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Why The Church Shooting Was A Wake-Up Call For Younger Taiwanese Americans To Reflect On Their History

Photo collage of six Taiwanese American women and men in the 20s and 30s.
(Clockwise from top left to bottom left): Leona Chen, Stephanie Hu, Justin Kuo, Marc Liu, Michelle Mann Yun Wei, Sam Wang
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Justin Kuo grew up in Orange County, a pastor’s son in a Taiwanese American Presbyterian church. He recalls his immigrant parents and their friends being proudly Taiwanese and blasting China’s claim over the island, a self-ruled democracy.

On the other end of the political spectrum were those in the Taiwanese diaspora who feel a strong cultural and historical affinity to China, and favor closer ties between Beijing and Taipei.

As for Kuo? He was just a kid who wanted to shoot hoops and bang his drums. He didn’t dwell on conflicts that he felt didn’t concern him.

“These politics — I'm so removed from it,” Kuo, now 35 and living in Placentia. “I don't really think it's that big of a deal.”

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But that was before last month, when a violent extremist brought old divisions and Taiwan’s thorny history into full view.

On May 15, Taiwan-born David Chou opened fire on a Taiwanese Presbyterian congregation in the retirement community of Laguna Woods, killing a local doctor and injuring five people.

It has not been explained why Chou, a 68-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen, targeted that congregation. But the Presbyterian church in Taiwan has connections to the independence movement on the island, which Chou had attacked in writings recovered by investigators. They say Chou was upset over tensions between Taiwan and China and claimed to have been mistreated when he lived on the island.

Bouquets of flowers lie on the ground in from of a sign for the church.
A makeshift memorial outside the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods after the May 15 shooting.
(Robyn Beck
/
AFP via Getty Images)

The mass shooting was a shock to many immigrants from Taiwan, where civilians do not own guns and political violence rarely escalates beyond brawls in Parliament. And as details of Chou’s background emerged, the complexities and trauma embedded in Taiwanese politics also surfaced, deeply affecting immigrants and their children and grandchildren who grew up in the U.S. hearing decades-old stories about Taiwan.

“We call it the immigrant time capsule, right? Where Taiwan exists in your mind, as it was when you left,” said Leona Chen, editor of the website TaiwaneseAmerican.org.

The Taiwan where Chou came of age is very different from what it is today.

Chou's family was among the waves of Chinese who came to Taiwan after World War II. The island was emerging from 50 years of Japanese colonial rule that ended with Japan's defeat in the war. The Republic of China led by the U.S.-backed Nationalists took over Taiwan. Several years later, the party — known as Kuomintang in Mandarin — moved its government to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war to the Communists.

These Chinese newcomers — largely a mix of soldiers, businesspeople and government officials — became known as waishengren — “people from outside the province” in Mandarin Chinese. Historians said they were greeted positively at first by the mostly ethnic Chinese whose families had emigrated to the island in earlier centuries called benshengren.

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But many of these long-time Taiwanese became angry over corruption and mismanagement under the new regime. To quash uprisings, the Kuomintang placed Taiwan under martial law. Over the next four decades known as the "White Terror" period, the Kuomintang imprisoned and executed thousands of suspected Communists and other dissidents as it persisted in its bid to take back China.

'The Division...Was Really Obvious in the 1950's'

Waishengren occupied an incongruous place in Taiwanese society as war exiles who made up just 10 to 15% of the population but as a group dominated politics and public sector jobs.

Chinese culture was elevated while languages that were not Mandarin — such as Taiwanese Hokkein, Hakka and indigenous languages used by long-time locals — were banished from schools.

“The division between waishengren and benshengren was really obvious in the 1950s — like in the way you speak and class differences,” said James Lin, who teaches Taiwan Studies at the University of Washington.

But that’s no longer the case.

Taiwan has traded an authoritarian regime for a democracy. It held its first direct presidential election in 1996. The Kuomintang is a minority party in the legislature, sidelined by the Democratic Progressive Party, which promotes a strong Taiwan identity separate from China. Meanwhile, the Kuomintang has become known for wanting warmer relations with its old rival, the Communist Party.

Photo of middle-aged Taiwanese American woman wearing a bob and glasses with her hands clasped looking across a table with the flag of the Republic of China behind her.
Tsai Ing-wen is Taiwan's president and the second member of the Democratic Progressive Party to hold the office.
(Sam Yeh
/
AFP via Getty Images)

Waishengren have been in Taiwan for generations, many having married into benshengren households. Surveys show the majority of people identify as Taiwanese and want distance from the Party, which has never controlled Taiwan.

“Their idea is that ‘we want to assert that we are not Chinese,’” Lin said. “It's kind of like rejecting Beijing's claims [over Taiwan].”

