How to respond to the shooting at Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church?
Plus, the AAPI Jazz Fest is this Sunday, with Peter Lin and Victor Lin
We’ve been in mourning since last Sunday, when a sixty-eight-year-old gunman opened fire at a lunch hosted by the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California. He killed one person, Dr. John Cheng, and injured five others. This shooting has hit particularly close to home, literally: Michelle’s parents live a five-minute drive from the church. Though they’ve never attended, they know many members of the Taiwanese community in Laguna Woods, where they came to retire about half a decade ago; they’re in an exercise and tai chi group that meets on Sunday mornings. Everyone knows everyone down there: several years ago, at Michelle’s uncle’s funeral, we met Cheng’s father and the pastor who was shot. Cheng’s father, who passed away last month, went to the same medical school in Kaohsiung as Michelle’s uncle.
The immediate and divisive question in both Taiwanese and diasporic circles was how to describe the shooter. Initial reports were confusing: one newspaper identified him as a Chinese immigrant with U.S. citizenship. It soon emerged that David Chou was born and raised in Taiwan and is a second-generation waishengren, meaning his parents were from China and fled to Taiwan in 1949. (The converse, benshengren, refers to people of Han Chinese descent living in Taiwan before 1945.) We haven’t learned when he moved to the U.S., but one source has him immigrating to the States sometime after the 1970; another has him moving from Florida to Las Vegas in 2009; yet another suggests he’s had one foot in Taiwan and the other in the U.S. for many years. According to police, he still holds a Taiwanese passport.
In administrative terms, then—if we assume Taiwan is a sovereign country, which our household does—he’s a citizen of Taiwan. What complicates everything is that he doesn’t identify as Taiwanese. In all the reports we’ve read, Chou left Taiwan because he felt mistreated there, was dissatisfied with the way its politics was heading. (Again, the timeline is murky, so it’s not clear what this was in response to.) In 2019, he attended the Las Vegas branch of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification,1 an organization that the U. S. government has identified as a branch of the PRC’s foreign mission. Reporters have found a photo of David Chou at a China Council event, unveiling a banner that he wrote calling for the “annihilation of the evil spirits that support Taiwanese independence.” (The Las Vegas branch has denied any affiliation with Chou, and its leader said that upon meeting him she found him “too extreme” and tried to keep her distance.) In conversations with neighbors and friends, Chou expressed the belief that Taiwan was a part of China, voicing his displeasure at what he saw as an increasingly pro-independence political atmosphere. Before committing his heinous act last Sunday, he sent seven notebooks’ worth of materials to the World Journal, the largest Chinese-language newspaper in the U.S., collectively titled “The Diary of an Independence-Exterminating Angel.”
Though it’s still unclear why Chou targeted Laguna Woods in particular, it’s no surprise that he would attack a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church. It has long been a symbol of Taiwanese independence, an institution that’s sheltered dissidents, protected Taiwanese identity, and actively forged links between the country and its diaspora. “Especially in the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church,” says Leona Chen, editor of Taiwanese American.org, “there is a theological commitment to activism, to fight against injustice.”
More digging into Chou’s life has revealed that his life was falling apart not long before the shooting. The LA Times reports that Chou had been verbally abusive to his wife; they were in the midst of a divorce and she had left him to return to Taiwan to seek treatment for lung cancer. Recently evicted, he was struggling to find a home and turned away from homeless shelters. He also had several head injuries from physical attacks or altercations, the circumstances of which are not clear.
In a testament to the complexities of Taiwanese identity, the facts that have come to light about Chou have only ignited more debate. According to one line of argument, we should call him Chinese because that’s how he identifies, how he thinks. And his thinking reflects a colonial, Chinese-supremacist ideology that has sought to eradicate Taiwan’s languages and culture. To call him Taiwanese is to erase the efforts of Taiwanese nationalists to claim and uphold an identity that has been violently suppressed; to call him Chinese is to help foreground an ongoing decolonial struggle.
According to another line of argument, he did grow up in Taiwan. Even if he doesn’t identify with a certain political vision of Taiwaneseness, does that mean he’s not Taiwanese? Taiwan needs to own its bad apples alongside its good. He attended Taiwanese schools, even briefly taught at some of its universities. He has lived experience there. Calling him Chinese when he was in fact born and raised in Taiwan only enforces boundaries of ethnicity. It revives xenophobic ways of thinking by defining particular immigrants of Chinese descent as outsiders.
