ATLANTA — On her 50th birthday, Xiaojie Tan would have gathered with her only child for a slice of strawberry fresh cream cake, her favorite.
The mother and daughter were best friends.
But the day before Tan would have celebrated her many accomplishments- making a life in the United States, building a family, launching two businesses- a gunman broke into her business and opened fire, killing her and three others in a shooting rampage. He went on to kill another four people at two other spas.
Instead, Jami Webb, 29, and her father, Michael Webb, 64, spent Tan’s birthday planning her funeral at a Catholic church.
“She did everything for me and for the family. She provided everything. She worked every day, 12 hours a day, so that me and our family would have a better life,” Jami Webb said of her mother.
Like Tan, most of the victims of the shooting attacks were of Asian descent, drawing new attention to an ongoing wave of hate crimes against Asian Americans across the country fueled by racism and xenophobia amid the COVID-19 outbreak and anti-China rhetoric expressed by many conservative leaders, including former President Donald Trump.
As dusk fell Thursday night, father, daughter and her fiancé stood outside the massage parlor, watching a small candlelight vigil honoring the dead.
No one there knew who they were, and neither Webb sought any attention or recognition.
A well-meaning stranger handed Jami Webb a leaflet honoring the victims, and she interlaced her fingers around it as she leaned her head against her fiancé’s shoulder, tears in her eyes. For a few moments, the three stood outside the store’s front door, each man’s hand supporting Jami Webb as she silently grieved.
Tan’s family, friends and customers described a curious, hard-working and caring woman who was always filled with joy.
Some called her by her Chinese name Xiaojie, or Jay for short. Others, knew her by her American name, Emily.
“She was full of smiles and laughter. She was just a pleasure to be around,” said Michael Webb, an American businessman who first met Tan while traveling for work in China in the early 2000s.
‘She was invested in becoming an American’
Tan was the youngest of two girls, born to a bicycle mechanic dad and mom who were Catholics in the Communist country.
Michael Webb and Tan met in her natal city of Nanning, which sits on the border with Vietnam. Neither spoke the other’s language well, but that didn’t stop the pair from falling in love.
Their courtship was spent traveling across China, visiting cities normally never seen by Westerners, Michael Webb said, riding past rice paddies and dodging oxen working the fields.
He was taken by her beauty. He also grew to love Jami, who was 11 or 12 at the time, he said.
The couple was married in 2004. Around 110 people attended the wedding from all over the world. He brought his new family to Port St. Lucie, Florida, in 2006 and legally adopted Jami, whose Americanized name is a combination of her mom and Michael’s names.
Teal Clark, a longtime friend of Michael Webb’s, met Tan on her second day in the United States.
Clark said she remembers Tan riding with them in the car, turning her head from side to side to stare out of the window.
“Everything was new to her. She was such a curious woman,” said Clark, who grew close to Tan as she learned more English.
They celebrated holidays like the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. Clark and Tan organized playdates for their daughters who were both the same age.
Teal said Tan wanted to learn a trade and go to school as quickly as possible.
“She was very invested in becoming an American,” Clark said of Tan, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen and registered to vote for the first time in 2012.
For Clark, it was no surprise that Tan was able to go from being a nail tech to owning two businesses within the span of 15 years. She said Tan was always very savvy with bookkeeping and knowing how to find deals on all kinds of products.
The family moved to Georgia in 2010. A couple of months later, Tan’s dream of becoming a business owner came true opening up a nail salon in downtown Marietta square outside of Atlanta.
Tan bought two single-family homes on her own and a commercial property.
“She worked so hard. And she was very successful at that,” Michael Webb said.
The couple split up in 2012 but remained close raising their daughter. They cried together at their daughter’s graduation from the University of Georgia in 2019.
Michael Webb, who works as a contractor, helped to remodel her second business, Young’s Asian Massage, last year during COVID-19 business shutdowns.
Even though she worked every day, she still made time to see him, and would sometimes drop by with lunch for his office.
“She’d always say, ‘we family,’” Michael Webb said. “Even when we got divorced, she’d say that: ‘We family.’ Because that’s how she was.”
