Irvin R. Lai dies at 83; Chinese American community leader in Los Angeles

Irvin R. Lai, a revered Chinese American community leader in Los Angeles best known for his efforts to save the roast duck in Chinatown and to ensure the proper handling of burial remains exposed during the Metro Gold Line extension, has died. He was 83.

Lai was surrounded by his family when he died July 16 at Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Medical Center from complications of pneumonia, said his daughter Kathleen Lih.

Born in 1927 on a farm outside Locke, the historic Chinese settlement in the Sacramento River delta, Lai was a third-generation Chinese American who moved to Los Angeles in his teens, served in the U.S. military during World War II and the Korean War, went to college on the GI Bill and eventually worked in the family’s restaurant, refrigeration and construction businesses.

But his heart and all his spare time were devoted to serving the community, a virtue he acquired from his mother, Effie Lai, a volunteer social worker who helped new immigrants from China adapt to life on California’s old frontier.

“He was probably one of the greatest Southern California civil rights leaders I’ve ever known,” said Assemblyman Mike Eng (D- Monterey Park). “He was at the forefront of virtually every civil rights issue in Southern California.”

As an active promoter of Chinese culture, history and civil rights, Lai took on numerous leadership positions, including national president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles, commissioner of the Asian American Education Commission and director of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn.

One of his most prominent battles was seeking justice in the 1982 beating death of Vincent Chin in Detroit, a cause that became a watershed moment for the national Asian American community. Chin was a Chinese American killed by two white men who had mistaken him as being Japanese. The first trial resulted in a light sentence for the assailants that outraged the community. Lai and other Asian American leaders went to Washington, D.C., to demand a retrial.

During his decades with the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, where he wore many hats including chairman of the board, Lai helped preserve and restore the oldest structure built by the Chinese in Los Angeles, an 1888 burial shrine at Evergreen Cemetery.

As he approached his 80s, he continued to speak out for those who could not, especially the bones discovered in a long-lost potters field outside Evergreen Cemetery. Believed to belong to Chinese railroad workers who helped pioneer the American West in the early part of the last century, these gravesites were disturbed during the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 2005 Gold Line extension in Boyle Heights.

“Irvin was always passionate, unafraid to ruffle feathers, to take on the most powerful people and big agencies like the MTA,” said Eugene Moy, past president and current board member of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. “After more than two years of attending meetings with officials, a memorial wall has been erected and paid for by the MTA. We might not have gotten this far without a strong advocate like Irvin.”

One of Lai’s proudest accomplishments was the Chinese roast duck bill of 1982. Chinese restaurateurs were forced to toss their roast Peking ducks because the preparation involves hanging and drying the meat at room temperature for several hours, a tradition that violated health codes. When officials threatened to remove the Chinese delicacy from L.A.'s Chinese restaurants, Lai spearheaded the effort to prove them wrong. His impassioned testimony before the state Legislature helped win the health code exemption that ensured the longevity of the popular dish in America.

Lai is survived by a son, Lawrence; five daughters, Arlene Lowe, Corinne Gill, Irene Jong, Kathleen Lih and Pauline Yau; a brother, Collin; a sister, Mildred Wong; 12 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His wife, Jessie, died in 1984.

A viewing will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, 1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale. The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at Alhambra True Light Presbyterian Church, 20 W. Commonwealth Ave., Alhambra.