Los Angeles Times
Slipping a symbol into grateful hands
With red envelopes, Monterey Park restaurateur moves forward from tragedy.
It was quiet in the parking lot of the Cantonese restaurant. By then, the news helicopters had left Monterey Park airspace.
Lina Situ wore a purple mandarin-collar jacket and stood in front of a makeshift altar, bowing her head in reflection. She was joined by her colleagues outside the restaurant she co-owns, Taste of MP.
Before her, a round table draped in a red cloth was laden with offerings to Tsai Shen, the god of wealth in Chinese folk religion.
Boiled chicken. Fried rice. Taro cakes. Tea. Wine. Oranges. Sweets.
Situ approached the table and plunged lighted sticks of incense into a metal bowl filled with dry rice. Then a smile bloomed on her face. She was about to take part in a Lunar New Year tradition: the bestowing of red envelopes filled with cash.
“I just pray everything is healthy, good business, money come, money come!” Situ said, her enthusiasm like a kind of armor against the sadness enveloping the city. She pressed the red packets into the hands of servers, cooks and other buoyant employees.
It was Monday afternoon, less than 48 hours after a gunman fatally shot 11 people and injured nine others on Saturday night, Lunar New Year’s Eve. The violence occurred at Star Ballroom Dance Studio, just a few blocks down West Garvey Avenue from where Situ stood.
Though she grieved for
those killed, Situ never considered delaying the traditional Lunar New Year customs — especially the giving of red envelopes. The ritual was too important. Too ingrained.
“You don’t need to give a lot of money — it’s a gesture, to give luck,” she explained.
After a mass shooting, there’s always the tension of how to honor the dead and remember what transpired, while also moving forward. It’s the carrying on with life — that lurching search for something close to normalcy — that can seem so fraught.
The rituals that sustain us in the aftermath of tragedy can be sacred. Or sometimes routine. Calamities have struck at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but people still tucked into turkey or opened presents. And in Monterey Park, the tradition of red envelopes continued, though some proprietors had wrestled with whether to hand them out as scheduled.
Roger Yeh, owner of MoMo Bakery, also on Garvey, wondered if he could wait until Monday to distribute envelopes to his workers. Yeh’s bakery, which is across the street and a few storefronts down from the dance studio, was behind police caution tape.
Yeh and his wife live in Palos Verdes, and she urged him not to go to Monterey Park.
“I said, ‘No, today is the day to show that the boss is here, to show support,’ ” Yeh said. He went to the bakery on Sunday.
Others, like Situ, felt there was no debating it — they had to distribute the red packets.
Michelle King, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, isn’t surprised.
“There is a belief that the things you do to usher in the new year will stay with you for the rest of the year,” said King, who specializes in modern Chinese history, with a specialty in food history. “The urgency, if it was felt, to give out the red packets, establishes a pattern for the whole year. If you have a bad entry to the new year, there is a belief it will color the rest of the year.”
That, she said, is “what makes this tragedy so awful.”
Until authorities announced the 72-year-old gunman had killed himself in Torrance, those early, uneasy hours on Sunday led others besides Yeh to reconsider their Lunar New Year plans.
Xiang Chen, whose family owns Spicy Duck Wang La Ya, another eatery on Garvey, said that on Sunday she hadn’t wanted to come to the restaurant, where she works as a server. But she felt obligated to do so — in part because she had planned to deliver a red envelope to the restaurant’s chef. “We do it every year,” she said.
David R. Chan, a homespun food historian who has eaten at thousands of Chinese restaurants since the 1950s, fielded concerns from his wife over a planned Lunar New Year lunch with their brood in neighboring Alhambra.
“My wife was very apprehensive about having” the meal, Chan said.
But the family kept its reservation — Chan presented his children and grandkids with red envelopes — and as of Tuesday, he had sampled 7,995 Chinese eateries across the country.
Chan said 406 of those establishments have been in Monterey Park, a city once dubbed the country’s first suburban Chinatown. Located less than 10 miles from downtown L.A., Monterey Park has long attracted Asian American residents who’ve flocked to the suburb for its relative safety and schools, including Situ.
She was 16 when she arrived in the U.S. from Kaiping, China, in 1990. She spoke little English, but she knew this: “I liked America.” Situ, 48, settled in downtown L.A.’s Chinatown, where she got a job at a restaurant. Soon, work in the industry — she had stints as a cook, server, you name it — led her to Monterey Park. She bought a home there in 1997.
