A major tragedy in their hometown won’t stop these martial arts students in Monterey Park from practicing kata, or their forms.
With every kick, swing and punch, these students at the Siu Lum Pai Kung Fu Association are learning forms of self-defense, rooted in traditional Chinese martial arts. In the school, students are taught the values of respect, tranquility under pressure, purpose through movement.
“It teaches confidence, humility, courage, focus, discipline,” said Eileen Greenberg, an assistant instructor with the traditional Chinese martial arts school. “We’re not training bullies, but to step up if you see someone who needs help, and defend your community.”
Each week for over eight years, kids and adults were practicing kung fu and lion dancing at the Star Dance Ballroom Studio in Monterey Park. In between the studio’s regular ballroom lessons, music classes and social dances, students of all ages came for Chinese martial arts lessons and lion dance rehearsals, led by instructors at the Siu Lum Pai Kung Fu school.
In the days leading up to Chinese Lunar New Year, students were at the Monterey Park ballroom studio practicing for an upcoming lion dance performance. But later that weekend, on Jan. 21, what was once a safe, beloved space for the community became the site of a shooting massacre, where a gunman killed 11 dancers — all Asian seniors — inside.
Head instructor Kevin Leung said, in the days following, he felt “numb, like a zombie.” He had known several of the victims, including Star Dance studio owner Ming Wei Ma.
“When we first started the kung fu school here (in 2015), we called around different places. Mr. Ma was the one who picked up the phone and said he would take us in; didn’t charge us a lot of money,” recalled Leung, a nurse and Monterey Park resident. “From then, Mr. Ma saw us grow from like five kids, to now a huge school with student competitors. He was always smiling, always very proud of us.”
In the aftermath of the shooting, Leung knew the younger students needed to keep practicing, to feel some sense of “normalcy” and a familiar routine after the tragedy. So he insisted on continuing the martial arts lessons and lion dance performances free of charge to the kids.
Leung has thought about renting a new, more permanent practice space, but would “definitely” go back to Star Dance, if possible.
Star Dance owner Maria Liang has said that she “doesn’t know what to do” when it comes to reopening the studio, but many of its instructors and patrons “want to continue to dance.”
“I’d like to continue to provide them the facility but right now …I’m still shocked. I cannot tell you what I plan to do,” Liang said last week.
While the future of the studio remains unclear, students practice their forms each week in an open field at nearby Garvey Ranch Park, where lessons took place during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The adults and parents are invited to join in, with many practicing at home or learning the movements on their own.
Leung realizes that continuing on is what a “sifu” — which translates to kung fu master in Cantonese — would do.
“At the first practice back, I wanted to bring up the shooting to the kids, but not really. I wanted that to be a conversation that they can have with their parents, but told them they can also come talk to me about what happened and decompress,” he said. “That’s one of the big things a sifu provides to this community; a kind of outlet where people can air out their problems.”
Getting back into practices and performances quickly was “a way for us to reclaim our Lunar New Year celebration,” said Leung, whose three children are also enrolled in the school. “We felt that we had this festive time and occasion taken away from us because of this tragedy. This was about being able to push forward, about triumph over tragedy.”
Siu Lum Pai Kung Fu was started in 1963 by grandmaster Buck Sam Kong, a leader in the global martial arts community. Over the years, Kong’s kung fu schools have since grown in California, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Mexico and Germany — with students of all ages competing, learning self-defense, and performing cultural lion dances.
“That’s what the lion dances symbolize,” Leung said. “To gather and celebrate, but to mourn and remember at the same time.”
A core belief in Chinese martial arts is having “chi,” a life force energy that helps bring one back into balance. The concept is not about destruction or beating someone up, but finding one’s center, calming the spirit, Leung said. That’s where the technique comes from — and it can be empowering, even after tragedy.
Leung reflected on the waves of anti-Asian hate crimes targeting the community in the wake of the pandemic.
“A lot of people felt helpless, like why is this happening to us. It was like that sense of control is just gone. And with this (shooting), we didn’t see this coming,” he said. “So being back out again feels like we’re still the masters of our own destiny, like we still have control over our lives. Even after tragedy, of course we need to mourn the dead, but at the same time not live in fear.”
Monterey Park resident Lawrence Fang enrolled his daughter, 7-year-old Kayla, in lessons with Siu Lum Pai a year ago, wanting her to connect with her Chinese roots and make new friends. Fang said it was hard to explain the events of the shooting with her, and he was initially afraid to bring her back in.
“But we’re not going to change our activities out of fear. It’s important to keep doing what we’re doing,” Fang said. Even though we’re scared — it could have been us. It could happen to anybody, and now it’s (happened) right in our backyard.”
Instructor Mia Ferraro said that the teachers try not to talk much about the shooting with the younger students, “because they know what happened, and we have to move forward.”
Studio or no studio, Siu Lum Pai students will continue to practice, compete and perform for their community. It’s their way of healing and fighting forward, instructors say.
“Something bad can happen at a place, but you can’t let that take over its spirit. (Star Dance) is not defined by what happened,” Ferraro said. “We can’t let a senseless tragedy take away from everything our students have invested, in a place that’s good. Everywhere we dig our heels into is our home.”
Staff reporter Linh Tat contributed to this story.