Huu Can Tran’s American Dream

Huu Can Tran’s American Dream

The Monterey Park shooter lost his wife and his home. But one totem of assimilation remained within easy reach.

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In August of 1989, Huu Can Tran obtained full ownership of the house he previously shared with another roommate. It was a modest two-bedroom on a narrow street in sunny San Gabriel, Calif., about 10 miles east of Los Angeles. An immigrant from China, Tran, then in his late 30s, had grasped a little piece of the American dream: homeownership.

As an Asian American immigrant, he would not have been alone, in that regard, in San Gabriel Valley. Today, it has one of the United States’ largest Asian-American populations, two-thirds of which are foreign-born. And it has a long history of Asian immigration: Waves of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and South Asians started coming over in the mid-19th century, typically to work as farmhands, picking citrus, often alongside Mexican Americans.

By the time Tran arrived in California, likely via Texas, agricultural work was still plentiful for recent immigrants, as it always had been. Whether he ever worked on a farm is unknown, but he did find employment on the open road as a trucker and in 2002 started his own trucking company, Tran’s Trucking Inc. Around that time, he married Helen Lai, whom he first spotted at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park. He had offered to give her informal lessons, and the pair became regulars there. By any measure, Tran had ticked off the boxes of an admirable American life: a home, a wife, an honest career.

But at some point, things fell apart.

Tran dissolved his trucking company within a couple of years. In 2005, he and Lai divorced. Lai said Tran lost interest, and that, while never violent, he would anger easily, even over her missing a step while they were dancing. In 2013, he sold the San Gabriel home—today valued at just under $600,000—that he had owned for more than two decades. He bought a mobile home in a trailer park for a fraction of the cost. While he had once visited the Star Ballroom Dance Studio almost every night, an anonymous acquaintance told CNN, he eventually stopped going altogether.

That was until Lunar New Year, nearly 10 years after selling his San Gabriel house. Seventy-two-year-old Tran entered the Star Ballroom, where he’d often danced with his former wife, and gunned down 11 people. Among them were the ballroom’s beloved manager, 72-year-old Ming Wei Ma, and regulars 68-year-old Valentino Alvero, a grandfather from the Philippines; 67-year-old Muoi Ung, a Chinese-Vietnamese refugee from Vietnam; and 62-year-old Hong “Nancy” Jian, whose husband thought the shots were celebratory fireworks before seeing his wife fall to the ground.

When the news of the Star ballroom mass shooting first broke, many wondered if it was a targeted anti-Asian attack, staged for maximum impact on Lunar New Year—a reverberation of the once-common deadly attacks on Asians up and down the West Coast. The residents of Monterey Park, also in the San Gabriel region, are 65 percent Asian, making it one of the handful of American cities with a majority-Asian population. In the 1970s, real estate mogul Fred Hsieh famously dubbed it “Chinese Beverly Hills,” as the suburb attracted immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, and mainland China, in addition to the established populations of Latino and Japanese American families. The ballroom was a community center and immigrant mecca, with instructors hailing from all over the world, and an oasis for the seniors who frequented the studio, where they put aside the hard work of everyday life for tango, samba, rumba, and the waltz.

While in recent years, Asian Americans have been pigeonholed as model immigrants—quiet, hardworking, and education-oriented—it is also true that for many more years they were framed as dangerous, lewd, and immoral. The West Coast was once rife with anti-Asian violence: The infamous Los Angeles Chinese Massacre of 1871 was one of many such events of racial terror. Few could imagine that the alleged killer spraying bullets among senior citizen dancers would be someone so much like them—a Chinese immigrant in his 70s who had loved, at least at one point, to dance. Tran, who had apparently told police of paranoid perceptions of threats years earlier, left no message behind indicating his motivations for the violent rampage.

Whatever Tran may have thought or felt during the three decades when the American dream, once seemingly secure in his grasp, slipped through his fingers, the shooting allowed him to participate in another uniquely American way of life: that of mass violence. In 2022, 44,000 Americans died from gun violence and there were 647 mass shootings. China, by comparison, despite its population of 1.4 billion, only has a couple dozen shootings per year. Mass shootings feel so on-brand American that, in 2021, when there was a shooting in Wuhan, Chinese social media commentators assumed it had taken place in the United States. The Star Ballroom massacre on January 21 was followed shortly after by another in Half Moon Bay, on the 23rd.

Every year, the opportunities that drew waves of immigrants to our shores grow a little slimmer. In 1989, the year Tran bought his house, the ratio of CEO-to-typical-worker compensation was 61-1, while in 2020 it was 351-1, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Real wages for most workers, according to Pew Research, have “barely budged in decades.” Health care costs keep rising, as do rents. And homeownership, still a crucial marker of prosperity for the majority of Americans, remains out of reach for many. But one purchase is still easy for Americans: buying a gun.

Despite widespread availability, only 30 percent of Americans own a gun, according to Pew Research, and among them, just 16 percent of women of color own at least one, while 24 percent of both non-white men and white women are gun owners. White men—48 percent of them—are the most likely to own a gun, a fact that neatly dovetails with the demographic’s disproportionate proclivity toward mass gun violence. An FBI study of active shooters between 2000 and 2013 found that 94 percent of shooters were male and 63 percent of them were white, and that they often experienced multiple stressors related to financial strain, job issues, marital or interpersonal strife, and mental health leading up to an attack.

America has no monopoly on male grievance, mental illness, or violent tendencies, but it does make it remarkably easy for those suffering from them to access as many guns as they like. There are an estimated 393 million privately owned firearms in the US, stockpiles for the minority who want them. The idea that owning a murder weapon is some God-given right is a particularly American credo. And on the spectrum of white male entitlement, mass shooting just might be the apex—that suffering from life’s everyday indignities means you are owed restitution in the form of other humans’ lives.

On January 21, when Tran set out with a semiautomatic pistol with an extended large-capacity magazine, he achieved a different kind of assimilation. Asian Americans who defy stereotypes of passive submissiveness often find themselves harshly punished. Dylann Roof may have been fed Burger King after he took the lives of nine Black worshippers in a rampage at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, but who knows how an Asian senior partaking in the theater of American male violence would have been treated? In the end, Tran sidestepped such questions by taking his own life inside a cargo van.

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