LOS ANGELES — Brandon Tsay was never one for the spotlight. In fact, he preferred to shine it on others.
Talk to those closest to him and they’ll tell you he was the guy behind the scenes — the deejay curating the music. The one making sure the lighting was just right for the ballroom dancers at his family’s Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio.
And then one night, on a festive Lunar New Year’s eve in a San Gabriel Valley town celebrating its robust Asian American culture, everything changed.
In a story for the ages, now told from local city councils to the White House, and from the halls of Congress to the world, it was the 26-year-old, soft-spoken man who wrested a semi-automatic weapon from an intruder who just minutes earlier had gunned down 11 people at a Monterey Park ballroom dance floor.
The black-and-white security camera images remain etched into the collectivememories of that night: There was Tsay, acting on a split-second life-or-death decision, confronting the gunman, who just moments before was pointing the weapon directly at him. Tsay lunged toward him. Arms outstretched. The struggle ensued in the Lai Lai lobby: A gunman intent on more killing. Tsay, who’d never held a gun in his life, determined to stop him.
Tsay would succeed – a life-saving triumph amid an unfolding, epic tragedy.
Overnight, Brandon Tsay was a national hero, the personal guest of the president of the United States at the State of the Union, and a new face of hope in a nation struggling with how to deal with a relentless pattern of mass shootings. He’s been the recipient of countless awards and honors, including a Medal of Courage from the Alhambra Police Department.
“He grew up very fast overnight,” his older sister Brenda Tsay said. “He kind of was like the sheltered child before the incident. Now he’s definitely like a grown man. An adult, like trying to do something for society.”
Life is indeed different. After all, virtually overnight, he went from quietly helping his family at the dance studio to taking a bow with the likes of Bon o in a joint session of Congress, its polarized membership agreeing on at least one thing: a standing ovation for his heroism.
At numerous events, elected officials have praised that heroism. Strangers come up to shake his hands. Tsay even received an offer to become a deputy sheriff, something he said he has considered but is not pursuing at this point, because it is not the right fit for him.
“There was a time where I never thought that somebody famous would call my phone, but now it just seems like a daily occurrence to me,” Tsay, 26, recently told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune during a community dance at Lai Lai, which itself is gradually recovering after the nearby mass shooting on Jan. 21, and the the thwarted shooting.
Months later, the difficult memories are still fresh for Tsay and the community all around him. But from the ashes of a real-life nightmare, the quiet kid who always put others’ needs over his own has found renewed purpose.
It’s a vision that combines the selflessness he’d always had with a fame he’d never dreamed of.
“I’ve been able to reach out to many other individuals who I’ve never thought I’d be connecting with, and they’ve been reaching out to me,” he said. “You know, each one is a surprise, each one is unique. It’s an opportunity each time in different fields.”
Things are happening fast.
During an interview on “Good Morning America” on May 26, Tsay received a $10,000 scholarship from GMA and Gold House, a nonprofit dedicated to elevating the societal impact of Asians and Pacific Islanders. Sallie Mae, which offers education loans, added another $20,000 to Tsay’s studies fund.
Tsay is applying to universities, where he plans to go into a major that focuses on human behavior and how it relates to the mass shootings, because he wants to do more for his community, Brenda Tsay said.
At the recent community dance at his family’s ballroom, Tsay’s ideas were brimming on how to use his newfound notoriety as an opportunity.
For starters, giving back to his community remains Tsay’s top priority.
Tsay has harvested a lot of personal connections with his new fame, which he plans to use to help spotlight his community by sharing its heritage, history and dance culture with others, he said.
One idea he has is to collaborate with influencers and celebrities to do a segment on the Asian dance community, Tsay said.
“Through my platform, I’ve been able to talk about a lot of Asian community struggles,” he said. “So I’m hoping that with these talks, we will be able to bring awareness to our representation in government to see what we could do about it.”
In the weeks following the shooting, many people have reached out to Tsay with offers of gifts and donations. In response, Tsay and his family have partnered with the Asian Pacific Community Fund to create the Brandon Tsay Hero Fund, which is dedicated to raising mental health awareness and de-stigmatizing the issue within minority groups.
“Right now I’m trying to focus on nonprofit work, especially with my funds,” he said. “I’m trying to promote the fund, to raise awareness to medical health and mental wellness with youth groups and seniors that are under-represented.”
Tsay started the fund with the $2,500 already sent to his family by the public.
According to a mission statement on the fund’s webpage, the funding will be used to provide mental health resources for all members of the community, despite their background, race or ethnicity.
He is trying to do “the most good for the most amount of people”, by shining a light on social injustice issues, especially those faced by the AAPI group, Brenda said.
For those closest to Brandon, his selflessness was not a surprise.
Her brother has always put other people’s needs and priorities before his own, Brenda Tsay said.
When their mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Brandon, who was a first-year student at Pasadena City College at the time, immediately dropped his studies.
For almost two years, he accompanied her to seek treatment in different regions of the world, including Taiwan and Japan. At the same time, Brandon insisted that his sister finish her degree at the University of Washington in Seattle.
And when their mother died in 2017, just 15 days before Brenda had her first child, Brandon took up the family business and kept it running while Brenda started her family and had babies, she said.
The ballroom studio has always been their grandmother and mother’s dream.
Brenda’s dream was to have kids, she said.
“But these are not his dreams,” Brenda said. “He had to take a lot of responsibility and give up his college dreams and whatever he wanted to do in the future because of his family, and his community, his ballroom dance community.”
That was why she wasn’t surprised when Brandon put his own life at risk for the people inside the studio. Because that’s the kind of person he is, Brenda said.
Right now, though, it’s Brandon’s turn to choose his dream and path, she said.
“I’ve already had kids and I’ve already reached a certain point in my life where I can take over the ballroom when Brandon just had to hold it off for me,” she said. “I think it’s now his turn to do what he wants to do because I did what I wanted to do.”
And so, five months after the shooting at Star Ballroom Dance Studio – and the thwarted shooting at Lai Lai — a proud family shines the light on Brandon Tsay.
“He’s always been the tech guy trying to set up the stage,” Brenda said. “That’s the difference right now, he’s in the spotlight versus making the spotlight.”
Her brother is up for the task.
“I think that now that I have a voice, I should really do something important with it for the community, share some positive vibes and positive light … a sense of togetherness,” Tsay said.