She was the youngest in a blended family, a psychology grad who discovered she'd really rather write — or talk, the big heart with the sunny personality who picked up causes and friends with a full embrace.
Kim Pham, friends and family agreed, would be the last person in the world to end up the victim of street violence, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But in the predawn hours Saturday, the 23-year-old was so severely beaten in a fight outside a trendy Santa Ana nightclub that she was still unconscious when the police arrived. By Tuesday, she was dead after being taken off life support.
"She had so much to give back, so much to experience," her uncle, Erik Doan, said. "And it was cut so short."
Santa Ana police have arrested a woman and continue to seek four other people in connection with the violent confrontation, which one friend said may have been triggered when Pham unintentionally walked in front of a camera as another group posed for a photo.
The Chapman University graduate, who aspired to one day host a talk show, hadn't wanted to go out the night she and two friends arrived at the Crosby, a popular restaurant in Santa Ana's historic district that becomes a lounge on weekends.
As they waited in line outside, an argument broke out between Pham's friends and another group. Police had few details but said the two groups did not know each other and that Pham was hit and stomped in the melee. An eight-second video of the incident shows one person kicking at something on the ground as a crowd gathers.
"She wanted to stay in and texted us to come over," said Viviane Dao, who said she'd been one of Pham's closest friends since ninth grade. "But she was convinced to head out.
"She could not hurt anyone," Dao added.
Pham was 5 when her mother died of breast cancer, a loss that drove her to become a cancer awareness advocate, her family said. Whenever she felt lost or confused, they said she would visit her mother's grave, an experience she later shared in an essay, "Beyond the Oversized White Gates."
"Please give me strength," she once wrote in a poem. "But keep my soul humble."
"She had such a big heart. She was always putting herself out there — ready to cheer you up — whenever and wherever you needed it," said Tiffany Bui, who befriended Pham when they attended Marina High School in Huntington Beach.
Pham grew up in Westminster but lived in neighboring Huntington Beach with four male roommates, the unofficial den mother and cook of the house. In the kitchen she was known for her banh canh, a hearty dish of thick Vietnamese noodles made from tapioca flour and rice.
"When she walks into a room, she just knows how to work it," Dao said. "She can bring everyone together."
Pham's father and stepmother did not know she intended to be an organ donor until she was hospitalized, but family members said they weren't surprised by her decision.
"One thing my sister has taught me is to be more compassionate in life," said her older brother Jason, who along with other family members asked that his last name not be used because of the ongoing police investigation.
Another brother, Ken, said his sister had a soft spot for animals and pampered her pet Chihuahua Nala. He recalled the day she spotted a large, unleashed dog wandering free.
"She immediately put her car to a stop in the middle of the road, got out, took the dog by his collar and started walking and knocking on each door on the street to find the dog's owner to tell them it isn't safe for these dogs to wander around without leashes," he said.
Pham worked her way through college, studying first at nearby Orange Coast College to save money, before transferring to Chapman. She graduated last spring and worked for a printing company but aspired to go into communications.
Mai Bui, executive editor of the "Pho for Life" and "Miso for Life" anthologies of essays and reflections that Pham contributed to, said that she became his close ally when he organized a fundraiser after the catastrophic tsunami in Japan.
"She did everything she could to make it a success," he said. Bui said the two had planned to have lunch on Sunday, the day after her attack.
"She made us all smile," said Jennyane Truong, managing editor of the anthologies. "When her father challenged her to be 'a bigger person,' she said: 'How can I do that when I'm the smallest person in the family?'
"That's how I remember her — witty, with an ability to laugh at herself and to bring so much happiness to others."
Flores and Do write for the Los Angeles Times. Times staff photographer Allen J. Schaben contributed to this report.