 11 people in their 50s, 60s and 70s and wounded nine others last Saturday during a Lunar New Year celebration at the Stardance Hall.
But as residents of the tight-knit community work through the trauma — just as they did during the coronavirus pandemic, when anti-Asian sentiment ran high across the country — the tragedy has heightened their feelings about what makes Monterey Park so special and worth protecting.
Christina Hayes, who began organizing tango events at the Star Ballroom when the studio reopened after the pandemic, said dancing is “very important” to Monterey Park’s seniors.
“It’s a hobby and a hobby and even a competitive one — but in the best possible way.”
Mo, whose restaurant is known for its scallion pancakes and beef noodle soup, said he has no plans to leave Monterey Park and believes the slowdown in visitor numbers over the past week will be rapid.
“It’s a food mecca, especially if you like any kind of Asian food,” said Mo, who is Chinese.
Monterey Park’s transformation into a predominantly Asian city was the brainchild of Fred Hsieh, a Chinese immigrant who was also an accomplished real estate developer. He is credited with first coining the city’s nickname “Chinese Beverly Hills”.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he used this phrase in overseas Asian newspapers to attract people from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the land of opportunity.
It cleverly highlighted the city’s area code, 818. In Chinese culture, the number eight is viewed by some as a symbol of prosperity and good fortune.
When Hiseh died in 1999, Monterey Park at that time became the only American city with a majority Asian population, with 65% of the Asian population, according to the Associated Press. Today, nearly 70% of the population is Asian, most of whom are of Chinese descent.
As residents deal with the trauma and grief of the shooting, they hope people will continue to see the city of nearly 60,000 residents for the vibrant community.
The dramatic story of Mandarin Noodle House, still at 43 years old one of the oldest restaurants in Monterey Park, is that of several Asian immigrant families who stayed true to the community and raised them beyond a cookie-cutter suburb.
For decades, the city has been revered as Southern California’s premier location for authentic Asian food, especially Chinese cuisine from various regions.
For 36-year-old Moe, regular customers at Mandarin Noodle House are one of the reasons he never sees himself leaving Monterey Park.
“It’s good to go to a restaurant and ask the customer, ‘How was your day?'” How was your child’s dance party? … Mo said. “It’s all about the community.”
Hayes said her specialty over the years has been creating dance programs for seniors, especially for those who have lost mobility or suffer from dementia. Showed up are some dedicated dancers who come to the ballroom after work and on weekends.
“In the Asian American community across the country, the ballroom seniors keep me alive,” said Hayes, who is white.
Bettina Hsieh, a second-generation Taiwanese American and assistant professor at Cal State’s Long Beach College of Education, knows at least one person whose parents went to the Star Ball Room. Ballrooms and churches in Asian societies have traditionally been safe places for the elderly.
“There’s a huge disconnect or tension between immigrant parents and second-generation people like me,” Hsieh said. “Our families subscribed to the idea of us helping the children integrate. But they remained ethnically pocketed and intermingled, which meant they had limited spaces to gather as they got older.”
Kevin Mok, 32, of Chinese descent, runs Mr. Obanyaki’s Japanese sweet shop with his parents and brother. Since the shooting, he said he still feels “there is a sense of fear in this community,” because there are fewer people on the streets.
“It’s quieter than usual,” Mok said, while eating lunch at Mu’s. “I feel like my sales are down 15-20% at night. I hope it comes back.”
The gunman, a 72-year-old Asian man known in the community, shot and killed himself.
Professor Hsieh grew up in Santa Clarita, but has deep connections to Monterey Park. Her grandparents lived there or went there for doctor’s appointments because it was the only place they could find doctors who spoke Mandarin.
“It was Southern California’s first ‘racial gang’ for Asians,” Hsieh said. “Monterey Park was this place we had before we even knew how to have an Asian American identity, a place where our families could gather and stay connected to their homes and culture.”
Immigrant-run restaurants and shops have thrived in the thriving ethnic suburb because immigrants are the group least likely to tolerate watered-down versions of their food.
“In five minutes I can have all the good food,” said Yvonne Yeo, former mayor of Monterey Park. “Because they’re so competitive, they have to be good. A lot of people travel far to Monterey Park to eat and dine.”
Ballroom dancing is an integral part of the city’s culture, and Hayes of Star Ballroom is confident that the community will rekindle its joy on the dance floor.
“People will come,” she said, “and they will dance again.”