Laguna Woods resident Irene Cheng was out shopping on the morning of May 15, 2022 – the day a mass shooting took place at a local Taiwanese church in the quiet, mostly elderly south Orange County neighborhood.
“I saw the yellow tape around the church. Then I heard the news,” said Cheng, who lives in Laguna Woods Village, a senior retirement community; Geneva Presbyterian Church sits just outside the community’s gates. “I came home right away and had many emails from friends all talking about it, sending pictures. I was so shocked that this was right on our front door… our peace and security (was) shattered.”
One year ago, a mass shooting broke out at a community luncheon hosted by the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which uses the Geneva Presbyterian Church for services. The attack killed a 52-year-old doctor and wounded five elderly Asian victims.
And for many Asian Americans in Orange County and across the region, the church shooting still feels close to home – particularly after more recent incidents of targeted Asian-on-Asian violence, like the back-to-back shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay.
Saul Bonilla, a facilities assistant at the Geneva Presbyterian Church, arranges bouquets of flowers at a growing memorial at the church in Laguna Woods on May 18, 2022. (File photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
A supporter of Taiwan, center, confronts protesters opposed to Taiwanese independence outside a Los Angeles hotel where Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was set to arrive on April 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Mourners visit a makeshift memorial in front of the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park on Tuesday, January 24, 2023. A gunman killed multiple people at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio amid Lunar New Year celebrations in the predominantly Asian American community of Monterey Park. (File photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)
Dancer Adelle Castro, 68, of Temple City, left, hugs a woman in January 2023 at the memorial for the victims of the Monterey Park mass shooting at Star Ballroom Dance Studio, where 11 of her friends were killed. (File photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Pastor Billy Chang, front, who was at the Taiwanese Presbyterian service in Laguna Woods when the shooting broke out, embraces Pastor KC Liu of the Evangelical Formosan Church of Irvine during a prayer vigil at Christ Our Redeemer A.M.E. Church in Irvine on Monday, May 16, 2022. (File photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Faith and civic leaders prayed over Pastor Billy Chang, who was at the Taiwanese Presbyterian service in Laguna Woods, during a prayer vigil at Christ Our Redeemer A.M.E. Church in Irvine on May 16, 2022. Reverend Dr. Ralph E. Williamson hosted the multi-faith prayer vigil in response the shooting the day before. (File photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
“We must stop this kind of hatred,” Cheng – who is not related to John Cheng, the doctor from Aliso Viejo who heroically charged the gunman and lost his life – said. “Enough is enough.”
Cheng noted that the shooters in these three unrelated incidents were all elderly Asian men, who struggled with isolation.
The accused Laguna Woods gunman, 69-year-old David Wenwei Chou from Las Vegas, pled not guilty to attempted murder, special circumstances murder and hate crime charges last fall. He is being held in county jail.
Chou now faces nearly 100 federal charges – including hate crime, weapons and explosive counts, a grand jury decided on Wednesday, May 10, nearly one year after the attack. He could face the death penalty or life in prison without parole, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
(Chou is scheduled to return to state court in July for a preliminary hearing. A separate federal court hearing has not yet been scheduled.)
Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian church-goers were reuniting at a special Sunday service to honor Billy Chang, a former pastor visiting from Taiwan, when the shooting broke out.
After the initial struggle, Pastor Chang and fellow parishioners hogtied and disarmed the gunman before police arrived minutes later.
Authorities said the shooting was politically motivated. Chou was “upset about political tensions between China and Taiwan,” said Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, and driven by a deep-seated hatred of Taiwanese people.
Leaders in Taiwan, a democratically run island 100 miles off of China’s east coast, have been pushing for independence from mainland China’s communist government for decades. But Beijing seeks to unify with Taiwan, which has its own population of millions, as part of its One-China principle.
Author James Zarsadiaz, a historian and professor at the University of San Francisco, studies Asian suburban communities. Zarsadiaz said that what happened in Laguna Woods “goes to show that there’s still deep-seated tensions” – particularly in older Chinese and Taiwanese generations who hold certain views about China, its political and cultural differences – and how that nationalist ideology “trickles down to immigrant communities.”
