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OBITUARY: Irvin Lai, 83; Longtime Leader in Chinese American Community

Irvin Lai poses in front of the monument to Chinese immigrants at Evergreen Cemetery on March 8. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Chinese American community activist Irvin Lai passed away on July 16 at 83 of pneumonia, following a lengthy battle with cancer. Most recently Lai was the primary voice for the Chinese American community when over 170 gravesites were disturbed during construction of the MTA Gold Line Eastside Extension adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery. His years of effort culminated in the March 8, dedication ceremony of the memorial wall at Evergreen Cemetery.

As a leader in the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, Lai also worked on the acquisition and fundraising for our property at 411-415 Bernard St., as well as for the historic 1888 Chinese cemetery shrine at Evergreen Cemetery.

“He’s been there for every important movement,” said Fenton Eng, administrator for the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. “He’s been the voice, the fighter. Hopefully we’ll have others, we’ll have big shoes to fill.”

Lai began his civil rights activism when he joined the Los Angeles Lodge of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance in 1960. During his years at this civil rights organization, he rose to become the national Grand President in 1985. One of his most prominent fights while at C.A.C.A was on behalf of justice for Vincent Chin, who was murdered because of his race. Mr. Lai and C.A.C.A. Grand Board joined with other organizations in a successful federal lawsuit that determined that Vincent Chin’s civil rights were violated.

Lai is probably best known for saving the Peking duck in America in 1980. He spearheaded the Chinese community’s drive to change the law on the proper way to handle meat and food items. As a direct result of Lai’s testimony at the State Congressional hearings in Sacramento, the committee unanimously agreed on a roast duck exemption to the health code.

“He was really motivated when there was injustice, he wanted to see the right thing done. That’s why he was involved in 1982 during the Vincent Chin murder, he felt compelled to be involved in that situation,” said Eng.

A visitation will be held on Wednesday, July 28, 7 to 9 p.m. at the Church of the Recessional at Glendale Forest Lawn Memorial Cemetery.

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