As translator and editor Isabelle Chang sees it, this debate reflects the inadequacy of the labels at hand. “Our existing categories do not reflect the diversity of our lived experience,” she says. The descriptor Taiwanese now encompasses new migrants from Southeast Asia, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, and third- or fourth-generation waishengren. “I feel strange calling the shooter Chinese,” Isabelle observes, “because that’s like trying to shrug off all the complicated issues of his being from Taiwan. But I feel strange to call him Taiwanese as well—because that’s like treating a very diverse group as a monotonous whole.”
Underpinning these debates are larger questions of how to become a multicultural democracy. “The question of calling him waishengren resurfaces all the old conflicts of our parents’ generation,” Isabelle continues, pointing out that that binary doesn’t obtain in the way people identify today. “I think it’s quite clear that most young people don't feel that distinction,” said a Taiwanese person in her thirties. “My husband is third-generation waishengren but it doesn't matter at all; he votes DPP, as he dislikes the idea of a Chinese annexation.”
Put more simply, the identification of “Taiwanese” is more fluid and expansive in Taiwan than in the diaspora. As SueAnn Shiah writes in The News Lens, her Taiwanese Presbyterian congregation in Taipei welcomes her as a “first-generation Taiwanese,” even though she could technically be termed a third generation waishengren. Shiah, a Taiwanese American living in Taiwan, plans to pursue ordination in the Presbyterian Church. "We are a complicated people with so many backgrounds, stories, and ways of understanding identity. We are all a part of Taiwan, whether we call ourselves Taiwanese or not."
These issues have been debated widely and intensely in Taiwan, reflecting the geopolitical tensions and polarization of our moment. Just one example will give you a sense of the passion that this killing has provoked: on social media, not long after the news broke, one Taiwanese influencer provided a comprehensive accounting of the facts that had emerged related to the case. She added a small comment asking everybody to wait for more facts to come out before judging it as a “politically-motivated” hate crime. Many commenters accused her of trying to “depoliticize” the shooting by underplaying the clearly murderous ideology of pro-unification, pro-PRC adherents. “I understand that you do not want people to hate each other, and that you want to present ‘fair and balanced’ reporting,” one person wrote. “But this only serves to minimize the fact that Chou’s pro-unification politics led him to kill Taiwanese people.”
What does an ethical response to the shooting look like? How do we avoid politicizing it? Is it possible to grieve in a way that doesn’t only deepen ethnonationalist tendencies?
We grieve in so many different ways. One way is to grieve by seeking vindication through punishment. Another is to continue advocating for Taiwan’s culture, language, and political movement for sovereignty. This means, in part, tracing the mainland money that helps fund organizations like the China Council and the Chinese Unification Promotion Party.
Still another way to grieve is to mourn the global social conditions that supercharge these divisions: eviction and homelessness, loneliness and isolation of the elderly, declining mental health, widespread access to weapons in America, and a media that foments hatred … the list goes on and on.
Yet another way is to recognize the broken social fabric that created Chou’s hateful ideology. In a different life, Albert has said, the shooter could have been one of his uncles. His own twin uncles have similar backgrounds: born the same year to waisheng families. Like Chou, they both identify as Chinese, feel dissatisfied with Taiwanese politics, and have long held resentment towards local Taiwanese; they also watch a lot of pan-Blue media. But they’re at peace now, primarily because their careers worked out, their marriages saved them, and over time they softened. To grieve this way is to imagine possible lives Chou could have led, paths he didn’t take. When we acknowledge the humanity of those who commit violence, we begin to see a world that reflects the justice we seek, one where we’re not defined exclusively by ethnic allegiance or political beliefs.
Perhaps this way of grieving requires finding a way to hold together these two realities: that Dr. Cheng’s death is unjust and unwarranted, and that we are all, existentially speaking, capable of killing. This is one thing we’ve learned from teaching—and, in Michelle’s case, defending—people incarcerated for committing harm: we all have the capacity for violence. The what-ifs that lead to and from it are infinite: what if you hadn’t lost your job, what if you hadn’t lost your home, what if you hadn’t lost your loved one. Our lives are products of a confluence of factors that make us vulnerable, unpredictable, and sometimes angry.
