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For These Taiwanese Immigrants, Church Shooting Stirs Long-Held Fears Of Persecution

Three middle-aged Taiwanese American men sit at a table during a news conference. Behind them is a screen with a projection of words written in Chinese characters.
Louis Huang (left), director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, spoke at a news conference Wednesday with members of the Taiwan center, Paul Chen (center) and Simon Lin.
(Josie Huang
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Situated on a busy commercial strip in Rosemead, the Taiwan Center Foundation of Greater Los Angeles is where Taiwanese Americans can go for events that celebrate their culture and food, take Taiwanese language classes — even sing karaoke.

A couple times a month, Hsueh Mei Chen, 72, travels an hour each way from her home in northern Orange County to the San Gabriel Valley to croon love songs with her friends at the center, a pastime she called "my happiness."

But after a gunman attacked a Taiwanese American congregation in Laguna Woods on Sunday, killing one and wounding five others, Chen's joy mingled with fears about being targeted.

A 72-year-old woman with dark short hair talks into the camera with a worried expression. She wears a pink top.
Hsueh Mei Chen, 72, said her joy of visiting the Taiwan Center mingles with fear about the unknown.
(Josie Huang/ LAist)
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"They say he sympathized with China," Chen said of the suspected gunman. She now thinks anyone could walk through the center's doors intending violence. "Things happen that you could never imagine."

Law enforcement officials say the suspect, David Chou, may have been motivated by a hatred of Taiwanese people, driven by political tensions between China and the self-ruled island that the mainland considers as its own.

Chou, 68, is himself from Taiwan and a naturalized U.S. citizen. Taiwanese society is divided over its relationship with China, with most preferring the status quo. There is, however, a tiny faction that, according to a recent survey, favors so-called reunification with China.

Evidence collected by investigators indicate Chou’s pro-China leanings, and the Chinese-language World Journal reported that Chou had sent its L.A. offices documents entitled “Diary of an Angel of Destroying Independence.”

Since the shooting attack on the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian congregation, concerns about the safety of visitors to the Taiwan Center have been troubling its executive director, Simon Lin.

“We are a small community center,” said Lin, speaking at a Wednesday press conference at the facility. “We don't have a budget to hire security."

Paul Chen, who chairs the center’s board of directors, said in an interview that older Taiwanese Americans are particularly upset by the church attack and how it may have been politically-motivated.

Many grew up feeling marginalized by the ruling Kuomintang party led by mainlanders who arrived in Taiwan after World War II and used violent means to govern. In schools, Taiwanese speakers were told not to speak their native Taiwanese Hokkien.

Chen said many of the community’s elders came to the U.S. in the 1960s and ’70s with the intent to flee the authoritarian rule of the Kuomintang, or KMT, that kept Taiwan under martial law until 1987.

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“These are the folks who raise the most voice against those types of injustices, that one-party system and the KMT,” Chen said.

The shooting disturbed younger Taiwanese Americans such as Raymond Yu, who's a board member of the Taiwan United Fund, an arts and culture non-profit. But he recognized the impact was larger for his parents' generation.

An older Taiwanese American man in glasses holds a microphone to address a room full of people.
During a news conference at the Taiwan Center, a man exhorts the audience to speak up against the shooting attack on a Taiwanese American church.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

"The older generation is probably going to feel like we need to stand up and fight," Yu said. "Me, as a second-generational individual, I still feel safe."

Leaders at the Taiwan Center say they do not have a stance on Taiwanese independence, but that they are pro-democracy.

The Taiwan Center, in a statement co-signed by nearly 20 other Taiwanese American organizations, called for authorities to take action if the shooting case is found to be connected to the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification. The Las Vegas chapter of the group told the World Journal that Chou was not an active member.

At the news conference, Taiwan Center leaders announced they are raising funds for the five wounded victims, who range between the ages of 66 and 92, and the family of the 52-year-old man who was fatally shot, Dr. John Cheng. He is survived by a wife and two children.

Taiwan Center officials were joined by leaders from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and Louis Huang, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles, which acts as an unofficial consulate because the U.S. does not recognize Taiwan as a country.

Huang expressed condolences to the victims of the shooting on behalf of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and other top administration officials, and praised the church’s pastor and elderly church members whom he said “fought bravely.”

“Hate crimes, or any crimes resulting from holding different views from other people doesn't justify any crimes to happen,” Huang said. “Taiwan, same as the United States, has zero tolerance against hate crimes.”

Capt. Mark Reyes, who heads the L.A. Sheriff's Department station in Temple City, told a room that contained dozens of older Taiwanese Americans that the number of anti-Asian incidents in the area has been in the single digits this year.

“Specifically in our jurisdiction, you could be at ease but still remain vigilant,” Reyes said.

As reassurance, he pointed to the back of the room to a row of sheriff’s deputies who belong to a special team paid for by the city of Rosemead. Reyes said the sheriff's department is conducting extra patrol checks for churches, synagogues and community centers.

A roomful of mostly older Taiwanese American men and women sitting on folding chairs listening to a news conference. A row of seven sheriff's deputies stand in the back.
A room of mostly older Taiwanese Americans attended a news conference with community leaders who were joined by officials from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department
(Josie Huang/LAist)

Lin, of the Taiwan Center, noted the suspected shooter had been welcomed by the churchgoers — in the same way he said the community center receives newcomers.

“Even if you may not speak Taiwanese, you speak Chinese, we still welcome you,” said Lin, who is also an anesthesiologist. “We never discriminate [against] you because of your language, your appearances, and/or your background.”

Lin said one of his friends survived the shooting on Sunday and had texted him photos of a bloody scene, telling Lin that he could no longer bear to keep them on his phone.

“Why this kind of people can take such a radical action to kill innocent people?” Lin said.

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.