Mr. Ronghai Lao:
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

By Rev. Norman Fong

May 21, 2018

Who are the “elder crouching tigers, hidden dragons” in your life? Chinatown is full of them. You’ve probably had brushes with their greatness without knowing. They’re the unassuming immigrant Chinese seniors that shape the San Francisco Chinese community to be as powerful as it is today. They likely live in affordable housing, and recognize that it is their responsibility to help others gain this fundamental right. Who are these people that can see beyond their self-interests to work for and understand a community’s interest?

Today, I want to tell you about one of them. His name is Mr. Ronghai Lao. He passed away unexpectedly two weeks ago, shortly after celebrating his 80th birthday.

ronghai lao
Mr. Ronghai Lao. Photo by Andria Lo.

ronghai lao

ronghai lao

Mr. Lao served as the Community Tenants Association’s (CTA) Board of Director, the International Hotel’s President of the Tenant Council, On Lok Lifeways’ active participant, Panyu District Association’s leader, among many distinctions. He starred in campaigns alongside the late Mayor Ed Lee, championing Free Muni for Seniors and People with Disabilities, and taught us through public service announcements on pedestrian safety. He was the editor-in-chief of a weekly health news bulletin, and educated and organized his peers on San Francisco policies and issues.

You may not have known Mr. Lao, but you marvel at many elders like him. He is with us whenever we feel a surge of pride and civic duty. It’s present when you are able to connect the housing bond that you begrudgingly but ultimately voted for --- against your self interest as a property owner --- made possible for the senior housing that your mother now resides in and can afford on her SSI. Or, could the creation of Free Muni be owed to the auntie that you let cut in line to pay for her Chinese BBQ on Stockton last week? How many more card playing seniors at Portsmouth Square might be accomplished authors? Did the person you give up your seat on the bus to just hold a “Yes on Free Childcare” sign? You wonder if she had appeared on the Singtao Metro section news for the event last week. Mr. Lao was an incredible leader, yet thankfully, he is not alone in that distinction.

ronghai lao

ronghai lao
Photo by Andria Lo.

It is with great sadness that I’ve learned of his passing. Mr. Lao may have passed on, but I am thankful to have met and known this “crouching tiger, hidden dragon.” We cannot mention the San Francisco housing justice movement nor the Asian American movement without mentioning the International Hotel, the home to Mr. Lao, and the site of eviction of many Pilipino and Chinese elders 40 years ago. Today, the I-Hotel stands as a testament to how we have collectively responded to restoring affordable housing and building community. We used to say, “Long live the I-Hotel”! As such, to salute our beloved elder, I add, : “Long Live the Ronghai Lao Spirit.

* Mr. Lao immigrated from China after retiring as the medical director at a Guangzhou nursing university. He was a community activist, scholar, educator, a singer/songwriter, a musician, a jokester, a loving husband, father, grandfather, elder and friend. He was truly a Chinatown Renaissance Man. He is survived by his loving wife, Ms. Bihe Xu, children and grandchildren.

Originally published in Sing Tao Daily on May 20, 2018

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