A Tale Of Two Vigils: The San Gabriel Valley Responds to Atlanta Shootings
As night fell over the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse Saturday, a crowd of hundreds buzzed in the courtyard -- many of them Chinese immigrants who carried signs with messages like "Stop Asian Hate" and "War on Crime" as they listened to elected officials rail against a national rise in anti-Asian violence.
Yvonne Yiu, the mayor of Monterey Park -- the first of 10 cities in the San Gabriel Valley to see an Asian majority -- climbed onto a planter to take her turn at the microphone.
"Those criminals are sick," Yiu said. "They are like virus, they are like bacteria."
A mile-and-a-half away in neighboring Alhambra, it was a very different scene.
Hundreds of people had fanned out over a grassy slope by the tennis courts of Almansor Park -- a multi-ethnic group mostly in their teens and 20s, many of them the children of immigrants who stressed solidarity with Black and Brown communities, and in no uncertain terms said they did not want more police as a crime deterrent.
As candles set along the edge of the tennis courts flickered late into the night, one speaker who only wanted to be identified by the nickname "Piglet" demanded that other Asian Americans not align with white "oppressors" or with law enforcement. The woman turned to the Alhambra police officers standing watch nearby.
"For the police listening over there, we would like you to leave," the speaker said, igniting cheers from the crowd. "Our community does not welcome you."
It was a night intended by both groups to mark the loss of eight people in the Atlanta shooting spree, six of them women of Asian descent. The tragedy resonated deeply in this swath of Los Angeles County, with well over half-a-million Asian residents -- one of the largest concentrations in the country.
What the vigils also laid bare are the yawning generational and cultural divides among Asian Americans -- and how treating the community as a monolith is a fool's errand.
Both events took shape quickly, but their genesis again underscores the divergent responses to the Atlanta tragedy.
The Alhambra event was the brainchild of 22-year-old Betty Hang, who had never organized an action before. But the video game production assistant from El Monte has spent the past year worried about her Vietnamese immigrant parents with whom she lives, especially her mom who works in a nail salon, a business that Hang worried would be targeted by racists because it is associated with Asians.
After the Atlanta shootings, Hang began posting about her planned vigil on Instagram and Facebook.
"I couldn't wait anymore," Hang said. "I'm not somebody who will be submissive and quiet. I refuse that stereotype. I refuse to be put in a box."
By contrast, the San Gabriel event was organized by the city's vice-mayor, Tony Ding, with word quickly spreading among a network of Chinese immigrant organizations.
This region has been subject recently to a string of violent incidents against Asians, shattering the sense of security many felt from living where it's possible to shop and work without ever needing to speak English, making it a popular landing spot for Asian immigrants.
The San Gabriel program ran briskly, as more than a dozen officials issued calls to action -- such as getting bystander training from police or encouraging the reporting of hate crimes in their community, especially among older members who "do not want to cause trouble," according to San Gabriel councilman Jason Pu.
Arcadia councilmember Paul Cheng's message was that Asian Americans should not let the recent violence deter them from continuing to give to their communities -- a speech that had notes of a Washington Post op-ed by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, in which he called on Asians to act more neighborly and American to combat hate.
"If you have given to your local community, give more," Cheng said. "If you have purchased PPE for your local schools, do it again."
Those attending the San Gabriel vigil were mostly middle-aged and up, but 30-year-old Joanna Zhang felt compelled to drive from Rowland Heights, unnerved by a hate incident she experienced herself.
Early in the pandemic, Zhang said she was walking in downtown L.A. when a stranger yelled at her to "go back to your country."
"I feel that we need to speak up to represent the Asian community," said Zhang, a Shanghai native who emigrated to the U.S. a decade ago. "It's very important because I noticed that most of the Asian Americans, they are not very active in politics or like this type of protest."
Zhang said she now carries a Taser and pepper spray, which she only left home for the night because she was running late for the event.
"WE'RE SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT"
The rhythms of the Alhambra vigil were slower. The crowd grew hushed as many spoke from personal experience -- about domestic violence, the fetishization of Asian women.
Simon Rafael Piolo, a 19-year-old student and restaurant server from Rancho Cucamonga, was so moved by being in communion with other Asian Americans that he decided on the spot to address the crowd.
Piolo said in the past year of protests, he's gotten angry on behalf of Black and Brown communities, but when the Atlanta shootings took place, "this hit me different."
Born in the Philippines, Piolo said he's become so Americanized that he's lost touch with his Asian heritage. In grieving for the victims in Atlanta, he unexpectedly felt his pride as an Asian American grow stronger.
"We are taught to assimilate into this country," Piolo said to the crowd. "We're taught to put away our culture, try to be white. We're taught that all we are is boba, ramen, K-pop, anime. But we're so much more than that."
Piolo was accompanied by his friend, Marc Anthony Perez, whose family is from Mexico and El Salvador. Perez came because he knew it was important to his friend, but also for himself.
"Something I've learned is the allowance of violence against any minority is the perpetuation of violence against all minorities," Perez said. "It is a death sentence to all of us who do not all stand together."