“Corky was always around the community with his camera,” said filmmaker and Asian Americans series producer Renee Tajima-Pena. “In 40 years, I think I’ve seen him once without his camera, and I remember ribbing him about that.”
The Asian American documentary filmmaking community lost an icon, when the “undisputed, unofficial Asian American photographer laureate,” Corky (Young Kwok) Lee, died on January 27, 2021, at the age of 73, due to complications related to COVID-19. Lee was dedicated to the Asian American community as both an activist and a photographer, but his loss is also keenly felt by the Asian American documentary filmmaking community.
Corky Lee was the eldest son and second child born to Chinese immigrants, Lee Yin Chuck and Jung See Lee, according to a family statement. He was the first child in his family to be born in the United States, and the first to attend and graduate from college. He was passionate about documenting and championing the stories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and he considered his camera to be a sword wielded against stereotypes and injustice.
“Corky has been photographing Asian America for a half-century— in the early years of his career at a time we were virtually invisible. But he made sure we were pictured, that we were seen,” said Tajima-Pena. “He was so ubiquitous we used to take it for granted that, yes, Corky would be there with his camera. He would photograph everything — cultural events, the Japanese American redress and reparations movement, labor strikes, protests against Michael Cimino’s “Year of the Dragon” and racist films, and of course the campaign for Justice for Vincent Chin. And that’s only the 1980s.”
While Lee was not a filmmaker, CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong describes him as a “first-generation media activist”, a term coined by the legendary photographer. “Corky Lee captured images that mainstream media didn’t think was worthy of capturing: the birth of a movement and the hopes and aspirations for equality.”
Lee got his start as an activist working on fair housing issues, and he found photography (with a borrowed camera) to be a useful tool for negotiating change. Then while photographing the 1975 protests in New York Chinatown around the police beating of Peter Yew, a 27-year old engineer, he realized that mainstream media outlets were not coming to Chinatown to photograph the Asian American community— they did not even know what was happening there. So he became a photojournalist to make sure that there was a record of Asian Americans and their place in American history.
“We filmed the 150th commemoration of the Golden Spike for the PBS Asian Americans series in large part because of the first pilgrimage that Corky helped to organize at Promontory Point,” said Tajima-Pena, referring to the recreation of the iconic photo which left out any trace of the Chinese laborers who built much of the western railroad. Footage from the 2019 pilgrimage was included in the five-part Asian Americans documentary series, which featured many of Lee’s iconic images . “He was relentless about rectifying the fact that Chinese workers were erased from that famous ‘Champagne photo’ of the meeting of the Transcontinental Railroad. Leo Chiang and Jean Tsien and a crew from the Asian Americans series filmed the 150th, and of course Corky was there, armed with a camera, sitting high up on a ladder above the crowd of descendants of Chinese railroad workers.”
Lee’s photographs have appeared in many Asian American history books, art exhibitions, documentary films, and special events.
In 2002, Professor Scott Kurashige, now Chair of Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies at Texas Christian University, was helping to organize the American Citizens for Justice 20th year remembrance for Vincent Chin in Detroit. He was surprised when Lee – who he did not know personally at the time – reached out to volunteer his historic photographs from the 1983 Justice for Vincent Chin rally in Detroit.
“Corky sent some high quality prints that we put on display at the three-day remembrance, which drew around 500 attendees,” said Kurashige. “He only asked that we reimburse him for some minimal costs. The photos were a reminder of how vital Corky’s work was to Asian American communities and organizers, certainly in New York City, but also all over the United States.”
Lee also went beyond simply exhibiting his photographs. In 2017, Lee organized a community film screening of Who Killed Vincent Chin? and a small photo exhibition and candlelight vigil in Henderson, Nevada, outside the residence of Vincent Chin’s killer, Ronald Ebens. He wanted to let Ebens know that the Asian American community had not forgotten and to let Ebens’ neighbors know who was living next door.
Lee mentored generations of new documentarians and journalists. Lee appeared in documentary films such as Academy-Award-nominated Who Killed Vincent Chin? and Vincent Who? He was also the subject of documentary films, including Not on the Menu: Corky Lee’s Life and Work, Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story, and Our Chinatown.
“What made his photos especially unique was that there were so many cultural aspects to each one,” said Jennifer Takaki, director and producer of the documentary film, Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story, expected to come out in 2021. “He was an incredible subject to film, natural and engaging on camera, but also very articulate, interesting, and of course, especially knowledgeable about all things Asian American.”
Filmmakers Curtis Chin and Kenneth Eng filmed Lee for Our Chinatown, a collection of short films about different Chinatowns around the country. “Corky was our New York City story,” said Eng. “However, with his untimely passing, we’ve pivoted and are focused on making a short film that features Corky and presents the intimate moments we were able to record. Corky has helped me understand what it means to document and preserve the community.”
U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens), First Vice Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, has asked the Smithsonian to create a special exhibit honoring Lee.
“Corky was a friend to many of us at the Center,” said Adriel Luis, Curator at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Lee’s photographs were part of “I Want the Wide American Earth” and “Beyond Bollywood” exhibitions, and he himself appears in “A Day in the Life of Asian Pacific America” in a photograph by Jook Leung. “As a staff, we’ve had some discussions about what it would mean to recognize him in a meaningful way, but we want to make sure that however we move forward is in the spirit of intentionality and community uplift that defined Corky’s work and life.”
During the past year, Lee’s focus was directed toward the racially motivated attacks directed at Asian Americans because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of gentrification on the Lower East Side communities in New York. Tajima-Pena noted that in recent photographs, Lee looks vibrant and healthy, “[It’s a] cruel irony that a pandemic that has been rendered a catastrophe by the Trump Administration and right wing’s racism and mendacity—which Corky spent a half-century fighting with his camera—took his life in the end.”
Corky Lee’s family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations in Corky Lee’s memory be made to Asian American Journalists Association, to support aspiring photojournalists and the AAJA Photojournalists Affinity Group. (Please visit the AAJA donation page, select “In Memory Of” and write “Corky Lee”).
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a journalist, essayist, and poet focused on issues of Asian America, race, justice, and the arts. Her writing has appeared at NBCAsianAmerica, PRI GlobalNation, Pacific Citizen, and Detroit Journalism Cooperative. Follow her at franceskaihwawang.com or on social media @fkwang.