“It Still Doesn’t Feel Real”: Beloved mother and avid cook among Monterey Park victims

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Xiujuan Yu had never been to the Star Dance Studio in Monterey Park before Saturday night, but she accepted an invitation from two friends to celebrate the Lunar New Year there.

Yu, 57, emigrated from China’s Guangdong province in the 2010s to start a new life with her family in the United States. She and her husband settled in Temple City, but spent much of their time in nearby Monterey Park.

“Many immigrants from China go to this area because there is a central hub and a community has already been built up here,” Yu’s niece, Kathleen Fong, 22, told The Times in an interview. “There’s a strong sense of community here.”

Known as America’s first suburban Chinatown, Monterey Park became a “safe haven” for the family, Fong said.

That all changed Saturday night.

Yu attended the dance hall’s Lunar New Year event with two of her friends and, according to Fong, had arrived shortly before shooting began. One of Yu’s friends went to the bathroom. When she returned, the friend found that Yu and Lilan Li, 63, had been shot. Yu lay on the floor and Li slumped in a chair.

Xiujuan Yu’s portrait is part of a street memorial commemorating the victims of Saturday’s Monterey Park mass shooting.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Fong said that Yu’s husband had read about the shooting online and started frantically calling Yu, but she didn’t answer. He contacted Fong’s parents to ask for their help in finding her. The three of them drove to different hospitals in search of Yu. Eventually, they ended up at the Langley Center, which the city had converted into a crisis center, looking for information about their loved one.

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The family found out on Monday that Yu had died in the studio and never made it to the hospital.

“I don’t know if she spent even an hour there, maybe less than an hour,” Fong said. “It really is a sense of wrong place, wrong time. Sometimes it still doesn’t feel real.”

They have since created a GoFundMe page to raise money for Yu’s funeral expenses.

According to Fong, Yu and her husband had left their lives in China and began doing labor-intensive odd jobs to support their family. Yu had worked as a nanny for several families and her husband worked for a window manufacturer. They were also involved in restaurant work in the past.

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“They were able to help their twin daughters go to college, which is a great achievement in itself,” Fong said, adding that Yu’s twin daughters are about 19 and attend Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Los Angeles. Yu’s son, the eldest, is in his thirties.

Yu also loved to cook and some of her favorite recipes are soy sauce duck, soy sauce chicken and sticky rice. Yu often brought unsolicited food to her family’s house. Knowing that her father liked to read the newspaper and that he sometimes had difficulty walking, Yu went to great lengths to buy him the newspaper and deliver it to him so that he would not have to leave the house.

“She was very diligent and hardworking,” Fong said. “She was the type to put others before herself.”

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Yu was the eldest of three sisters and Fong’s mother, who is the youngest, struggles hard with her sister’s death. Fong said she has seen her mother cry more in recent days than in her entire life. When footage of the shooting first started circulating online, Fong’s mother recognized a handbag in a photo and confirmed with Yu’s daughters that it was hers. They realized that the woman lying on the floor was their lover.

“She burst into tears in a way that I think is indescribable,” Fong said. “I just felt the pure sadness coming on the other side. It’s hard to hear that your mother is going through that.”

Fong said she last saw her aunt for a New Year’s Eve dinner a few weeks ago, and if she had known this would be the last time she would see her aunt alive, she would have talked to Yu more.

“I can’t imagine how devastating it is for my family, at least on my mother’s side, that the first child of the family is gone,” she said. “The first child is always quite important. That is when my grandparents became parents for the first time.”

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