‘Attack on our identity’: Taiwanese Americans come together after tragic California shooting

Show caption Billy Chang, right, the Taiwanese pastor who survived the 15 May shooting at Geneva Presbyterian church, is comforted by Jason Aguilar, a senior pastor at Arise church in Irvine, California. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP California ‘Attack on our identity’: Taiwanese Americans come together after tragic California shooting Violence rocked a community already shook by years of rising hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Dani Anguiano in Los Angeles @dani_anguiano Tue 24 May 2022 11.00 BST Share on Facebook

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When Ho Chie Tsai learned that a gunman had targeted the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian church in southern California, he knew it was only a matter of time before the effects of the tragedy reached him.

The Taiwanese American community is close-knit and, despite living in the San Francisco Bay Area, the pediatrician soon learned of friends and family who had connections to the church where a man opened fire on elderly worshipers, injuring five people and killing one before parishioners overtook him.

“It’s definitely hit the heart of our original immigrant community,” said Tsai, who is also the founder of TaiwaneseAmerican.org, a non-profit.

The violence has rocked a community already on edge after years of rising hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the pandemic. The fact that authorities say the shooting was “politically motivated” and that David Chou – the 68-year-old suspect with Taiwanese roots – was driven by anti-Taiwanese hate and upset about tensions between China and Taiwan has only intensified the pain.

“We are all shocked that it went to this level of violence … that someone would bring a gun and shoot up a church,” Tsai said. “This echoes much of the issues that America as a whole has had to deal with: gun violence, race relations and the effects of misinformation.”

Chou, of Las Vegas, came to a lunch held by Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian church in Orange county, where he chained the doors shut and hid firebombs before mingling with churchgoers then opening fire, according to officials. The attack could have been far more deadly if it were not for the heroism of John Cheng, 52, who tackled the gunman and allowed parishioners to restrain him until law enforcement arrived. Cheng was killed.

Flowers form a makeshift memorial for Dr John Cheng outside his office in Aliso Viejo, California. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Authorities say Chou, a US citizen who grew up in Taiwan, was motivated by his hatred of the self-governing island. His family was reportedly among those forced to flee mainland China for Taiwan after 1948, as Nationalist forces lost to the communists. He had ties to an organization opposed to Taiwan’s independence from China, Taiwanese media have reported, but Orange county officials believe he acted alone.

The shooting has renewed global scrutiny of China’s rhetoric on Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province, and prompted condemnation from the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, who described the violence as a politically motivated hate incident. Among Taiwanese-Americans in California, it has also heightened fears, particularly for older first-generation immigrants, and put conversations about Taiwanese identity at the forefront. Many of those present in the church were part of the first generation to immigrate to the US, Tsai said, and escaped persecution in Taiwan.

“They understand what it was like to have lived in martial law. This generation remembers this lived experience of trauma and identity suppression,” he said. “This is the generation that was blacklisted for speaking out in the US in support of Taiwan, this is the generation that couldn’t go back to visit their own parents sometimes for fear of being jailed.”

Nikki DePaola, a board member with the Taiwanese United Fund, said the shooting felt like a direct attack on Taiwanese identity, and has forced her group to consider the possibility of future violence.

“The intention of an attack like this is to suppress the identity of being Taiwanese,” she said. “From a practical standpoint … our organization puts on events and now we have to factor in that there are bad actors out there who don’t want us to amplify Taiwanese culture.”

Amy Liao, a Philadelphia-based community health professional who had multiple family members in the church, said she suspected for some relatives the shooting would bring up fears about the military police. “Our elders lived through decades of martial law,” she said.

Flowers are left outside the Geneva Presbyterian church after a shooting on 15 May killed one person and injured five. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

However, some people want to wait until the investigation is completed before accepting the motive, says Peggy Huang, a Yorba Linda city councilmember who is acting as a media representative for some of the shooting survivors.

“Taiwanese Americans and Chinese Americans have been getting along for a long time despite the tension,” she said. “There are many people who are very vocal about their feelings on the issue and you didn’t see violence out of it. We’ve had healthy productive discussions even though we ended up not agreeing, we didn’t break out into a gun fight.”

The community has come together with the church offering mental health support, cultural groups pledging to help those affected by the shooting and a fundraiser for Cheng’s family raising more than $730,000. DePaola said she was hopeful about how people will move forward.

“We will band together in acts of solidarity, I think that’s a very Taiwanese thing to do, and I think coming out of this there is going to be a feeling of we are not going to let an act of terrorism cast doubt on our Taiwanese identity. We are not going to be afraid to say we are Taiwanese.”

Amy Liao, who gave birth the same day of the shooting, takes comfort in what the community has overcome in the past. During a global Taiwanese diaspora event several years ago, her parents were involved in a deadly bus accident. People, even those who didn’t know them personally, stepped up to offer support.

“This event and the many years of recovery brought many of the families closer together. I have witnessed how tragedy can strengthen community and revive faith, and imagine similar impact here,” she said.

• This article was amended on 27 May 2022 to correct a historical reference to the Chou family having been “forcibly removed” from China to Taiwan.