Meet Our Board Member: David Lei

CAAM is incredibly grateful to have a group of amazing board members. We’re delighted to feature entrepreneur and community leader David Lei, who joined CAAM’s Board of Directors in 2007. Lei became involved with CAAM in 1994 when he made a donation in support of the drama The Blue Kite and has been involved in many CAAM projects since then, including the documentaries Tyrus and The Chinese Exclusion Act. 

“We believe in the equality of people. We believe in a diverse society, that it becomes a stronger, collaborative, diverse society.”

Below, Lei talks about his passion for nonprofits, supporting CAAM, and working The Chinese Exclusion Act documentary.

This first question is a little bit about your personal background, just like where you were born and where did you grow up?

I was born in Taiwan in 1949 because the communists took over China. So the family had to go to Taiwan. In 1956, I was seven years old, we came to America and I grew up in San Francisco, went through the public school system. It was changing times.

How did you eventually become involved in nonprofits?

My grandfather, because he became a Christian, was quite Western in his thinking. He was very successful in business. He retired at the age of 40 to concentrate on nonprofits, building a YMCA in Tai Shan, China. He spent two years traveling the U.S. and Canada. He traveled the U.S. and Canada to raise money for the YMCA.  So he was a volunteer and he left a legacy. My father was also very active. He was on the board for the Chinatown YMCA. I worked at the YMCA. So I’m third generation. So we have this long affiliation with nonprofits. I think my involvement with nonprofits is in the DNA, it is a family tradition.

And how did you get involved with CAAM?

I found CAAM to be a good platform to tell the Chinese American story, to tell my story. It does a better job than I can on my own. I like their value statement that all people are created equal. We believe in the equality of people. We believe in a diverse society, that it becomes a stronger, collaborative, diverse society. That’s part of the value statement. Lasting changes come from cultural changes.

I believe in nonprofits, which are unique in the U.S. I think 7 percent of the people in the U.S. work for nonprofits. A nonprofit is allowed to do things the best you can, to raise the standards, to be idealistic without worrying about having to make a dollar. Of course, you do have to get income to keep yourself going, but the product you create should be the best you can make. Not so that it will make money. We have the luxury of making something artistically the best, socially the best, ideally the best, to strive for the best without having to have that product generate an income.

I’ve been involved with CAAM since 1994. I made what was for me at the time, a sizable donation to sponsor a film called The Blue Kite. Deann Borshay Liem was the Executive Director. I had just started a foundation called the Chinese Performing Arts Foundation and was supporting live performances, but then it occurred to me film was another form of performance art with actors, actresses and film makers telling a story. Films had the potential to reached more people than my support of live dance and theater. So I thought film was another way of doing it.

After I joined, I really was touched by the value statement, which many nonprofits don’t have. I said, these are my values and I saw the staff really living up to these values. I said, wow, this is a great platform that’s efficient. That’s why I stayed.

Could you talk a little bit about projects that you’re working on?

The Chinese Exclusion Act Exhibition at the New-York Historical Society was in 2014. I helped the curator with the story and finding artifacts for the exhibition to tell this story. So I got involved very early on, because this topic is so close to me. I hooked the curator up with the Chinese Historical Society of America here in San Francisco, where the exhibition is now displayed permanently. Ric Burns was on the board of the New-York Historical Society and when he found out about this exhibition, said most Americans probably have never heard of this so he needed to make a documentary to tell this story. For me, the story is that the Chinese did not accept this Exclusion Act quietly. They organized, taxed themselves to raise the funds to hire the best lawyers money could buy to fight it.

There were about 100,000 Chinese in America in 1882 when the Chinese Exclusion Law was passed. In California alone, more than 10,000 Chinese Americans sued the federal government to fight this act. This is 10 percent of the Chinese in America, suing the federal government over immigration and civil rights. More than 20 of these cases went to the Supreme Court and won for all Americans the definition of what makes you an American, being born here, define the meaning of equal protection under the law, the right of immigrants to a public education, the concept of political asylum. These are all Chinese American court cases and pushed America to be better than what it was. The Chinese contribution to America should be all these concepts. We financed it, we hired the lawyers, we strategized, we have people who went to jail to be test cases. This is something we need to talk about. It’s one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in a long time, to tell this side of the story, this narrative, that the Chinese American contribution to America is in civil rights and immigrant rights.