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Brandon Tsay wants to use his celebrity to help heal his community

Brandon Tsay is awarded the medal of courage by Alhambra Police Chief Kelley Fraser at the Alhambra Lunar New Year Festival in Alhambra, Calif., on Sunday, a little over a week after the Monterey Park mass shooting.
Jane Hahn for NPR
Brandon Tsay is awarded the medal of courage by Alhambra Police Chief Kelley Fraser at the Alhambra Lunar New Year Festival in Alhambra, Calif., on Sunday, a little over a week after the Monterey Park mass shooting.

ALHAMBRA, Calif. — At a Lunar New Year festival this past weekend, a couple hundred people packed under a tent to watch local leaders recognize Brandon Tsay. The 26-year-old has become an overnight national hero after disarming a mass shooter more than a week ago in the east Los Angeles County community.

Tsay has been widely praised for preventing a gunman, who had killed 11 people and injured 10 others at a dance hall in Monterey Park, from carrying out a second attack in nearby Alhambra.

City leaders presented him with a medal of courage on stage on Sunday. His actions, they said, likely saved many lives.

Becki Peng, a 41-year-old Alhambra resident in the crowd, said that as soon as she saw Tsay was going to attend the event, she knew she had to be there.

"He's a real superhero — a real Asian superhero," she said.

Tsay's spotlight hasn't dimmed yet. Next week, he'll head to the nation's capital to attend the State of the Union address as President Biden's guest of honor.

But Tsay is determined to use his newfound celebrity to refocus the attention on the victims and help his community heal.

Many people have reached out to donate money directly to him, Tsay said. In response, he and his family have opened the Brandon Tsay Hero Fund, starting with the $2,500 that's already been donated to them. Tsay has teamed up with a local nonprofit, the Asian Pacific Community Fund, to redirect donations to support the Asian American Pacific Islander community.

"I don't want to casually use this money for myself," he said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition. "Money that comes from community should be used for the community."

Tsay said it's too early to know specifically how the money will be used. But so far, he and his family have discussed options such as contributions toward mental health, education and child care for single parents.

"We need to see how much support we're getting from the community and what their needs are," he said.

Separately, the APCF worked with other AAPI nonprofits to raise over $1 million through a GoFundMe, from more than 11,000 individual donors, to pay for hospital bills and other needs for the Monterey Park victims and their families.

Children feed red envelopes and money to a red dragon during this year's Alhambra Lunar New Year Festival in Alhambra, Calif.
/ Jane Hahn for NPR
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Jane Hahn for NPR
Children feed red envelopes and money to a red dragon during this year's Alhambra Lunar New Year Festival in Alhambra, Calif.
Becki Peng of Alhambra holds a sign honoring Brandon Tsay as she waits in line to meet him at the Alhambra Lunar New Year Festival.
/ Jane Hahn for NPR
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Jane Hahn for NPR
Becki Peng of Alhambra holds a sign honoring Brandon Tsay as she waits in line to meet him at the Alhambra Lunar New Year Festival.

Tsay jumps into action

A dance social at Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra was winding down on a Saturday night, with just a few people left on the ballroom floor. Tsay, whose family owns the studio, was working at the ticket office that night. He was standing in the lobby facing the ballroom when he heard the front door shut close and the clinking of metal — the sound of a magazine-fed assault-style pistol.

"That's when I turned around and saw there was an Asian man holding a gun," Tsay told ABC's Good Morning America. "My first thought was I was gonna die here. This was it."

Tsay said he had no idea in that moment that, just a half hour earlier, the same 72-year-old gunman had walked into and opened fire at a ballroom at Star Dance Studio in nearby Monterey Park.

"It seemed like he was looking for targets — people to harm," Tsay told ABC.