The majority, however, is not calling for outright declaration of independence which would trigger military action from Beijing.

Sam Wang, who was born in Taiwan and moved to the San Gabriel Valley when he was 10 — making him technically part of the 1.5 generation — comes from a mixed household: His dad is waishengren, his mom is benshengren. Wang said tensions existed between the two groups when his parents got married in the 1970s, but they’ve dissipated from what he can tell on his regular trips back to Taiwan.

'why Do You Have To Make This So Political?'

Photo of smiling Taiwanese American man with glasses, resting the side of his face on the back of his hand.
Sam Wang, 37.
(Courtesy Daniel Nguyen)

“You go back to Taiwan, no one's going to be like, ‘Oh, are you benshengren? Are you waishengren?’” said Wang, a product designer and co-founder of a tea shop in L.A.’s Chinatown. “That question doesn't get asked anymore.”

But the thousands of Taiwanese who emigrated to the U.S. in the 70’s and 80’s didn’t live through Taiwan’s political and social evolution. And Wang said his experience is that divisions are more pronounced among the diaspora than in Taiwan.

Wang, 37, recalled a wedding he attended in Orange County for two Taiwanese American friends several years ago. The father of the groom proclaimed his son’s favorite color is green — the color of the pro-independence movement in Taiwan — and played a public service announcement encouraging wedding-goers to check "Other Asian" on the 2020 U.S. census form and write in "Taiwanese" rather than reporting as "Chinese."

“I was just like, ‘Yo, dude, come on. Why do you have to make this so political?’” Wang said.

Pro Independence

Photo of long-haired, smiling Taiwanese American woman with her arms akimbo
Leona Chen, 25.
(Photo courtesy Leona Chen)

For Leona Chen, who supports the U.S. census write-in campaign, being political about Taiwan and recognizing colonialism was built into her upbringing with other benshengren families in the Bay Area and by learning about her indigenous background from her mother.

“My community is very much pro-independence to the point where we do not fly the Republic of China's flag at our events,” Chen, 25, said.

Chen remembered tears rolling down the faces of elders as they sang in memory of a 1947 massacre of civilians by Nationalist troops in which up to 28,000 were killed.

“They explained (the song) evokes these very painful memories,” Chen said, referring to what's known as the 228 incident. “I feel very grateful that they weren't shy in sharing — perhaps they were almost a little bit overbearing — but the history mattered to them.”

Her friend, Marc Liu also grew up learning about Taiwan’s history but it was from the perspective of waishengren relatives who fled China, including a grandfather whom he said was held as a prisoner of war by the Communists.

“We always imagined a future where the R.O.C. flag would be flying over China,” said Liu, a filmmaker and producer from Fountain Valley. “No one wants a future where the [People’s Republic of China] flag is flying over Taiwan.”

A group of protesters in rain coats march during a demonstration down a wet city street.
A 2019 march in Taipei ahead of the 72nd anniversary of the "228 incident," in which Nationalist troops massacred thousands of civilians in 1947.
(DANIEL SHIH/AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP)

Liu said regardless of family lineage, he and his friends share a love of Taiwan. That’s why he worries how the Laguna Woods attack has revived talk of the divide between benshengren and waishengren. He said he feels the latter have been negatively portrayed in the media in a way that, to him, conflates waishengren with the Kuomintang and their misdeeds.

“The vast majority of waishengren Taiwanese Americans had nothing to do with that,” Liu, 36, said. “They’re just refugees that came over to Taiwan, and then their families relocated to the States. So it wasn't as if they were executors of this violence or of incarcerating people.”

Chen said the Laguna Woods shooting has underscored the importance of respecting distinctions in the Taiwanese American identity without being divisive.

We have an opportunity at this moment to be generous, to be thoughtful, to transcend the prejudice among both communities.

— Leona Chen

“I've maybe softened a bit out of grief and understanding that the stakes are different,” she said. “We have an opportunity at this moment to be generous, to be thoughtful, to transcend the prejudice among both communities.”

How Taiwan Is Like Wakanda

Photo of 36-year-old Taiwanese American man in beard and black cap
Marc Liu, 36.
(Courtesy Marc Liu)

Said Liu: “If people were to just simply acknowledge how complicated Taiwan's history and identity is, at least we can start with a common ground where it's like, ‘Yeah, this stuff is messy, but let's work it out.’”

Last year, Liu co-hosted a conversation on the social media app Clubhouse about the parallels between Taiwan and Wakanda, the home of the Marvel superhero Black Panther.

Like Wakanda, which keeps itself hidden from the rest of the world, Taiwan is largely invisible on the world stage, with only about a dozen countries left that recognize its sovereignty.

