As an active promoter of Chinese culture, history and civil rights, Lai took on numerous leadership positions, including national president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles, commissioner of the Asian American Education Commission and director of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn.
One of his most prominent battles was seeking justice in the 1982 beating death of Vincent Chin in Detroit, a cause that became a watershed moment for the national Asian American community. Chin was a Chinese American killed by two white men who had mistaken him as being Japanese. The first trial resulted in a light sentence for the assailants that outraged the community. Lai and other Asian American leaders went to Washington, D.C., to demand a retrial.
During his decades with the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, where he wore many hats including chairman of the board, Lai helped preserve and restore the oldest structure built by the Chinese in Los Angeles, an 1888 burial shrine at Evergreen Cemetery.