“It’s a very safe city, a very nice city,” she said.
Along the way, she married and had a daughter, a nurse who is now 26. Of this, Situ noted: “Time went fast.”
She began working at the property that now houses Taste of MP in 2005. Back then, it had been another restaurant. And then another. When a seafood eatery there closed down, she and a partner bought the place and opened Taste of MP two years ago.
There are perks to being the boss.
Situ said that she relishes presenting her customers’ children with red envelopes on Lunar New Year.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s only a few dollars,” she said. “It’s not the money — it’s what’s in your heart. They are happy. And then you are happy too.”
It also goes the other way: Customers sometimes bring red envelopes for her staff.
“They are always thinking of you,” Situ said of her patrons. “It keeps you lucky.”
Situ said this Monday afternoon while enjoying a respite before the restaurant’s dinner shift. Then, as if on cue, server Raymond Zhang walked up holding a stack of red envelopes. He displayed eight red packets but noted that he’d received more than 100 from customers over the holiday period.
“We are lucky, no?” Situ asked — except it wasn’t really a question.
By Tuesday, the lunchtime crowd at Taste of MP was boisterous. Most of the tables were filled by noon, and the din grew steadily. Overseeing it all were the plump inhabitants of eight large fish tanks embedded in a wall of green stone tiles.
The Dungeness crabs, Boston lobsters, turbot and other future meals signaled Taste of MP’s seafood credentials.
The crowded room was a welcome sight for Situ, who explained that Taste of MP had been fully booked for lunch on Sunday. That is, until a wave of cancellations. “At first, they were scared,” she said.
In one of the private rooms, restaurant consultant William Lee sat at a large round table with several other members of a regular dining group that meets at the eatery each week. The windows looked out on Garvey. If you craned your neck and squinted, you could make out the front of the building that housed Star Ballroom Dance Studio.
As he and his companions tucked into bowls of steaming lamb stew, Lee recalled that he had been one of Situ’s earliest employers, hiring her away from her first stateside gig at the restaurant in Chinatown. She’d only begun working there a few months earlier.
In the early 1990s, Situ was the only female server among about 30 on the job at Lee’s restaurant, NBC Seafood of Monterey Park. Situ’s prodigious effort, Lee said, opened his eyes to the abilities of women working in restaurants.
“Chinese food is very hard work,” he said.
That job also helped Situ put down roots in the community. Now, Taste of MP was helping her make a name for herself. Coincidentally, a story published by The Times on Sunday morning spotlighted the restaurant’s whole steamed fish with ginger and scallions as an ideal Lunar New Year dish.
“The fish here is steamed perfectly, every time,” the article said.
Days later, though, Situ hadn’t found the time to track down the story and read it.
She was too busy. She welcomed diners with a familiar smile, punctuating greetings with a big laugh that was laced with a rasp. She barked instructions to her staff and boxed up leftovers, sometimes concurrently. She answered the telephone — the landline, her mobile — with a knowing greeting that must have put the callers at ease.
This was her place. Situ — like so many others in her community — had achieved the American dream. Now, that community was touched by a most American tragedy.
Situ had been inside Taste of MP when the shooting unfolded. She saw police cars and ambulances streak past the restaurant toward the crime scene, unsure of what she was witnessing. Worried friends soon called Situ to tell her what had happened and urged her to go home. A shooter was on the loose.
“Of course, I was scared,” Situ said.
But her thoughts turned to a friend she was afraid might have been at the venue. “I was calling her: ‘Are you at the dance hall?’ ” Situ recalled. The woman hadn’t been there.
Despite the entreaties to head home, Situ didn’t wrap up at Taste of MP until about 12:30 a.m. on Sunday.
“I still needed to clean up the kitchen,” she said.
It felt like an explanation that would resonate up and down Garvey Avenue.
As Tuesday’s lunch service stretched on, flashes of red began appearing across the restaurant. A diner had given Situ a stack of envelopes to distribute throughout the room. Peals of joy seemed to erupt wherever a packet changed hands.
“It is so comforting,” said E.N. Anderson, a professor emeritus at UC Riverside with expertise in Cantonese culture. “You’ve gotten red packets all your life. It becomes one of those rituals that people fall back on when things are rough. We don’t have too many rituals like that in standard Anglo culture.”
Eventually, Situ presented a red envelope to this reporter, holding out the packet with two hands.
Then she checked her phone. There was much to do.
It was time to get back to work.