Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass killer. Now he is Biden's guest at State of the Union
Brandon Tsay had not slept.
As he lay in the quiet bedroom of his childhood home, he tried to wrap his head around the previous night.
He had disarmed a mass shooter, aided police investigators for hours and finally returned home, only to find himself wide awake when he crawled into bed.
"I was still trying to contemplate what had just happened to me, what had I just done?" Tsay said.
The 26-year-old replayed the events: hearing the click of metal when a stranger entered his family's Alhambra dance studio; staring into the armed man's empty, menacing eyes; wresting the gun away; the shock and despair as news spread of the massacre that had occurred just a few miles away.
He had no idea how those seconds wrestling with the gunman would change his life.
Within hours, reporters were camped outside his house. His phone exploded with calls, texts and emails. President Biden phoned, thanking him for his bravery. He appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" and in the New York Times. Gov. Gavin Newsom visited him in person, as did news anchor Lester Holt, who interviewed him for the "NBC Nightly News." Then the invitation arrived for Tuesday's State of the Union address.
It has been a lot to take in for a young man who prefers playing "League of Legends" with friends and building personal computers to public speaking — someone his family said always placed them ahead of himself, was devoted to his mother through the cancer that eventually killed her and worked nights at the family dance hall to keep it going.
Disarming the gunman happened naturally, he said. What happened next was surreal.
"Having those reporters outside, mobs of them, constantly asking me, 'Hey, can you talk about it? What happened that night? What was the guy like? How did you deal with this situation?' " Tsay recalled. "It was just reliving a trauma."
For as long as he can remember, Tsay and his older sister, Brenda Tsay, 27, have been fixtures at Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio. His paternal grandmother, Eng Chen Tsay, opened the business in the 1990s after emigrating from Taiwan. His mother, Yvonne Hwei Fung Lin, managed the studio and worked the front office.
The siblings would do their schoolwork there. As a boy, Tsay took waltz and modern dance lessons — though he wasn't much of a dancer, he said. The two would chat up the much older patrons of Lai Lai, who came not only to dance but to socialize.
As teens, Tsay and his sister began helping their mother clean and work the cash register.
"Growing up, Brandon was more the self-sacrificial one in the family," Brenda said.
But everything changed when their mother was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Tsay was a first-year student at Pasadena City College when his mother sat him down in the family living room where she liked to play piano and explained how she had visited the doctor with chest and throat pain. The diagnosis was devastating: Stage 3, and the cancer had spread. It was terminal, the doctor told her.
Tsay immediately dropped his classes, though Lin insisted his sister finish her degree at the University of Washington.
"The life of my mother is more important than reading books," Tsay said.
For the next two years, he sought treatments for his mother from more than 10 doctors in three countries, including Japan, where she received experimental stem cell therapy. His father, Tom Tsay, stayed in California, earning money from his legal practice to fund the medical procedures and travel.
Tsay and his mother lived in Taiwan, and she seemed to be fighting the cancer successfully, the doctors said.
"At first, she was getting better throughout the treatment," Tsay said. "But life has unexpected turns, and it just happened so quick. She felt so weak and sick, and she was admitted to hospital, and then that night, she didn't make it."
His mother died in December 2017. She was 54. Tsay was with her as his father and sister FaceTimed from the United States.
"He was devastated. Even the last moments, he was right by her side," his father said. "I still remember him crying and yelling, 'No. No. No. This can’t happen.' He was very emotionally broken at that point."
Tsay, barely 21, arranged his mother's funeral in Taiwan, then brought her ashes back to California for an American funeral.
"He had to deal with it all by himself," his sister said. "I was always very independent. But he was very much with Mommy for everything she did."
Tsay took time to grieve after returning to San Marino but quickly found himself back at Lai Lai, filling the managerial void. Though his future was uncertain, he knew he did not want to run the business permanently. Still, he settled in and kept busy handing tickets to customers, taking care of accounting and payroll and doing repairs around the 30-year-old studio.
That's how he ended up there the night before the Lunar New Year, when many his age would have been out celebrating. He was the youngest person there by decades, tending to the family business out of a sense of duty and love of the dance hall where he grew up.
Tsay seems most comfortable when asked to describe exactly what happened that night. It's rote, told first to police, then family, then the media. He recounts the same story every time, delivering the lines like an actor.
He was in the front office by the lobby, closing up for the night and watching the last patrons twirl across the dance floor, when he heard the doors to Lai Lai open. A returning customer, Tsay thought — until he heard a metallic click.
"That's what alerted me to turn around," Tsay said. "There was actually a man standing there with a gun ... right in the doorway. And at that moment, I was so fearful. I thought, 'Oh, my God, I'm gonna die. This is it.' "
Tsay lunged at the armed man and tussled with him before taking control of the weapon and pointing it at the intruder. He yelled at the man to leave.
