Alhambra celebrates Lunar New Year Festival and honors hometown hero Brandon Tsay

Sophia Lee does everything she can to introduce her two young sons to her family’s Chinese culture.

She enrolls her eldest in a dual kindergarten class where he speaks both Mandarin and English, and she takes them to Asian restaurants throughout the San Gabriel Valley. On Sunday, she dressed 6-year-old Rosco and 2-year-old Skyler in red and blue silk shirts and took them to the Lunar New Year Festival in Alhambra.

“I hope they hear the music, hear the vendors speak Mandarin, just to keep the culture alive,” Lee said.

In that respect it was a happy afternoon.

But that joy was tempered by the lingering sadness of what happened a week earlier, when a gunman broke into a ballroom dance studio in neighboring Monterey Park, killing 11 people before storming into another dance studio in Alhambra, where he was disarmed .

Lee, a math professor at Citrus College, had family members too devastated by the shooting to attend the festival. And when she saw a young man on the edge of the crowd start screaming and acting erratically before the police got to him, her heart stopped.

“We were like, ‘Shall we go? Should we get out of here?” We’re all nervous,” said Lee, 36.

At the start of this Year of the Rabbit, the Alhambra Lunar New Year Festival showed all the paradoxes of a grieving city: the need to remember and the need to move on. The need to mourn and the need to move forward. The comfort of being together and the fear of large crowds.

The sky was dark and a cold rain was falling. But thousands of people still gathered on Main Street to watch martial arts performances and lion dancers, eat Korean bulgogi and green onion pancakes.

Organizers said it was a difficult decision to hold the 30-year-old street festival, which was canceled in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID pandemic.

Tragedy forced the closure of the second day of the Lunar New Year Festival at Monterey Park last week, prompting Alhambra residents and business owners to engage deeply with the soul. Some vendors, too traumatized by the shooting, withdrew.

Ultimately, the organizing team decided, “We had to do it. Even if it doesn’t look like everyone expected – as it has for the past few years,” said John Bwarie, Managing Director of the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce, one of the main organisers. “The continuation of the celebration creates a sense of normality in the chaos that people were experiencing.”

The police presence was strong. The FBI had a booth.

Participants wrote their hopes for the New Year on colorful pieces of paper, which they attached to a row of wishing trees:

We wish for an end to gun violence in 2023! someone wrote.

End COVID-19wrote another.

And in children’s handwriting: I want PS5 — the latest PlayStation console.

The festival took place around the corner from the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio, where 72-year-old gunman Huu Can Tran barged in shortly after his fatal shooting spree in Monterey Park on January 21.

Brandon Tsay, whose family owns the Alhambra studio and works at the ticket office, was in the lobby when he heard metal clinking and saw Tran holding a gun. Tsay, 26, lunged at him with both hands and disarmed him to avert another tragedy.

On Sunday, Tsay, face straight as he stood on a stage, received several commendations from elected officials.

“Be patient,” Tsay said in a short speech to the cheering crowd.

“The situation is still so surreal to me. … I realized that life is fragile. I believe that as a community we should spend our precious time reaching out to one another.

“I wish healing to all the families of the victims. I pray that they can find joy again. The start of the new year has been extremely difficult, but we have the rest of the year to spread compassion and rebuild our community.”

Tsay then stood under a tent surrounded by police officers and posed for photos with people wanting to shake his hand and say thank you. The line stretched to more than 50 people.

Mercedes Ruiz, 37, from Alhambra, said she came to the festival knowing Tsay would be there.

“If you’re used to all the bad news, it’s nice to see him,” said Ruiz, who works in the funeral industry.

Ben Ng, 42, of San Gabriel said he also came for Tsay.

“We wanted to see a real hero,” he said.

“And the Lunar New Year is about spending time with family,” added his sister Phannie Wang, 44, of Rosemead, who shared roasted chestnuts with their three children, ages 13, 10 and 3.

This week, Wang said, she told her older children about the shooting and how to always be aware of their surroundings. Unfortunately, they’re used to having bans at school when there’s a potential threat, she said.

Her 10-year-old daughter Sophia had something else on her mind when her mother spoke.

“I’m happy to be here for something to eat,” said Sophia.

Costa Mesa also continued this weekend with the Tet Festival, the largest Lunar New Year gathering in North America.

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

Vivienne Cantuba, Maya Kazi and Zaid Ahmed – best friends and high school juniors from Riverside County – came to the Tet festival together, both wearing áo dài, traditional Vietnamese robes.

The teenagers said they followed news of the mass shooting in Monterey Park last week and the mass shooting two days later in rural Half Moon Bay. But they said they rely on their parents’ safety advice and are not afraid to come to the Tet festival.

“You have to look in front of you and all around you when you’re outside or running errands. … We planned to go here and we’re not changing our plans,” said Ahmed, a Pakistani-American.

“It’s hard to imagine people losing their lives just enjoying their culture,” he added. “Our world is really dangerous right now.”

On Sunday morning, William Nguyen and his friends drove from Hollywood to Monterey Park for dim sum and talked about the “strange feeling of knowing something so tragic has happened in a place you’ve always been.”

“It feels kind of crazy, but you can’t let that stop you,” he said.

Hours later, Nguyen, 45, and David Luangpraseuth, 38, were excited as they entered the Costa Mesa festival site.

They cheered as a friend did pull-ups at a Marine Corps recruiting booth, wowing kids and adults alike trying to win a ball cap or shoulder bag.

“Man, no reason to stay away. Crazy is everywhere while we have to get on with our lives,” said Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American and an advisory board member for Equality California, which advocates for LGBTQ rights.

“Sometimes when there is tragedy, there is more security because everyone is on alert,” said Luangpraseuth, 36, a Lao-American.

“Hanging out together brings us all good luck on vacation.” Alhambra celebrates Lunar New Year Festival and honors hometown hero Brandon Tsay

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