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Alhambra prepares for Lunar New Year Festival and ‘healing’ after mass shooting

Alhambra officials hope to “start the healing” by moving forward with the city’s annual Lunar New Year Festival on Sunday, a week after the event was canceled following a mass shooting in neighboring Monterey Park that left 11 dead.

Organizers said they struggled with whether to hold the celebration, as the community mourned along with the rest of the country over the Jan. 21 shooting. The victims were gunned down amid Lunar New Year revelry at Star Ballroom Dance Studio.

Gunman Huu Can Tran then went to the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where he was disarmed by 26-year-old Brandon Tsay, who will be honored at Sunday’s gathering. Tran later took his own life.

“We were thinking: What is the best way to serve the community and meet the needs of those impacted?” said John Bwarie, CEO of the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce, one of the lead organizers. “Between Sunday and Tuesday, it was a safety, logistics and appropriateness conversation.”

The festival will be held in downtown Alhambra and will run from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. and include lion dancers, candy sculpting, a farmers market, activities for kids and a variety of food vendors.

Since 1992, chamber leaders have been working with city officials to produce the street festival, minus a two-year hiatus during the pandemic. Tragedy forced the closure of the second day of Monterey Park’s own Lunar New Year Festival last week, prompting Alhambra residents and business owners to do some intense soul-searching.

For advice, Bwarie and others reached out to food vendors, performers and nonprofit activists, as well as Asian American and Pacific Islander groups that have been working to combat anti-AAPI hate crimes.

Some vendors decided to pull out — their staff was “too emotional after the crisis,” he said. “Or they worried that if they made an effort to show up, all nine hours, would there be customers? I’m not saying that money matters more than lives. Of course not. Yet there’s a whole collection of folks who do the Lunar New Year festival circuit and they depend on this to survive.”

Ultimately, the organizing team decided “we had to do it. Even if it doesn’t look like what everyone expected — what it was in years past. Going on with the celebration creates some sense of normalcy in the chaos people were experiencing,” Bwarie said. “There’s the idea of what it means to be in community. We want to provide the best opportunity for all of us to start healing together.”

Planners already had a spot selected for a wellness pavilion, typically offering flu shots, diabetes testing and measuring blood pressure. This time around, mental health counselors will be on hand to help visitors process recent events and to provide healthcare resources.

Tsay will be honored by city officials and police for his bravery in disarming the gunman. A remembrance ceremony will also be held for the victims of the Monterey Park shooting.

“We can honor what should be honored — and we can have fun while at the same time respecting the reality of the world we live in,” Bwarie said.

Organizers of the Tet Festival, the largest Lunar New Year gathering in North America, also wanted their show to continue.

The three-day celebration at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa kicked off Friday, after its marketing team blanketed Asian American and mainstream groups with assurances of heightened security, metal detectors and bag checks.

“It’s been amazing to see how our leaders in their 20s stood up and promised they would do everything they can to protect seniors and families going out to celebrate,” said Catt Phan, executive assistant for the Miss Vietnam of Southern California Cultural & Scholastic Pageant, a main attraction at the event. The festival that traditionally draws 50,000+ visitors is organized by the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of Southern California.

Phan, of Fountain Valley, said she’s been nervous for her safety since the Atlanta spa shootings in 2021 — yet as a past participant in the pageant in 2019, when she won Miss Congeniality, she couldn’t stay away.

“I want to be respectful, yet still claim my joy,” she added. For four months, Phan has helped to guide the current crop of contestants, working on speaking skills and learning cultural proverbs. Appearing at the competition is “the culmination of their journey,” she said. “There are few moments that we get to declare ourselves and in our terms. This is one of them and we’re going to make sure this celebration is a celebration.”

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