"I really thought, 'Wow, I really have to shoot someone today.' And that's a very scary situation to be in, to have the power to end someone's existence," Tsay said.
Since that night, Tsay and those around him say, the self-described "average Joe" has a renewed sense of purpose, though he's still adjusting to his newfound celebrity.
He saved countless lives at Lai Lai, yet so many others were lost at nearby Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park. Eleven people were killed before the gunman came to his family's dance hall. People Tsay knew, customers, friends.
Given that, Tsay says, what others are calling his heroism hardly seems something to celebrate. In interviews, he fidgets, stumbles over words and gets frustrated if he thinks he has said the wrong thing. He starts to get emotional, then pulls back, stops, starts again.
Tsay spoke with a survivor of the mass shooting who hoped to dance his way through the horror.
"He didn't want this to keep him away from dancing. If he stopped dancing ... then the gunman would have won. ... I was very proud of how strong he was staying," said Tsay, beginning to tear up.
Even as the most intense media scrutiny fades, Tsay knows his life will never go back to what it was before.
"If you’re a shy person, it may be hard for you to adjust" to all the attention, said Richard Fierro, an Army veteran who helped tackle and stop the Club Q shooter in Colorado Springs, Colo., two months before Tsay's encounter with a gunman. The attack in Colorado left five dead, including the boyfriend of Fierro's daughter.
"The mayor [of Colorado Springs] gave me good advice," Fierro said. " 'I know you don’t want the admiration, but sometimes people just need you to take it and accept it.' "
Tsay says he finds the attention bizarre. People pose for photos outside Lai Lai — like a macabre version of the Hollywood sign — and ask him for selfies. They thank him for his bravery.
At the Lunar New Year Festival in Alhambra on Jan. 29, he was honored by legions of leaders. They set up a booth so the public could meet him.
"I’m not a celebrity," Tsay said. "[But] I’m the talk of the town."
When he came to the stage, where he was awarded a medal of courage, photographers dashed in front of Tsay and snapped pictures from below. His head swiveled from side to side as they yelled, "Over here! Over here!"
A chant of "Thank you, Brandon" broke out, and guests gave Tsay a standing ovation. One attendee said he should star in an action film.
Amid the chaos, it has been jarring without his mother, Tsay said. She was his emotional rock, and it's hard sharing his feelings with the rest of his family.
He has nightmares about guns, startled awake one morning after ramming his arms into the bed frame, as if he were in a fight for his life.
"I would feel more open to talk to my mom about it ... about my feelings at the time, my feelings after, how scared I was, how scared I still am," he said, sighing and trailing off.
In front of others, Tsay feels pressure to "put up a facade" when he gets emotional.
"I was raised as an individual, who, you can have vulnerabilities, but don't show them, have emotional control, be a man, stay strong," Tsay said. "When stuff happens, don’t act on all your emotions."
The day after the Monterey Park shooting, after he had wrenched a 9-millimeter MAC-10 away from a man who later took his own life, Tsay turned philosophical with friend Danielle Jin.
"He asked a lot about the shortness of life," said Jin, who's known Tsay since sixth grade. "It was a lot of questions, and I didn't really have the answers. He didn't go into much depth, but he talked about decision-making. ... He was wondering: If I had made a bad choice, would you still be my friend?
"He realized something about life and the brevity of life, and it made him change the way he wants to live."
Unsurprisingly, the shooting has changed Tsay.
"He definitely does seem a lot more grown up. He seems more like he’s aged almost overnight," his sister said. "Before this incident, his purpose was more foggy. Now, it seems to be more clear to him."
Tsay has teamed up with the nonprofit Asian Pacific Community Fund to create the Brandon Tsay Hero Fund, which will support the communities rebuilding after the Monterey Park massacre.
He also wants to go back to school, preferably UCLA or UC Berkeley, to study sociology. The coursework would allow him to examine human behavior and how it relates to events such as the Monterey Park shooting.
"I need to have a better understanding of how these things work, especially in our society where gun culture is actually pretty popular," he said. "I would like to research how these events pan out and how ... to help those people out that are victimized."
Tsay is also looking for a job in government. He's applied as an office assistant with the California Highway Patrol. Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna encouraged him to consider a career in law enforcement.
His family says it's time for Tsay, who has long put others first, to focus on himself.
"We’ve been holding him back. We put our own priorities above his," Brenda said. "Me having kids, that’s a choice. Staying in college, that’s a choice. Those are all choices Brandon didn't have a say in, but he helped me every step of the way.
"Brandon has done more than anyone else for Grandma, me and Mom. Now we have to put him first. We have to. Because he almost died."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.