Xiujuan Yu had never been to 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 Guangdong province in China 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 a lot of time in nearby Monterey Park.

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

Monterey Park, known as America’s first suburban Chinatown, 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 had arrived shortly before the shooting began, according to Fong. 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 was lying on the floor and Li was slumped in a chair.

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

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

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

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

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

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

Yu and her husband had left their lives in China behind and began working labor-intensive odd jobs to try to support their family, according to Fong. Yu had worked as a nanny for multiple families and her husband worked for a window manufacturing company. They were also involved in restaurant work in the past.

“They were able to help their twin daughters get into college, which is an amazing feat in and of 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, who is the eldest, is in his 30s.

Yu also loved to cook and some of her favorite recipes include soy sauce duck, soy sauce chicken and sticky rice. Yu would often drop off food at her relatives’ homes unasked. Because Yu knew that her father liked reading the newspaper and that he sometimes had trouble walking, she would go out of her way to buy him the paper and drop it off so he wouldn’t have to leave home.

“She was really diligent and hard-working,” Fong said. “She was the type to put others before herself.”

Yu was the eldest of three sisters and Fong’s mother, who is the youngest, has been struggling hard with her sister’s death. Fong said she’s seen her mother cry more in the past couple of days than she has in her entire life. When images of the shooting first began circulating online, Fong’s mother recognized a handbag in a picture and confirmed with Yu’s daughters that it was hers. They realized that the woman lying on the ground was their loved one.

“She broke down crying the way that I felt is indescribable,” Fong said. “I just felt the sheer grief coming on the other end. It’s hard to hear your mom going through that.”

Fong said she last saw her aunt a couple of weeks ago for a New Year’s Eve dinner, and had she known it would be the last time she’d see her aunt alive, she would’ve spoken more with Yu.

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

Summer Lin

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