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In the Asiatown of the Northeast, immigrants are normalizing traditions following Lunar New Year mass killings

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Posted at 2:24 PM, Feb 02, 2023

Pingan Huo couldn’t believe the news on Jan. 22.

“We were shocked,” said Huo, who is with the Fort Lee Chinese Association.

The unthinkable happened the night before— on what was to be the happiest day for East Asians around the world. A mass shooting during a Lunar New Year celebration in Monterrey Park, California, left 11 people dead. Two days later in Half Moon Bay, seven people were killed in another mass shooting. Authorities say both acts were committed by senior Asian American men.

“This is a tragedy," Huo said. "We never thought this kind of thing would happen in Chinese New Year.”

Huo, along with hundreds of residents in Bergen County, New Jersey, joined in the Lunar New Year event this week at the County Office Building in Hackensack. The Lion Dance parade and the beating drum of Korean artists masked a somber tone in what was to be the most joyous holiday of the year.

Bergen County is similar to Southern and Northern California, with pockets that are Asian immigrant enclaves. More than 170,000 residents of the county’s one million population identify as Asian. Palisades Park is known as Koreatown. Asians account for 60% of the residents there. Almost 40% of the residents in Fort Lee and Leonia identify as Asian.

Along Broad Avenue in Palisades Park, there are signages in Korean and English. From karaoke bars to Korean cosmetic shops and restaurants, it’s a place where Korean Americans converge.

Along Main Street in Fort Lee, Chinese businesses work side by side with Korean businesses. Visitors will see a Hanbok Korean boutique next to a Chinese seafood restaurant. It’s a place where English is often the second or third language.

Like Monterey Park and Alhambra in California, these North Jersey boroughs offer Asian immigrants a safe space as they assimilate into American life.

It's why the recent incidents are jarring to immigrant Asian Americans in North Jersey, rocking their sense of peace.

“We are Asians, united as one. We help each other,” said Vicki Zhang, who is with the New Jersey Chinese Teachers Association.

Indeed, the acts of violence are unthinkable in Asian immigrant communities that rely on each other. Because immigrants leave their families behind, fellow immigrants become family, said Zhang, who hails from China.

Reflecting on the unthinkable crimes two weeks ago, police say 72-year-old Huu Can Tran opened fire at Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, with the 10 victims found dead at the scene. Another victim died the next day. Tran was found dead inside a cargo van.

Farmworker Chunli Zhao, 66, was booked on seven counts of murder in Half Moon Bay. Police believe Zhao acted alone in killing four at a mushroom farm then drove to another nearby farm and killed another three people.

The two incidents happened during the Lunar New Year celebratory period of 15 days. It is an auspicious time when people are to start anew. Now, it’s a time to reflect.

Deputy Consul General Shipeng Li from the People’s Republic of China attended the New Jersey Lunar New Year event and expressed support for the Chinese community in America.

“Really, it’s heartbreaking for us,” said Li. “We care about Chinese Americans here and Chinese citizens here and our consulate general is doing whatever we can do to safeguard and protect our people here. And to render our help and support for the Chinese American community.”