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Love for Monterey Park burns bright after filming tragedy

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This happens with every mass shooting outside a major city. A place many people have never heard of lands in the public consciousness as headlines announce body counts and TV cameras catch flashing lights and police tape.

Uvalde. Park. Aurora.

And now Monterey Park. And May Paolim says she breaks her heart.

“Hopefully, people will learn more about our city than just this event,” he said.

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If Paolim could tell people what he loves about his city, it’s this: Monterey Park is where his Chinese immigrant parents decided to build their lives in the 1970s amid rolling hills and sun-drenched malls selling fresh and strips of bird’s nest.

By night, it’s where older immigrants glide on a ballroom dance floor, kids dribble soccer balls in city parks a few blocks away, and restaurants show off every regional Asian cuisine you can name that sparkles from within.

And it’s a place Paolim couldn’t wait to get away from as a young man, but where his teenage son is now growing up, surrounded by a community of family and friends.

“It’s just a place that’s an anchor,” Paolim said. “I never thought I’d come back. But I’m back.

It has been just over a week since a gunman attacked the Star Dance studio, killing 11 and injuring nine, causing shock and grief to the Asian-American community. Those feelings were only compounded by the attack days later on migrant farm workers in Half Moon Bay.

Monterey Park, the first US city to have an Asian majority, holds a special place in the hearts not only of longtime residents but also of a diaspora who grew up outside of the San Gabriel Valley.

Steven Lim, a YouTube personality, said he often visited Monterey Park after moving to Los Angeles so he could buy groceries and boba and “recapture all that culture I had been missing” as a Chinese American kid growing up in Cincinnati.

“There are only a few places on earth that feel like home to me, where I can walk around and see that there are people like me,” Lim said. “Monterey Park and the SGV area is one of them.”

Lim attended a candlelight vigil outside the Star Dance studio last week, along with a group of friends that included Jason Y. Lee, who is Korean-American and originally from Overland Park, Kansas.

“It’s funny, growing up in a majority white state, I think you do so much to hide your identity as an Asian American,” Lee said. “Coming from somewhere like [Monterey Park]you begin to recognize how special your culture is and how proud you are to be Asian-American.

The city’s fame outside of Southern California began to grow in the 1970s and 1980s as waves of immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China began to take root in the city, just a 15-minute drive from Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

A confluence of events has accelerated demographic change. The federal government eased immigration restrictions in the mid-1960s, so it became easier for people from outside Europe to move to the U.S.

The liberalization of immigration laws coincided with rising geopolitical tensions in East Asia that saw Taiwanese and Hong Kongers, who saw China as a threat, look to the United States as an escape route.

So many Taiwanese moved to Monterey Park that the city became known as “Little Taipei”. Business owners and real estate agents have heavily advertised the city as a prime destination for well-heeled Chinese. Developer Fred Hsieh famously sold Monterey Park as the “Chinese Beverly Hills” in Chinese-language dailies circulating across the United States and beyond.

By the mid-1990s, more than half of Monterey Park’s population was Asian, and a chain reaction had begun in the San Gabriel Valley. Today there are nine other Asian-majority cities in the area.

Some cities are more affluent, more manicured, or have fancier shops, but Monterey Park still shines within this constellation.

The city is the place that produced the country’s first female Chinese American mayor, Lily Lee Chen, and the first female Chinese American to enter Congress, Judy Chu.

Even today it is a landing point for many new immigrants, including those from Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. It’s also attracting second-generation Asian Americans who are now in their 20s and 30s.

Wylie Kyi, born in Monterey Park to Chinese immigrants, returned to the area after working in the tech industry in the Bay Area, Phoenix and Taiwan. She now lives in Rosemead, another Asian-majority city next to Monterey Park.

“The San Gabriel Valley is my home now,” Kyi said. “My family is here. I hope to make it a big part of the next few years.

His brother Wilson is also back, after bouncing around in places like Boston, Mexico and New York.

“We bring ourselves, our experience from other places and hopefully somehow, we can repay and share our experience in different ways,” Kyi said.

For May Paolim, coming home to Monterey Park was a gift in itself. Paolim, a business consultant, has reconnected with childhood friends who sent their children to the same public schools they once attended. Living in her hometown also allowed her to care for her 91-year-old mother along with her two sisters.

In fact, her sisters and mother moved in with Paolim and her son at the onset of the pandemic and have all stayed together ever since.

Paolim’s son, who has just started attending East LA College in Monterey Park, has no interest in having a home of his own.

“She’s got a whole support system of Asian women,” she laughed. “It is very well cared for.”

This is the Monterey Park that Paolim knows and hopes others know, even if it’s through tragedy.

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