Liu asked the group what is Taiwan’s version of the fictional vibranium, the powerful element that enriches the technologically-advanced Wakanda.

Someone suggested semiconductors, which seems fitting since Taiwan is the world’s leading chipmaker.

Chen, who joined the Clubhouse event, would later write on TaiwaneseAmerican.org: “For all the tensions between waishengren and benshengren in claiming ‘legitimate’ Taiwanese identity, the father of our very own vibranium, the founder of [Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company], Morris Chang, is a waishengren.

Wendy Cheng, a Scripps College professor of ethnic and American studies who is studying how Cold War politics shaped Taiwanese American identity, said she has high hopes that those in their 20s and younger will be able to surmount community discord.

“They're coming of age in this moment where social and political crisis cannot be denied — they’re the BLM generation,” Cheng said.

Cheng said younger Taiwanese Americans are also better able to keep up with Taiwan’s evolving society in real time, rather than relying on the frozen-in-time experiences of their elders, she said.

Moving past the waishengren/benshengren binary, Cheng said, clears the way for solidarity and organizing around gun violence, which she sees as the key issue in the Laguna Woods attack.

“[Chou] was really a desperate person who had access to guns,” Cheng said. “Those are U.S. conditions, not essentially Taiwanese or Chinese conditions.”

Celebrating Strength

Photo of 32-year-old Taiwanese American woman with long hair and glasses
Stephanie Hu, 32
(Josie Huang
/
LAist)

But for some Taiwanese Americans, Laguna Woods did not so much represent a call to action than the need to celebrate the community’s strength and heritage.

Stephanie Hu, district director for Republican Congresswoman Michelle Steel, checked in with her family and Taiwanese American friends after the shooting to ask how they were holding up.

She had been stunned to hear that the gunman attacked other immigrants from Taiwan because of political animus. She said her parents, active in groups like the Taiwanese American Citizens League, are from benshengren families but have waishengren friends as well.

She said her generation doesn’t even discuss family backgrounds, partly because so many Taiwanese Americans have married outside their race and ethnicity.

“Because we have so many mixed relationships, it's more like ‘Hey, we're Taiwanese,” Hu, 32, said. “Come to Taiwan. Let us take you around. Let us show you the food. Let us show you the hospitality, the compassion, everything we love.”

Taking A Different Position

Photo of 22-year-old Taiwanese American woman with long wavy hair and a smile.  A beach and dock are in the background.
Michelle Mann Yun Wei, 22.
(Courtesy Michelle Mann Yun Wei)

For Michelle Mann Yun Wei and her Taiwanese American friends, it’s challenging enough to explain what Taiwan is, let alone navigate differences in family lineage in the diaspora.

“When you're Taiwanese in America, the struggles end up being like, ‘oh, you're, you're from Thailand? or 'where's Taiwan?',” Wei said.

Wei, 22, grew up with a mother, an accountant, who strongly backs the Kuomintang and holds out hope that China and Taiwan would be joined under the R.O.C flag.

But Wei said after meeting other proud young Taiwanese Americans at a summer camp, she started to school herself on Taiwan history and took a different position from her mother by supporting the DPP.

At the University of California, Irvine, she researched the formation of identity among Taiwanese American immigrants "in the context of a subjugated homeland and its struggle for independence."

“Maybe growing up in America, I'm more influenced by democratic values and wanting this type of liberation for Taiwanese people,” said Wei, who recently graduated and may go to Taiwan to teach English.

A 'Pretty Big Wake Up Call'

Photo of Taiwanese American man with a goatee, wearing a blue plaid shirt.
Justin Kuo, 35.
(Courtesy Justin Kuo)

By contrast, Justin Kuo is playing catch-up.

From childhood into adulthood, Kuo did little to steep himself in Taiwanese history and culture. When he became a pastor himself, he chose to serve a multi-ethnic congregation rather than a Taiwanese Presbyterian church like the one his dad pastored — a sister church to the one in Laguna Woods. But what happened to the Laguna Woods congregation, where Kuo knows some of the members, has him rethinking his choices.

“This is a pretty big wake up call to really start focusing on where I came from and my identity,” Kuo said.

He wants his two young children to learn about the Taiwanese heritage he had always taken for granted. It’s a way to honor older Taiwanese, like the ones at Laguna Woods who left their homeland to secure better lives for their American kids, Kuo said.

“In these Taiwanese churches, the only ones left are the grandparents,” he said. “All the young kids, all the people who are in their 30s and 40s … we've left them.”

In recent weeks, Kuo’s mom has been hinting he should minister to Taiwanese Americans.

“Do I go back and do I raise the flag of Taiwanese community?” he asked.

Since Laguna Woods, Kuo said, he’s considering it.

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.