Think of Ed Lai as a gentle giant, a guy who leads with grace and quiet purpose. He’s a man who loves China Camp from the inside out, a volunteer leader dedicated to preserving not only the natural beauty and cultural significance of the park, but its pivotal role as a center of community education and recreation.
A decade ago, Ed was one of a handful of volunteer leaders who literally saved the park from closure. This small band of outdoor enthusiasts took on the battle to save China Camp and were instrumental in transforming it from a sleepy recreation area with a Friends of China Camp membership of 25 into a vibrant, immensely popular park with 3,400 members.
Fascination in park history started Ed’s journey at China Camp
Ed’s roots to the park began in 2009, soon after he and his wife Janet Wisecombe moved to San Rafael from Los Angeles to be closer to family—and nature. Ed became fascinated with the history of the park and soon enjoyed taking visitors on tours, leading tours in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. Little did Ed know that this work as a museum docent would soon explode into a full-time volunteer job that required all of his skills as a corporate leader, community organizer, and financial wizard.
That happened in 2012, when the State of California put China Camp State Park on the chopping block for closure. Ed and other dedicated volunteers worked long hours with the late Ernest Chung, who spearheaded Friends of China Camp. The organization not only rescued the park, it took over operations. Thanks to the extraordinary dedication of this small group of volunteers, each with their own skills and expertise, the park has become a model of innovative leadership and partnership with the California State Parks system.
When Ernest stepped down as chairman of the Friends of China Camp in 2012, Ed took the reins, serving as chairman for the next five years. He then served as CFO, successfully helping to stabilize the park’s finances and expand the park’s cultural history programming.
“Ed is one of our premier docents in the Village,” says Martin Lowenstein, executive director of Friends of China Camp. “And for years he has overseen our finances and is part of the reason FOCC is such a healthy organization today.”
Ed currently serves on the Friends of China Camp board of directors. But he still contributes in special and invaluable ways, such as helping a group of local schoolchildren learn how to fold origami shrimp, or leading a park tour for Chinese dignitaries.
Childhood and life abroad
Ed is a welcoming man uniquely suited to work with a range of park visitors. He was born in Shanghai in 1948, raised in Hong Kong, and has traveled extensively. He takes pride in his Cantonese heritage, which traces back to the Guangdong province near the Pearl River Delta, the same locale most of China Camp’s 19th-century shrimpers called home.
Ed joined his two older brothers in 1968 to attend the University of Wisconsin, Madison. After leaving school for a couple of years and working in Hong Kong, he returned to college and graduated with honors and a master’s degree in Industrial Engineering. One of his early professional jobs included a stint at the Miller Brewing Company in Milwaukee where he successfully worked on solving the company’s beer spillage problem. He also enjoyed drinking free beer. He moved on to work at several other companies including General Motors, Hughes Aircraft Company, and Raytheon Technologies.
Ed loves to canoe along the shores of China Camp and to study the Chinese history of California. He is a passionate animal lover who is in heaven when he sees a herd of deer or spots an osprey. His community involvement includes volunteering at the Marine Mammal Center where he is widely known as a baby elephant seal whisperer/wrangler. Ed also serves on the board of Marin’s Chinese Cultural Association, practices tai chi, plays mahjong and the guitar, and is rarely happier than when he’s in the kitchen. His chef skills include wrapping won ton and pot stickers, and creating noodle dishes loaded with snow peas, pork, and shrimp.
Thank you, Ed. Your huge contributions continue to help make China Camp one of the best-run, most beautiful spots in California.—by Janet Wisecombe