When Brandon Tsay saw the gunman, he knew he had to act.
The 26-year-old Asian American man was helping at his family's dancing ballroom in Alhambra when Huu Can Tran, who had just killed 11 people in another ballroom in Monterey Park, entered the lobby with a gun.
“A lot of my memories and emotions came to me,” Tsay said about the night of Jan. 23, 2023. He thought about the people who regularly dance at the ballroom and how they have been so kind and supportive of him and his family. “This gave me a sense of strength to push forward.”
Tsay then wrestled with Tran for several minutes, eventually disarming him and preventing another Lunar New Year massacre. After the video footage of Tsay fighting the gunman went public, he became a national hero overnight.
Almost two months later, Tsay, a computer coder who loves to play League of Legends and occasionally helps at the family ballroom ticket office, is no longer the same shy Asian boy from Southern California. He has been honored at multiple prominent events, including at President Joe Biden’s State of the Union, where he received a standing ovation.
To help support the community's healing and rebuilding, the Asian Pacific Community Fund also started a “Brandon Tsay Hero Fund” to honor him.
A Warm Welcome in SF
In San Francisco on Thursday evening, Tsay received a warm welcome and constant applause as he gave an inspiring speech and shared his personal story with the crowd.
Hosted by the nonprofit Stand With Asian Americans, the event was held to acknowledge the two-year anniversary of the Atlanta spa shooting, where six of the eight people killed were Asian women.
As a son of Taiwanese immigrants, Tsay lost his mom to cancer in 2017, which changed him tremendously.
“I thought about how this woman focused 18 years of her life on me,” he said. “I thought to myself, I need to broaden my life to others more than myself. It made me expand my compassion.”
Tsay was barely 21 at that time. He told the Los Angeles Times that he arranged his mom’s funeral in Taiwan and brought the ashes back to California. His sister, Brenda Tsay, also said he’s the self-sacrificing one in the family.
At the event, Justin Go, the father of Michelle Go, the woman who was shoved onto subway tracks and killed in New York one year ago, also gave a touching speech about his loss.
Advocating for Mental Health
With his newfound fame and platform and ties with gun violence prevention, Tsay spoke up about mental health and the stigma in the Asian community surrounding treatment.
“Many incidents of gun violence are carried out by individuals with untreated mental illnesses,” he said. “We can start by promoting mental health and fight against mental stigma.”
It’s necessary to promote “emotional vulnerability followed by emotional control by creating a safe and supportive environment,” he added, so people can feel comfortable sharing their emotions. Tsay also suggested that it’s important to seek support from a therapist or counselor and to practice mindfulness techniques or participate in support groups when struggling with harmful thoughts.
He reflected that his own friends confided in him with feelings of being depressed, excluded or even suicidal, as they are reluctant to seek help, and insisted the society should invest more in mental health to increase access.
This young man, who quit school at a young age to take care of his sick mother, is finding that his sudden celebrity has helped him get stronger mentally, too.
“During my speeches and events, I've met a lot of people who share their stories and life lessons,” he said. “I’m glad I can give them a sense of solidarity and support.”
Han Li can be reached at [email protected]