Brandon Tsay is greeted by the crowd at the Alhambra Lunar New Year Festival in Alhambra, Calif., on Sunday.
/ Jane Hahn for NPR
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Jane Hahn for NPR
Brandon Tsay is greeted by the crowd at the Alhambra Lunar New Year Festival in Alhambra, Calif., on Sunday.
A small memorial sits in the lobby of the Lai Lai Ballroom and Studio in Alhambra, Calif., — where Brandon Tsay disarmed the gunman — honoring the 11 victims killed in the Monterey Park mass shooting and thanking Tsay for his bravery.
/ Jane Hahn for NPR
/
Jane Hahn for NPR
A small memorial sits in the lobby of the Lai Lai Ballroom and Studio in Alhambra, Calif., — where Brandon Tsay disarmed the gunman — honoring the 11 victims killed in the Monterey Park mass shooting and thanking Tsay for his bravery.

While the gunman was readying his weapon, Tsay told NBC Nightly News that he used the opportunity to lunge at him in an attempt to divert the gun away from the ballroom. He became locked into a struggle with the shooter over control of the weapon. Tsay eventually wrested the gun away from the man and pointed the barrel at him, warning him he'd shoot. Tsay then called the police, gun still in hand, while the shooter fled.

The gunman later died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, authorities said. Tsay said he emerged from the struggle with bruises on his face and neck.

Tsay's confrontation with the gunman was captured on security camera footage that circulated online.

President Biden called Tsay last week to thank him for his heroism.

"I don't think you understand how much you've done for so many people who are never even going to know you. But I want them to know more about you," the president said. "You have my respect. You are America, pal."

Tsay believes many in his community are feeling the same way he felt after the tragedy: traumatized.

"They're vulnerable. They're scared, they're fragile," he said. "I want to have efforts in supporting people that go through a traumatic experience. I just want people to know that they have people looking out for them."

Dancers from the Asian Art Talent Foundation practice before performing on stage at this year's Alhambra Lunar New Year Festival.
/ Jane Hahn for NPR
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Jane Hahn for NPR
Dancers from the Asian Art Talent Foundation practice before performing on stage at this year's Alhambra Lunar New Year Festival.
Jessie Tran and Sophia Gun wait to perform on stage at the Alhambra Lunar New Year Festival in Alhambra, Calif., on Sunday.
/ Jane Hahn for NPR
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Jane Hahn for NPR
Jessie Tran and Sophia Gun wait to perform on stage at the Alhambra Lunar New Year Festival in Alhambra, Calif., on Sunday.

Tragedy casts a shadow over Lunar New Year celebrations

The mass shooting in Monterey Park shook the area's predominantly Asian American community over Lunar New Year weekend. The New Year festival held just outside the site of the Monterey Park mass shooting was canceled after the tragedy.

At Alhambra's Lunar New Year event on Sunday, tragedy remained on festival-goers' minds, a little more than a week after the shooting. The Lai Lai studio, where the gunman almost carried out the attack, is located about a block away from the festival.

Elaine Tran, a 20-year-old junior at UCLA who is Vietnamese and Chinese American, said that she and her family have avoided the area since the incident.

"It took a little bit of thinking to even go here," she said. "Just because it's, like, really, really close to home. And we were unsure if, like, something else was going to happen."

But her determination to celebrate the new year with her family and community won out.

Peng, the 41-year-old attendee from Alhambra, said she expected to be more cheerful once she arrived at the event, which had been canceled for the two previous years due to the pandemic.

"But when [local officials] mentioned the victims and just the community, it really is impacting again," she said.

Still, she's feeling encouraged.

"We're stronger in numbers," Peng said. "Feeling supported by this community and just seeing everybody — being out after a few years of not being able to celebrate Lunar New Year — it's wonderful."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A large memorial is seen outside the Star Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., about a week after a mass shooting at the ballroom studio killed 11 people and wounded 10 others.
/ Jane Hahn for NPR
/
Jane Hahn for NPR
A large memorial is seen outside the Star Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., about a week after a mass shooting at the ballroom studio killed 11 people and wounded 10 others.

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