'Always smiling': Man who managed ballroom among those slain

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Ming Ma, center, with community members during a dance event in July 2021. (Kristina Hayes via AP)

MONTEREY PARK, Calif. – For those who made their way to the Star Ballroom over the years, Ming Wei Ma was a bright light, always smiling and encouraging those who came to the Los Angeles area dance hall popular with older Asian Americans.

Ma, 72, who managed the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, was identified Tuesday as one of the 11 people killed when a gunman opened fire Saturday night at the Monterey Park dance hall. The victims, who ranged in age from 57 to 76, had gathered there to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Siu Fong said she would sometimes lead karaoke outings for seniors there, where Ma would always say hello to everyone.

“He was a very, very kind person, very helpful," Fong told The Associated Press on Monday night while at a vigil. “And he would go into my session and talk to the singers and greet them.”

Dance instructor Walter Calderon, who has taught classes at the dance hall, remembered Ma as a “very nice guy who was always smiling.” Calderon said that Ma, who helped him with events he held at the studio, was also a talented dancer.

Calderon said that while Ma didn’t speak much English, he conveyed a lot with his facial expressions.

“He was a genuine, special person who was loved by all,” Calderon told The Associated Press.

He said that when he'd run into Ma outside the dance hall, Ma would always offer him a cigarette.

“I really liked the Chinese cigarettes he smoked, and asked him if he would buy me a pack,” Calderon said. “He had them for me the very next week.”

Calderon, a native of the Philippines, said in Asian communities, dance halls play an important role in the lives of seniors who are looking for companionship and “something to do.”

Six women and five men were were killed in the shooting. The victims included 65-year-old Mymy Nhan, a regular at the Star Ballroom for over a decade whose family recalled her smile, kindness and love for her nieces and nephews. The family of another victim, 68-year-old Valentino Alvero, said he was a dedicated family man who loved ballroom dancing and was “the life of any party.”

The massacre at the dance hall was the fifth mass killing in the U.S. this month. On Monday, the nation's sixth mass killing occurred when officials said a farmworker killed seven people in back-to-back shootings in a case of “workplace violence” at two Northern California mushroom farms.

The shooting at Star Ballroom struck one of California’s largest celebrations of a holiday observed in many Asian cultures. Asian Americans around the U.S. have been the target of high-profile violence in recent years.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna called the gunman, 72-year-old Huu Can Tran, a “mad man," and said investigators haven't yet established why Tran opened fire at the dance hall.

About 20 minutes after the attack at the Star Ballroom, Tran entered the nearby Lai Lai Ballroom but was disarmed before anyone was shot. He fled and on Sunday shot and killed himself.

Tran once frequented the dance halls he targeted and griped about the way he thought people treated him there, a man who identified himself as a longtime friend who lost touch with Tran years ago told The Associated Press. The former friend, who requested anonymity to speak about Tran because he wanted to avoid the media spotlight, said Tran was perpetually distrustful and paranoid and would regularly complain that people at the clubs didn’t like him.

Kristina Hayes, who has organized tango events at Star since July 2021, said Ma was caring and hard working.

“He pretty much lived at that studio,” she said. “He was the last person to leave.”

Ma did not speak English fluently, but knew the words “love you” and he said them often, Hayes said, adding that she recognizes the faces of some of the victims and is still in shock.

“It is unbelievably surreal to see a place where people went to be joyful become the location of one the biggest gun massacres in Southern California,” she said. “I just can't wrap my head around it.”

Ma told The Pasadena Star-News for a 2016 story that he wanted to make the ballroom a place where different cultures could come together through dance.

“I want to provide an active place for the Asian community of Monterey Park to help prolong their life and improve their health,” Ma told the newspaper. “Having a place where people from all over the world can come together and communicate through dance is how I can help.”

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Bharath reported from Los Angeles and Stengle from Dallas. Associated Press journalist Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston also contributed to this report.