Representing Monterey Park in Joy and in Sorrow

By Howard Ho
January 31, 2023
Essays

Growing up in Monterey Park meant I never walked around my hometown feeling like a minority. It’s a city to the east of Los Angeles in an area known as the San Gabriel Valley, a suburban sprawl with a large AAPI population. In Monterey Park, the population is 65% AAPI. Most of my friends in school were AAPI, lots of the stores there have Asian-language signage, and my entire extended family from grandparents down to cousins all either relocated to the San Gabriel Valley or were born there themselves. Here, my community was visible and unapologetic.

By contrast, every time I turned on the TV or went to the movie theater, I would hardly ever see any Asians in starring roles or even as extras. American culture seemed largely okay with AAPI invisibility. And even when we did show up on screen, it was usually as a merciless stereotype, which is really just a kind of very visible form of invisibility. Few shows allowed AAPI to be the middle class suburbanites I saw on a daily basis.

So it was with great horror and sadness that I watched Monterey Park finally having visibility in American media, but only because it was the scene of unthinkable violence; a mass shooting that left 11 dead on Lunar New Year. News crews descended on the corner of Garfield and Garvey where the shooting had taken place. Just a few days prior, I had been at that corner for dinner with friends. As a kid, my grandmother would take me on walks to the many shops at that intersection, and my father once lived just a few blocks from it. Most devastating of all, my mom frequented both of the shooter’s targeted locations, Star Dance Studio and Lai Lai Ballroom, and she knew one of the victims, a beloved dance instructor named Ming Wei Ma.

By the time the shooting had made national headlines, I was in Houston for a work trip. I was walking through a hotel lobby when I saw that very familiar intersection there on the screen for everyone to see. The experience was surreal.

For the residents of the San Gabriel Valley, visibility has always been on a pendulum swinging back-and-forth from visible to invisible. As a child of the ‘80s, I only knew of one actor who remotely looked like me in contemporary film, Ke Huy Quan. The fact that he went to my high school further solidified my sense that he represented me. His appearances in hit films like “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “The Goonies” made him highly visible not just to me, but to the entire world.

And yet, for the next 30 years, Quan would struggle to find auditions for good roles while his “Goonies” co-stars advanced their careers. The scarcity of opportunity led Quan to quit acting, rendering him invisible once again. It wasn’t until the writers/directors of the 11-time Oscar nominated film “Everything Everything All At Once” gave Quan a worthy role that has allowed him to roar back into visibility with an Oscar nomination to boot. As a child of the San Gabriel Valley, one of the first things he did after the Monterey Park shooting was to take his fellow cast members to have dinner at Monterey Park’s Atlantic Seafood and Dim Sum Restaurant.

Monterey Park has certainly come a long way from when I was a kid there hoping to escape the hopelessly uncool ethnic enclave. About 20 years ago, social media influencers began to wax poetic on the pleasures of the neighborhood’s late night noodle shops and boba milk tea hangouts. The San Gabriel Valley area code, 626, became mythologized in songs, and the outdoor AAPI festival, “626 Night Market” was born. Even the late great Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold started to famously turn the humblest local mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall into the hottest food destination with lines around the block. Strangely, this place I once associated with my grandparents and their kitschy pagoda-themed retirement village now was the envy of foodies and hipsters.

In early 2020, I wrote an autobiographical play about this phenomenon. The Howard of the play had left the San Gabriel Valley to pursue a life in the other valley, the San Fernando Valley of “Valley Girl” fame, and now he was being asked by one of his white colleagues to go back to his hometown to check out a hip new restaurant. My play was originally part of the Company of Angels Short Play Festival, which was getting close to tech rehearsals when the pandemic shut us down (a video version of the play did eventually get produced for the Center Theatre Group’s “Community Stories” initiative a year later).

The pandemic didn’t just cancel our production; it also changed its meaning. Suddenly, Asian restaurants were not the coolest hotspots anymore but instead a source of fear and the target of racism. A study from researchers from Boston College, the University of Michigan, and Microsoft Research, published in the Nature Human Behaviour journal, found that anti-Asian sentiment resulted in a $7.4 billion loss for Asian restaurants in 2020. Suddenly, the idea of a white co-worker excited to eat in the San Gabriel Valley felt quaint.

Now, in the aftermath of recent gun violence in AAPI communities, the play has evolved yet again. I don’t want to write a production that wallows in our pain; instead, I want to take a page from musicals like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” which celebrates the vibrant Dominican Republic enclave of Washington Heights without succumbing to lazy inner city stereotypes.

With the support of Company of Angels artistic director Armando Molina, my homage to the San Gabriel Valley is now becoming a full-length musical. It feels even more imperative than ever that I help give voice to the place and the people that have given me a voice.

My grandfather’s Chinese opera music, for example, which I once found noisy and incomprehensible, has become a major touchstone in my own work as a composer. He was known for performing concerts at the local Monterey Park senior citizen community center, a setting my 10-year-old self considered deeply uncool. But eventually, I understood how special he was. Before he died, I made sure to record him playing his jinghu, a small two-stringed Chinese fiddle. And ever since then, I’ve used those recordings in everything from film scores to theatrical sound designs to pop songs to my Youtube videos.

An unlikely moment of San Gabriel Valley pride happened in Houston, Texas of all places. I just happened to be at the Alley Theatre working on another musical at the same time Lauren Yee’s play “Cambodian Rock Band” was opening at the Alley. After the opening night performance, I hung out with the cast at a nearby bar where we talked about the Monterey Park shooting. I learned that the Obie-winning lead actor Joe Ngo is originally from the San Gabriel Valley and went to my rival high school. Also there that night was San Gabriel Valley native Priscilla Kim, who is an accomplished musician with the stage name “Priska.”

Together in that Houston bar, I felt the pride of where we came from; though we were 1,500 miles away from the community that brought us up, artists like Joe were making their pride visible. The San Gabriel Valley and its communities incubated a generation that grew up in its warm embrace with its own unique brand of Asian American culture. I know I’m not alone in feeling determined to make sure Monterey Park is known for its joy as much as its sorrow.

Howard Ho is a writer, composer and YouTuber. His YouTube channel “Howard Ho Music” has over 100,000 subscribers and has been recognized by Lin-Manuel Miranda. He was an O'Neill National Playwrights Finalist and had an original musical featured in the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival. His journalism has been published in the LA Times, Entertainment Weekly, Howlround, and American Theatre magazine. He has sound designed over 50 theatrical productions and has been nominated twice for Ovation Awards in sound design. He’s studied improv with Freestyle Love Supreme and Cold Tofu and holds degrees from UCLA & USC.

Related Stories

Essays

On Witnessing Art, Death, and Palestine

By Diana Seo Hyung Lee
May 21, 2024