HomeCommunityNYC Asian civil rights champion honored

NYC Asian civil rights champion honored

By Ti-Hua Chang

(Editor’s Note: Longtime journalist Ti-Hua Chang was among those who spoke at the service for New York City civil rights leader Don Lee. Below are Chang’s memories of Lee)

More than 300 people gathered at Manhattan’s Trinity Church for a memorial honoring Asian American civil rights leader Don B. Lee. The 65-year-old Lee died from sepsis on May 6th. He was vacationing in South America with his wife, Lai, and his New York University classmates who had married their college sweethearts.

Don Lee was noted for his fiery defense of the Chinese American communities in Chinatown and Brooklyn. Lee was Chairman of Homecrest Community Services, an organization that runs three centers in Brooklyn and serves thousands of Asian elders. During the pandemic, Lee donated $50,000 to pay closed local Asian-owned restaurants to cook food for these seniors. Lee and Homecrest volunteers personally delivered these meals to the homebound elders.

Don Lee led many major fights for Asian NY-ers

Photo of Don Lee on program for his memorial
Photo by Ti-Hua Chang

For 30 years, Don Lee has been at the forefront of dozens of significant issues facing Chinese Americans in New York City and Asian Americans nationally. Starting in 1995, he co-led a successful effort to save the Grand Street subway station vital to Chinatown residents. Post 9/11, Lee worked on removing from Chinatown streets illegally parked vehicles belonging to police personnel. Their cars were parked on sidewalks, blocking fire hydrants and preventing ambulances and fire trucks from moving on several key Chinatown streets. Lee also convinced then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg to fund the Columbus Park Pavilion, which had been empty for two decades. Today, that pavilion is a major gathering place in Chinatown.

Lee pushed NYPD to respond to anti-Asian crimes

Lee found employment for former police officer Peter Liang. In 2014, Liang was fired for accidentally killing unarmed Akai Gurley. In 2020 Lee pushed the New York City Police Department to find two teens who set an 89-year-old grandmother on fire in Brooklyn. In 2022, Lee worked to stop the building of a mega jail in Chinatown, which many business owners fear will be a crushing economic blow to Chinatown, which already had three jails.

Less than two weeks before his death, Lee organized demonstrations against the Manhattan District Attorney in support of the Ong brothers. They were convicted of assault for using a large knife to fight five younger, larger men who attacked them during Covid.

Lee was focused on obtaining practical results benefiting the community. He worked intermittingly in the administrations of four New York City Mayors, from Ed Koch to Michael Bloomberg.

Nationally Lee worked to right wrongs

Don Lee with staff and supporters of Homecrest Community Services. He is seen on the bottom left.
Lee is seen on the bottom left in this photo with members of Homecrest Community Services, where he served as chair

Nationally, Don Lee focused on voter registration and district Gerrymandering. In 2014 and 2017, he worked with photographer Corky Lee to recreate the Promontory Point completion of the Transcontinental railroad with the descendants of the Chinese workers who built the railroad over the Rocky Mountains. In the original 1869 photograph, Chinese workers were excluded. Lee advocated and marched for Black Lives Matter and building bridges between Asian and African American communities.

Lee recalled as Asian champion

During Wednesday’s memorial and his wake in Sunset Park Brooklyn on Sunday, hundreds recalled Lee as a champion for Asians in New York City. Lee was remembered as someone ordinary Chinatown residents could call when no one else would help them.

Lee is survived by his wife, Lai, and daughter Victoria.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

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


Worth the Time

Must Read

Regular Features


Discover more from AsAmNews

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

Continue reading