Customers and friends outraged over rumors
An armed gunman ended Tan’s life Tuesday when he opened fire at Young’s Asian Massage, fatally shooting her and two customers who were there on a date night.
The victims were mothers, spouses, friends, bosses.Also killed were Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, Paul Andre Michels, 54, and Daoyou Feng, 44. Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, was wounded but survived. Other victims were not immediately named.
The shooter’s statements blaming the businesses for providing an outlet for a sex addiction raised questions about the businesses, and whether the women working there were already vulnerable to violence and abuse.
USA TODAY found 39 reviews of Young’s Asian Massage on Rubmaps.ch, a review site that is a red flag for illicit activity. Comparatively, other listed entities had a hundred reviews each.
Tan was listed as the owner of a limited liability corporation associated with Young’s Asian Massage. The LLC also owns Wang’s Feet & Body Massage, a spa in neighboring Kennesaw,which is listed on Rubmaps with no reviews.
USA TODAY found no criminal reports associated with either location. A spokesperson for local authorities said Young’s Asian Massage was located in a quiet strip mall.
On Yelp, Wang’s Feet has 4 ½ out of 5 stars. One reviewer called the owners the “nicest, kindest, sweetest people,” praising their safety protocols amid COVID-19 restrictions.
“When it comes to service, friendliness, and prices, it’s consistently excellent,” another reviewer said.
Some customers were outraged by the rumors swirling on social media and news outlets.
Greg Hynson, a longtime friend and customer of Tan’s salon, said he rushed over to the spa while police were still responding. Hynson, 54, said he had been seeing Tan as his massage therapist for a stiff neck and upper back for about six years, and they had become good friends because they both lived in the area.
“She was the sweetest person you’d ever meet,” he said. “My heart was in my throat the second I heard of it. It still doesn’t seem real.”
Hyson said Tan was a hardworking small-business owner, something he appreciated as a business owner himself. He said she always had a kind word for friends and had a cake waiting for him on his birthday in October when he came to the spa. Hyson said he usually stopped by at least a few times each month.
He said there was regular turnover among the women who worked at the spa, but usually because they would work for Tan for some months or years and then open their own spa in the area. The workers were mostly Chinese immigrants, he said.
Hyson, who runs a rubber-supply company started by his father, said Tan’s staff often lived at her large nearby home when they first arrived from China, and seemed focused mostly on earning money for their families.
He angrily rejected speculation Tan’s spa was providing sex services.
“You’re coming here to get a massage. All these girls that have worked for her over the years are working for her on their own free will,” he said. “They’re here for a better life. They’re diligent and work hard and all the money they make is going toward a better life for their family.”
Hyson said he last saw Tan over the weekend when he stopped by the spa to chat.
“I can’t put any reasoning behind why anyone would want to do something horrible to such nice people,” he said. “I can’t wrap my head around it. I just can’t believe she’s gone.”
Saying goodbye to a mother and best friend
Jami Webb said her mother was obsessed with the idea of traveling, and devoured travel stories from her customers, adding new destinations to her running list whenever they came back from a trip: Alaska. Europe. Sweden.
Whenever a customer walked in, Tan always had the same question: “where have you traveled?”
If it was a new location or country, she would add it to her retirement wish list.
Jami Webb said she was proud of her mother and the business she had built. “She loved to make friends with all her customers,” she said.
Earlier that day, Jami Webb went to her mothers’ house and found drawers full of new clothes.
“They still had all the tags on,” Jami Webb said, the petals blowing from flowering Bradford pear trees sticking to her teary eyes. “She didn’t even have a chance to wear them.”
Meanwhile, in China, family members gathered to celebrate what should have been Tan’s 50th birthday.
Jami said her aunt, her mother’s sister, had heart problems and needed to be put on oxygen when she found out about the killings. After, the family couldn’t bring themselves to tell Tan’s mother that her daughter was dead. Instead, the family cut a cake and called Jami Webb to ask about the guest of honor.
“She kept asking to talk to my mom. We told my grandma that my mom lost her phone and couldn’t answer,” Jami Webb said.