Mourners remembered a slain Chinatown dentist as a dedicated practitioner and budding ballerina – one whose life came to a “senseless” end in a brazen, botched robbery while she visited Oakland’s Eastlake district.
Their heads bowed around a shrine of flowers and slow-burning incense, dozens of friends, city leaders and business owners lamented the scourge of gun violence that claimed Lili Xu, 60 – a Chinese-American woman who came to the United States in 1995 and who cared for hundreds of dental patients across the East Bay for some 15 years. Those in attendance called for an end to the violence that has gripped the neighborhood where she died Sunday, known as Little Saigon.
Moments after lighting a candle at a curbside memorial Monday, Eve Zhang grieved the loss of a “beautiful” woman who appeared endlessly driven to succeed – be it in her job as a dentist, or in her hobby as a dancer.
“Everybody’s so angry and just shocked,” said Zhang, who was one of Xu’s ballet instructors. She added that “everybody just loved her, just because she’s so kind.”
Standing mere feet from where Xu died, another mourner, Eddy Zheng, had a simple message for the assailant who left her dead: “Stop it.”
“Exerting violence on other people – hurting other people – is not the solution,” Zheng said. “You’re killing not only a human life. You’re killing a community.”
The vigil came as Oakland police released a surveillance video of the killing, which happened around 2 p.m. as a car carrying Xu had pulled over on the 1000 block of 5th Avenue.
A white, older-model Lexus can be seen pulling up beside Xu’s car, followed by someone getting out and approaching its passenger side.
At that point, the assailant grabs Xu as she exits her car and tries to take her belongings, according to Oakland police Chief LeRonne Armstrong. Xu resists and a struggle ensues – one that ended with Xu being shot multiple times, Armstrong said. She later died at a hospital.
The deadly encounter came despite vows by Armstrong to increase police patrols in the area and to cut down on an alarming spike in crime around the Eastlake neighborhood. Included in that move was the appointment of a community liaison officer to work more closely with concerned residents.
As part of that anti-crime push, several officers were on patrol about four or five blocks away when the gunmen shot Xu, Armstrong said. The officers were in the area as part of a robbery reduction program.
At a news conference earlier on Monday, Armstrong defended his work in the Little Saigon neighborhood and vowed to throw more resources into it, while shifting their tactics such as how they utilize undercover officers.
“We’ll have a heavier presence in that area,” Armstrong said. “We’re going to change our strategies.”
The killing has elicited a fresh round of outrage and frustration by elected officials and members of the Asian-American community. While police say they have no evidence that Xu was targeted for her ethnicity, the killing left her friends and patients grasping for answers as to why the assailants picked her vehicle.
“It’s terrible, senseless violence,” said Phuc Tran, a founder of the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, which has been working to improve conditions in the neighborhood where Xu died. “I’m not only upset, I’m outraged.”
When not in her dental office, Xu spent much of her free time pursuing a long-held goal of learning ballet. It was a hobby she took up only a few years ago because she never had the chance to learn while growing up in China.
“She learned from scratch,” said Eve Zhang, one of her instructors. “She never had any experience. Ballet, it was her dream.”
She gave her final recital a week before her death — gathered with others at her instructor’s house in one of the first in-person performances since the pandemic forced her lessons to be held on Zoom.
Dressed in a blue tutu and standing in the center of her instructor’s back patio, she performed a rendition of “The Dying Swan” – a century-old number that depicts the end of a swan’s life.
On Monday evening, Zhang couldn’t believe it would be Xu’s final performance.
“We’re all shocked,” Zhang said. “She was a swan. She was dancing so beautiful. All of a sudden, she’s gone.”