HomeBad Ass AsiansDon B Lee, NYC Chinatown activist & board chair dies

Don B Lee, NYC Chinatown activist & board chair dies

By Kathy Ou

Don B. Lee, a Chinatown activist, Asian American community leader and the board chair of Homecrest Community Services (HCS), passed away last Monday, May 6 while on vacation with family in South America. He was 65. 

Homecrest Community Services announced the news on social media on Sunday, May 12. On Facebook and Instagram, comment sections under HCS’s posts about the news, many former colleagues, friends and other community members took to express sorrow and condolences and share eulogies and memories of Lee. 

Born in British Hong Kong in 1959, Lee moved to the U.S. at the age of ten with his single father and grew up in Manhattan Chinatown. His father passed away when he was 18. In order to support himself, he started working at the Chinese restaurant Hop Lee on Mott Street, waiting tables and cooking his way through college. The Chinatown community was his support system and family. 

He graduated from New York University in 1985 and began working at the Mayor’s office in 1986. He has worked for the office of four New York City mayors at various capacities, including Edward Koch, David Dinkins, Rudolph Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg, before transitioning into work at healthcare and technology companies. He was one of the original organizers of HCS in 1997 and continued serving as the board chair until his passing. In the aftermath of 9/11, Lee stepped up to work with the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) as a pro bono project director to coordinate disaster relief in support of Chinese American community businesses in Chinatown and Little Italy. 

Don Lee raises his arms victoriously with a wide grin
Don Lee celebrates. By Shirley L Ng

Wai Yee Chan, the current Executive Director of HCS, first met Lee at a CCBA event when she was working at the affiliated New York Chinese School as the dean. 

“[There] I witnessed first-hand his commitment to advocating for the community,” Chan said. “Back then, he was what we called a fighter. Today, he would be known as an activist.”

Victoria Lee, Don’s daughter and a rising senior in college, said her father’s passion for social justice issues was always inspiring.

“Community activism was sort of a lifelong thing throughout all of his professional career. It didn’t really start at a particular point. His entire life has been very passionate about making sure that Asian Americans are standing up for themselves and making sure that we as a community are not being silenced or being told that we should be silent, but rather that we have very loud voices that we should use that,” Victoria said. “I couldn’t ask for a better role model in terms of community activism.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns hit the U.S. in early 2020, Don Lee led a mutual aid initiative — aptly named “StirFry Mealls on Wheels.” 200 volunteers delivered food to homebound Chinese seniors from shut-down Chinese restaurants. 

This generous and creative spirit has rubbed off on Susan Lee. Susan is Don Lee’s cousin-in-law, who has run for the office of New York City Council District One in 2021 and again in 2023. She lost to Christopher Marte both times. She last saw Don about three weeks ago right before he left for his trip. She told him then that she was done with politics.

“And he laughs and he’s like, ‘Susan, you might be done with politics, but you’re not done with advocating for the community because it’s in our blood, we’re cut from the same cloth. You’ll be around.’ And that’s just classic Don, you know. He’s always pushing you to be better, to do better.”

When she first ran for office, she called Don, and he didn’t pick up or call back immediately. She thought he might not want to help her. When Don called back later, she learned that he was at a fundraiser event in honor of a veteran. Don invited Susan to join, and introduced her to his community and network. 

“Every time there was something that he thought I could learn from, he would invite me, and that’s why I’m so grateful,” Susan said. “I am the Community leader that I am today because of him.”

Jerry Vattamala, the Director of Democracy Program at Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund (AALDEF), expressed a similar sentiment. Vattamala has known Don Lee since 2011 but only worked more closely with him in the last redistricting cycle around 2021. In 2022, their efforts, in the context of decades of advocacy for creating an Asian-majority district in southern Brooklyn, resulted in the creation of the newly redrawn District 43. In 2023, Iwen Chu became the first Asian New York State Senator from Brooklyn. 

“I just really appreciated his expertise and leadership and support,” Vattamala said. “I don’t think we’d be where we are right now without Don, in how we have representation, and more effective, more importantly, effective representation.”

Don Lee at news conference
By Shirley L Ng. Don Lee

Aside from an activist and leader, perhaps a lesser-known fact about Don Lee is that he was trained in multiple martial arts forms. According to his daughter Victoria, for a multicultural performance event at her high school years ago when she wanted to do a lion dance, Don helped train her and her friends at her school.

“One of the most important things he taught me was how to be proud of my Asian identity, which I think a lot of Asian American kids struggle with,” Victoria said. “I’ve always my entire life felt very, very proud to be Chinese American. And I owe that to my father.”

Ti-Hua Chang is a long-time broadcast journalist and contributor at AsAmNews, who has known Lee for nearly three decades since Chang met him as a community activist in Chinatown advocating for the construction of additional subway exits at the Grand station. The two stayed in touch and became friends. Lee would call Chang to discuss community affairs and gave Chang story ideas, and Chang had also worked for Lee when he ran for New York State Assembly in the 65th district.

“Don and I were like brothers,” Chang said. “It’s a real loss. And besides a personal loss and shock for me, it’s also a real loss to the community because we’ve lost a real fighter and champion for the community, not just in New York City, but also for Asian Americans,” 

Don is survived by his wife Lai and his daughter Victoria.  They have announced a memorial fund in Don’s name with all donations benefitting Homecrest Community Services.

Details about the memorial and services will be announced in the following days on this page. Meanwhile, instead of flowers and donations to the family, please consider making a donation to Homecrest Community Services. 

8 COMMENTS

  1. What an inspiring leader of his community – a unique man who forged his own path, and did things his own way. While he had great style, he believed in the simplicity of life: having good food, dignity, and that workers should be safe, and to be proud of your heritage. While I”m not Chinese, I am a proud LES’er, and I love how he cared for the community, and fought for it, along with Corky Lee!

  2. I was saddened to hear about the death of Mr. Lee. Don was my boss when I was working at Bellevue. He was our department head. We highly respected Don for his passion, integrity, and for sticking up for our department. We would talk about everything from daily business to our families, especially our daughters. He was a good man. I’ll miss him and remember him fondly. RIP.

  3. Don Lee was one of the greatest person I have ever worked with, very kind always looked out for our best interests. Mr. Lee
    was our Manager at Bellevue clinical IT.
    I’m deeply saddened to hear of his passing.
    May his soul rest in peace 🕯️

  4. My name is Kathy and i’m the reporter who wrote this obituary. Here are two opportunities to honor Don’s life and legacy, shared by HCS staff, in the following weeks:

    Visitation: Sunday, May 19th, 12pm-4pm, Wan Shou Funeral Home (1275 65th St, Brooklyn, NY 11219).

    Memorial Service: Wednesday May 22nd, 2:00pm, Trinity Church Wall Street (76 Broadway, New York, NY 10006). A reception will follow at Trinity Commons Parish Hall at 3:00pm.

    Meanwhile, in lieu of flowers, the family asks you to contribute to the Don Lee Memorial Fund: https://secure.givelively.org/donate/homecrest-community-services-inc/don-lee-memorial-fund
    Or visit https://www.homecrest.org/

  5. Don was a friend and a true leader in the community. He will be truly missed. May he rest in peace.

  6. None of the major news sources mentioned Don B. Lee’s passing. Why are Asian Americans treated as invisible people in “American society”?

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Latest

Worth the Time

Must Read

Regular Features

Latest

Discover more from AsAmNews

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading