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Shooter Who Targeted Taiwanese American Churchgoers Was From Taiwan Himself. Why It's Complex

Police tape blocks off the scene of a shooting at a large white church with a cross on its facade.
A gunman targeted a Taiwanese American congregation meeting at the Geneva Presbyterian Church.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)
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After law enforcement officials held a news conference about Sunday’s shooting attack on a Taiwanese American congregation in south Orange County, a narrative began to emerge.

Officials said the suspected gunman, David Chou, was a Chinese immigrant upset about the political situation between China and Taiwan. Physical and digital evidence that investigators say they collected indicates that Chou hates Taiwanese people and identifies with China, which claims the island as part of the mainland even though it’s a self-ruled democracy.

But birth and identification records, submitted to Taiwanese authorities by the 68-year-old Chou himself, show that he was born and raised in Taiwan and didn’t move to the U.S. until he was an adult. Even after he became a U.S. citizen, he maintained his Taiwanese citizenship, last renewing his passport in 2012, according to the top official at Taiwan’s diplomatic office in Los Angeles.

“It’s official record,” said Louis Huang, Director General of L.A.’s Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. “It's not what he said. It’s what’s on paper.”

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How Chou identifies, though, is another matter.

“He probably considers himself Chinese — born in Taiwan,” Huang said, drawing from news reports.

Why It's Complex

The complexity and contradictions in Taiwanese identity are hard to immediately comprehend outside of the diaspora, but they’re important to recognize in a shooting case that can be easily misframed as simply a story of the Chinese attacking Taiwanese on U.S. soil.

The fact is that Taiwanese people disagree among themselves about how to deal with China. Some believe Taiwan is part of China, others want to be independent, but the vast majority just want the status quo — occupying a liminal political space where it operates as a country even though most of the world, including the U.S., doesn’t recognize it as one.

Chou, whose arraignment was postponed from Tuesday to June 10, belongs to an older generation of Taiwanese people, many of whom feel strong bonds to China. Huang said Chou’s father was an immigrant from China who arrived in Taiwan after WWII. He would have been part of a wave of transplants who followed Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists who had been forced off the mainland by Mao Zedong’s Communists.

Headshot of a middle-aged Taiwanese man wearing a blue blazer and yellow tie.
Louis Huang is director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles.
(Courtesy of Taipei Economic and Cultural Office)

Over the decades, there has been tension, even violence, between the so-called waishengren who came with Chiang and the benshengren, ethnic Chinese people who had lived in Taiwan for generations and felt the brunt of martial law imposed by the Nationalists’ party known as the Kuomintang.

But Huang, who has worked for the Taiwanese government in the U.S. for more than three decades, said he had never seen this kind of intra-Taiwanese strife as with the church shooting in the quiet retirement community of Laguna Woods.

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“According to my memory and knowledge, it's the first time ever,” Huang said. “But there are always extremists in any society.”

He urged Taiwanese Americans to not lose their confidence in rule of law and said his office is there to support the churchgoers, many of them elderly immigrants affected by a mass shooting that is virtually unheard of in Taiwan, where civilians do not own guns.

What We Know About Chou

A spotty profile is emerging of Chou’s life in Taiwan before he moved to the U.S. Huang said Chou had completed the compulsory military service required of Taiwanese men over age 20. Chou went on to teach at a private college in New Taipei City called Fu Jen Catholic University over a period of 18 years, though Huang said it’s not known if it was for consecutive years. Huang said Chou also published books, including one focused on cocktails.

It’s not clear when Chou emigrated to the U.S., but signs indicate he stayed connected to Taiwan. Aside from keeping his Taiwanese passport current, Chou, according to Taiwanese media, was active in a Chinese-backed group that opposed Taiwan's independence.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department issued a statement acknowledging that Chou was indeed born in Taiwan.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.