What to do about this? When violence strikes those close to you, you don’t think about political divisions. You think about how you just saw the victim’s mother last week, about how terrifying it is that it happened nearby. About how innocent the victims were. About how nobody should have to die. We’ve been disturbed by a few comments of pro-KMT people living in Taiwan; even while condemning the violence, they couldn’t help disparaging the Presbyterian Church’s politics as being “extreme”—implying, in some way, that the victims had it coming. What an unbelievably ugly sentiment. It’s worth noting that no person from Taiwan living in Irvine would say that—no matter how they identify ethnically and politically. The closer you are to the site of violence, the more certain its senseless cruelty. You see people as people. You know that the congregation is diverse, varying in political, ethnic, and family backgrounds. It’s the locality of bonds—created by shared practices, rituals, exercise groups, celebrations, potlucks, faith communities, and friendships—that keeps us whole. Building them staves off the nihilism and desperation that cause us to devalue life.
And finally, there is yet another way to grieve. It is to identify the roots of heroic action, and protect and nurture them. We learned from Michelle’s mother why John Cheng was at church that day, even though, like her, he’s not a regular member. His father had passed away from heart disease a month before, and a few days before last Sunday his mother had slipped and hurt her foot while moving cans for the food drive she was running. She needed to get the cans to church, and Dr. Cheng, a dutiful son, offered to help.
He tried to do his duty. And then, after he did, he threw himself on a man with a gun. How many lives did he save that day? Where did he learn sacrifice like that? What communities, what worlds, produce a person willing to risk his life for others? How do we honor those communities and learn from their practices, their histories, their beliefs? Trying to answer this question is the right path. Of course we should dream of a world where nobody has to die that way. But it’s easy to imagine how resentments, political hatred, and a broken social fabric lead to violence, and it’s harder to imagine how people make noble choices that require sacrifice. Any of us could have become a killer like Chou, but not all of us could have been a hero like John Cheng.
Other Updates: AAPI Jazz Fest, Book Club, and more
We’re inspired by Peter Lin and Victor Lin, Taiwanese American jazz musicians, who have launched the AAPI Jazz Fest. It seeks to create community, support Asian American jazz musicians, and cross-racial solidarity. It takes place this weekend, Sunday, May 22nd. You can livestream it or go to Rutgers to check it out. You can also read our interview with Victor Lin and a response by Peter Lin.
Brian Hioe at New Bloom Magazine has a good primer to ethnic identity in Taiwan, writing, “What is unusual about the incident is to what extent a hate crime committed by second-generation waishengren against members of a presumably benshengren congregation would be unheard of in Taiwan today.”
For our May book club we’ll read Siobhan Phillips’s Benefit. In June we’ll read Lisa Hsiao Chen’s Activities of Daily Living. All subscribers are welcome to the book club. We’ll talk about Siobhan Phillips’s novel on Thursday, May 26 at 6 PM EST and Lisa Chen’s book on Thursday, June 30 at 5 PM EST. Looking forward!! You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for the zoom link.
We’ve been profoundly disturbed by the targeted killing of ten Black people in Buffalo. We thought this Boston Review archive helps to make sense of how to grieve and think through this violence. It explains the persistence of gun violence and describes white supremacy as “having always been mainstream.”
Among the victims are a 32-year-old woman who had moved to Buffalo to care for a brother with leukemia; a 72-year-old longtime community advocate for Buffalo’s Black residents and leader of a neighborhood nonprofit; an 86-year-old woman who sang in a choir and cared daily for a husband with debilitating health issues; a retired police officer and security guard of Tops who died trying to protect customers; a 52-year-old father of six children, and described as inseparable with his younger brother, who will now father his children; a 53-year old man who was buying birthday cake for his three-year-old, en route to the child’s birthday party; a 65-year-old woman who had survived breast cancer, and who leaves behind seven grandchildren; and a 77-year-old Alabama native who ran a food pantry, taught Sunday school, and was a substitute teacher. Her elder sister said, “She worked faithfully in her church, she fed the people, the hungry, the needy, she was always there.”
Chou attended meetings of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification (中國和平統一促進會, also known as 和統會 or 統促會). As Isabelle pointed out to us, it appears that some media outlets have mixed up the China Council (和統會/統促會) with the Chinese Unification Promotion Party, also known as the Unionist Party (統促黨). That party’s founder, Chang An-lo, is Taiwan’s most notorious gangster, and has sought to promote “peaceful unification” through political intimidation, violence against activists, and funneling illegal campaign donations to pro-unification politicians in Taiwan. The people denying affiliation with Chou are from 中國和平統一促進會. An article from UP Media explains. (The article is in Mandarin.)