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Remembering Corky Lee Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

30 January 2021

Corky Lee was in junior high when his class was studying the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The famous photo of the project's completion in 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah, struck him as odd.

He saw the two trains facing each other, white laborers standing on them with bottles of champagne and two engineers in suits shaking hands to symbolize the crossing of the continent. But there were no Chinese in the picture.

Tens of thousands of Chinese migrant laborers had laid the tracks, he knew. But even studying the photo with a magnifying glass, Lee couldn't find a single one in the commemorative photo.

That got the Lee started on a lifetime of documenting the lives and struggles of Asian Americans that ended Wednesday at the age of 73. After being hospitalized most of the month, Covid-19 took his life.

Young Kwok Lee was a second child, the son of a immigrants. His father Lee Yin Chuck, who had served in World War II, started a hand laundry business in Queens and his mother, Jung Shee Lee, was a seamstress.

'Every time I take my camera out of my bag, it is like drawing a sword to combat indifference, injustice and discrimination and trying to get rid of stereotypes.'

Lee studied American history at City University of New York's Queens College where he graduated. In the early 1970s, he started taking photos to document his work as a community organizer on the Lower East Side.

Self-taught, Lee would use a borrowed camera because, he said, he spent all his money on dates.

Among his earliest images was a photo of Peter Yew who, in 1975, had been beaten by police after he had tried to stop them from mistreating a teen involved in a minor traffic accident. The New York Post ran the image on its front page, leading to a protest against police brutality by thousands of Chinese.

He went on to document the underrepresented lives of Asian-Americans for 45 years, photographing the daily grind as well as the political movements. He dubbed himself the "undisputed unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate."

"Every time I take my camera out of my bag," he said, "it is like drawing a sword to combat indifference, injustice and discrimination and trying to get rid of stereotypes."

Among his notable images are activist Goldie Chu at an Equal Rights Amendment rally in 1977 and the 1982 Detroit protests over the beating death of Vincent Chin. Among his lighter images was Sonya Thomas after one of her Coney Island hot dog eating contest victories.

His photos appeared in the New York Times, Time magazine, the New York Post, New York Daily News, the Associated Press and Asian American publications. He was most recently documenting anti-Asian racism exacerbated by the pandemic.

"Anything that happens in the lives of Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Indian-Americans, Pakistani-Americans, Sri Lankan-Americans, Hmong-Americans, Thai-Americans, Cambodian-Americans, Burmese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, Malaysian-Americans, Hawaiians and other Asian-Pacific Americans is Corky Lee's business," the New York Times wrote about him in 2002.

That was also the year he helped organize an effort to gather descendants of the transcontinental railroad workers and other supporters at Golden Spike National Historical Park in Utah to recreate the flawed image that had left out the Chinese workers. He called the image, recreated in subsequent years, "an act of photographic justice."

A founding member of the New York chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, he helped raise over $100,000 in scholarship funds through annual photo auctions.

He was not without a camera at the end. Just before his death, he shared a picture of all the flowers he had received during his hospitalization in the ICU.

Lee, whose wife Margaret Dea died in 2001, is survived by his long-time companion Karen Zhou and his brother John.

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