This can create divisions or “residual feelings about Communism, anti-Communism, mainland China vs. Taiwan,” Zarsadiaz said. He noted that, at the same time, the ideological divide is not as much of a concern to younger generations. But Chou, the alleged gunman, was part of that older generation “holding firmly to those ingrained beliefs,” Zarsadiaz said. “And unfortunately, he went as far as taking his own radical beliefs out on Chinese parishioners at this church.”
Pastor KC Liu of the Evangelical Formosan Church of Irvine speaks at an interfaith prayer vigil held at Christ Our Redeemer A.M.E. Church in Irvine on Monday, May 16, 2022.
Taiwanese community pastors pray over the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, where the May 15, 2022 shooting took place, on May 19, 2022. (Photo courtesy of KC Liu)
Taiwanese community pastors pray over Albany Lee, the current senior pastor of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, on May 19, 2022. (Photo courtesy of KC Liu)
KC Liu, the English ministry pastor from the Evangelical Formosa Church of Irvine, was preaching that day when he heard news of the attack just 20 minutes from his church.
“The first thing that came to mind was that it could have been us; that shooter could have targeted our church. We had the demographic (the shooter) was targeting,” said Liu. “What he did was extremely radical.”
His church has since beefed up security for services, and he knows other surrounding congregations – including Irvine Presbyterian – that have done the same over the last year.
Liu said that overall, church attendance hasn’t gone down, as people – immigrants especially – find community in their faith.
“Even that following Sunday, people immediately went back to worship because they knew they needed it. In the face of trauma, tragedy and sorrow, they came back to God,” Liu said. “I was so proud of our elderly and our community for their courage and resilience.”
Local Asian American leaders reflected back on the church shooting’s anniversary, and how it reverberates in the context of other targeted violent incidents.
“Every time there is a shooting, the community is retraumatized,” said Mary Anne Foo, executive director of the OC Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance, one of the many groups that provided victims’ assistance resources in the wake of the Laguna Woods shooting.
“It’s been just one after the other … with hate crimes against elders and Asian-on-Asian mass shootings; it’s no different. It doesn’t matter who the shooter is,” Foo said. “The community is really concerned about access to guns, mental illness, access to mental health services for community members during this time.”
Irvine Vice Mayor Tammy Kim remembers after the church shooting, people were saying: “It wasn’t a hate crime; it was Asian-on-Asian.”
“To me, that doesn’t dismiss it or make it less of a hate crime,” Kim said. “People have to remember that Asian Americans are still not a monolith, and there’s a lot of international conflict that exists … we’re talking about major PTSD; the retriggering of a lot of trauma experienced by our elders through these attacks.”
Kim said that acts of violence can rekindle traumas for elders, especially immigrants and refugees who survived war, extreme poverty or political unrest in their respective homelands. Mental health isn’t top of mind for a community just trying to survive.
“When we talk about anti-Asian hate, our pan-Asian identity; about mental health and the lack of treatment that we receive as a community; about the lack of cultural competency in dealing with these issues, and the accessibility of guns … all of this plays into the narrative,” she added. “And we need to figure out solutions to make a systemic change.”
Psychologist Sheila Wu, director of the Asian Pacific Counseling and Treatment Centers, said that mental health resources and in-language counseling were offered to victims “immediately” after both the Laguna Woods and Monterey Park shootings.
Over the past year, residents have stood together to remember the Laguna Woods victims at interfaith vigils and fundraising events. Earlier in May, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department honored Dr. John Cheng with a posthumous Medal of Valor.
The Laguna Woods Village Chinese American Club, concerned about the possibility of lonely and isolated seniors in their community, started hosting more social functions and dinner-dances in the wake of the church shooting.
“We are all seniors. We know we all have different political and religious beliefs, but we respect each other,” Irene Cheng, who is a former president, said. “We want seniors to feel that they are not abandoned, and urge them to seek professional help” for mental illness.
Pastor Liu, of the Evangelical Formosa Church of Irvine, said that he generally keeps politics, especially Taiwanese-Chinese affairs, off the pulpit. Peace and harmony are more important, especially in a community still trying to heal.
“There are political divides, and definitely tensions … but we don’t shoot each other. We have Chinese mainlanders and Taiwanese congregants; we keep harmony by just talking about our shared faith in our Lord,” Liu said. “We’re brothers and sisters, and that is a stronger bond than the hate that divides us.”