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Monterey Park's long history as a bastion for Asian-American suburban life

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well, authorities in California have now publicly identified some of the victims, but the names of others have yet to be released as officials work to notify their families. We'll have the latest on that and the ongoing investigation later in the program. But first, we're going to hear a little bit more about the city of Monterey Park itself and the community there. And for that, we turn now to Min Zhou. She's a professor of sociology and Asian American studies at UCLA. Welcome.

MIN ZHOU: Thank you. Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: Thank you for being with us. So, you know, I mentioned earlier that Monterey Park is often referred to as the first suburban Chinatown. Can you tell us more about the city's history and how it came to be the place that it is today?

ZHOU: Yes, that's correct. So in the 1970s, Monterey Park was a multiracial community already. And then in the 1980s, there has been very strong foreign investment into the community from Taiwan...

CHANG: Right.

ZHOU: ...And other parts of Asia, especially Taiwan. And then that investment really kind of start to attract immigrants from Asia, first from Taiwan and later on from mainland China and then from other parts of Asia. So the suburban Chinese community - as it's evolved, it becomes a magnet for the more resourceful middle-class Chinese immigrants.

CHANG: What's striking when you walk through Monterey Park and other parts of the San Gabriel Valley is you see so many signs written in Chinese characters, right? Like...

ZHOU: Yeah.

CHANG: Your dentist is Chinese. The people who run the grocery stores and work at the grocery stores are Chinese or are of other Asian descent. Like, you can be immersed in your culture 24/7 while you live there, right?

ZHOU: Yeah. Yeah. And also, it's the American ethnic culture, right? And so that's why the immigrants and also Asian Americans - they are quite attracted to that area, both with the American cultural diversity and also with their own unique culture. Like, I myself - quite frequently, I go there to shop. I live in - on the west side.

CHANG: Of Los Angeles.

ZHOU: Yeah. And so a lot of people who do not live in the area - they also go there to shop...

CHANG: Right.

ZHOU: ...To have fun. Like, dancing is part of it, right?

CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.

ZHOU: So that dancing studio and the herbal store next to it and then also the tea shop - you know, a very well-known Taiwanese tea shop right across the street is where we go there often.

CHANG: Yeah. And I heard that you have even danced at the Star Dance Ballroom Studio.

ZHOU: Yeah. Several years ago, I danced there. I mean, I'm not very good at dancing.

CHANG: (Laughter).

ZHOU: But, you know, it's a community, right? It's kind of...

CHANG: Right.

ZHOU: ...The event with friends. But my child's in-laws - they are regular dancers. So that weekend, they would have been there if it had not been for the Lunar New Year...

CHANG: Wow.

ZHOU: ...Because they had to go to be with...

CHANG: I see.

ZHOU: ...Their family for the gathering. So they did not go. But they were kind of, you know, traumatized by that.

CHANG: Well, given your personal connection to the ballroom studio and to Monterey Park, I mean, what was your reaction when you first heard this news?

ZHOU: I'm just totally shocked and devastated...

CHANG: Yeah.

ZHOU: ...Because it's so dear to my heart, that community. And I even feel, you know (crying), my heart went to the victims, you know? It could have been me, and it could have been anybody. Yeah. And also, I feel angry, too, that such things are happening in our community.

CHANG: Well, authorities say that they are still investigating what the shooter's motivation may have been. But whatever that person's reasons were for doing what he did, what do you think the impact of this mass shooting will be on the people of Monterey Park and the surrounding Asian communities there?

ZHOU: Well, whatever the motive of the killer - right? - one thing to me is for certain - that that person is definitely emboldened by the gun culture in this society and also by the violence against Asians in the recent years, especially during the pandemic. So that, for me, I don't think there is any doubt on it. Now, to the Asian community, like to individuals - right? - like me, you know, when we are walking on the street and, you know, doing things in the community, now we are still scared, right? And that's - you know, that fear - it's kind of traumatizing.

CHANG: Retraumatizing.

ZHOU: Yeah.

CHANG: Min Zhou. She's a professor of sociology and Asian American studies at UCLA. Thank you very much for joining us today.

ZHOU: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM ALLHOFF'S "STILLNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
William Troop
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