Activist Irvin Lai: Speaking Out For Those Who Could Not

Irvin Lai was a legend in the Chinese American community. Born in 1927 on a farm in Locke, California, Lai moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940's with his family and began to work in the restaurant business. Irvin attended Belmont High School, played varsity football and experienced life as an American.... of Chinese descent. As with many men of his generation, World War II inspired Lai with a deep sense of commitment to his country. This patriotism moved Lai to act as a fully vested citizen, but also gave him the courage to demand he be treated as one as well. Throughout his life, Irvin Lai took on many causes affecting the Chinese American community, from his fight against a ban on Chinese roast duck - a debacle that went all the way to California's Supreme Court - to his coordination of local responses to the illegal exhumation of hundreds of unmarked Chinese graves during the construction of the Metro Gold Line.

We had the chance to speak with Irvin Lai before his death on July 16th, 2010. Although battling cancer, he graciously invited us to his home in Crenshaw to look back at the struggles he had undertaken throughout his life, and the gains that this advocacy for the Chinese American Community in Los Angeles.

Perhaps most illuminating of all, though, was the poem Lai read to us at the end of the interview. It was written by an unknown Chinese sojourner in the early part of the 20th Century, and it speaks of the contradictory longing of the migrant for home even as he realizes that his new home is now America.

Irvin you are now at home - rest in peace. - Juan Devis


About Irvin Lai
Irvin Lai speaks about the civil rights struggle for Chinese Americans during the onset of World War II.


The Evergreen Cemetery
Artifacts and history buried in the Evergreen Cemetery


The Case of Chinese Orange Duck
Irvin Lai describes how to prepare traditional Chinese orange duck despite strict codes or laws.


A Poem
Irving Lai reads a poem about the experience of an immigrant leaving all behind.



Story continues below

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading