Corky Lee, born on September 5, 1947, and passing away on January 27, 2021, was a multifaceted Chinese-American figure. He wore many hats, serving as an activist, community organizer, photographer, journalist, and proudly dubbing himself the unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate. Identifying as an “ABC from NYC” (American-born Chinese from New York City), he wielded his camera as a tool to combat injustices faced by Asian Pacific Americans (APAs). His lens captured the rich tapestry of Asian American culture, a narrative often sidelined by mainstream media.
Corky Lee’s body of work delved into the diversity and subtleties of Asian American experiences, shedding light on aspects routinely overlooked. His mission extended beyond merely documenting; he aimed to integrate Asian American history into the broader tapestry of American history. In his own words, he was on a mission to slay the injustices against APAs using the powerful medium of photography. Corky Lee’s legacy lies in his tireless efforts to ensure that the stories and struggles of Asian Americans are recognized as an integral part of the American narrative.
Corky Lee Early Life
In Queens, New York City, on September 5, 1947, an individual came into the world. Corky Lee was the second child of Lee Yin Chuck and Jung See Lee, both immigrants from China who had made their home in the United States. His father, a World War II veteran, ran a laundrette, while his mother contributed to the family as a seamstress. Lee had siblings—an older sister named Fee, and three younger brothers: John, James, and Richard. His educational journey took him through Jamaica High School, and in 1965, he pursued the study of American history at Queens College.
A self-taught photographer, Lee’s passion for the craft emerged despite financial constraints, leading him to borrow cameras to pursue his artistic vision. His inspiration sparked from a poignant moment—an 1869 photograph in a social studies textbook celebrating The transcontinental railroad’s culmination at Promontory Summit, Utah.Despite the significant contribution of Chinese workers to this monumental project, the image depicted only white laborers. This historical oversight fueled Lee’s commitment to rectify the narrative.
Although later contested by the Stanford University Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, which pointed out Chinese workers in the Andrew J. Russell “handshake” photograph, Lee continued to update his research. Before his passing, he actively shared the storiesThe railroad workers featured in the A.J. Russell photos, ensuring their rightful place in history.
Corky Lee Photographic Work
Corky Lee’s lens became a powerful instrument in chronicling pivotal moments in Asian American political history. In 1975, his photograph capturing the brutal beating of a Chinese American man by NYPD officers made headlines in the New York Post. The stark image prompted a massive response, with 20,000 individuals marching from Chinatown to City Hall to protest police brutality following the assault on Peter Yew.
Further showcasing his commitment to shining a light on injustice, Lee turned his camera towards the aftermath of the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin in Michigan. Chin, a young Chinese American residing in Detroit, fell victim to an attack Ronald Ebens, employed as a superintendent at Chrysler Motors, along with his stepson,Mistakenly targeted due to anti-Japanese sentiments tied to economic struggles in the American auto industry, Chin’s tragic death ignited protests documented by Lee.
While Lee bestowed upon himself the title of the “undisputed unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate,” his authority in this realm remained unchallenged. His extensive collection of photographs not only captured the everyday lives of Asian Americans but also etched historical moments into the annals of American history. Describing his camera as a weapon against racial injustice, Lee aimed to memorialize and bring visibility to those who might otherwise remain unnoticed, documenting the narratives of minority-American cultures and communities.
In reflecting on Lee’s cultural impact, Han Zhang, writing for The New Yorker, drew parallels between Lee’s role in Chinatown and the influences of Bill Cunningham in the world of sartorialists in Manhattan and Roy DeCarava in post-Renaissance Harlem. Corky Lee’s work transcended mere documentation; it became a testament to the resilience and vibrancy of Asian American communities, ensuring their stories were not only preserved but also prominently visible in the broader tapestry of American history.
Corky Lee Personal Life
In recognition of Corky Lee’s significant contributions to New York City communities, Mayor David Dinkins officially declared May 5, 1988, as “Corky Lee Day.” This proclamation underscored the impact of Lee’s work, acknowledging its importance in documenting and celebrating the diverse narratives within the city.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Lee continued to share his visual stories with the public, regularly publishing photographs in weekly local newspapers such as Downtown Express and The Villager.
Tragically, Corky Lee fell victim to the global pandemic of COVID-19. Contracting the virus, he experienced complications that led to his passing on January 27, 2021, In Forest Hills, Queens, New York, at Long Island Jewish Hospital.At the time of his death, Lee was 73 years old. It is believed that he contracted the virus while actively participating in patrols of Chinatown with neighborhood watch groups, dedicated to safeguarding residents amidst the surge in anti-Asian violence.
Compounding the loss, Lee’s wife, Margaret Dea, had previously succumbed to cancer in 2001. The legacy of Corky Lee lives on not only through his remarkable body of work but also in the impact he made on the cultural and social fabric of New York City. His dedication to capturing the stories of Asian American communities and advocating for justice remains a lasting testament to his enduring influence.
Corky Lee Awards
In 1993, he received the Photographer-Artist-in-Residence Award from Syracuse University.
The same year, Lee was honored with the Special Recognition Award by the Asian American Jornalists Association (AAJA).
In 2002, he earned the New York Press Association Award for his contributions.
Lee became the Artist-In-Residence at New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program & Institute in 2002.
Recognizing his significant contributions, the Organization of Chinese Americans bestowed upon him the Pioneer Award in 2008.
In 2009, the Asian American Journalists Association awarded Lee the The Susan Ahn Award for Civil Rights and Social Justice for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
In 2014, he served as the UC Regents A lecturer at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). Asian American Studies Center and Department, as well as the Luskin School of Public Affairs Urban Planning Department.
These accolades not only attest to Lee’s talent as a photographer but also recognize his dedication to advancing civil rights and social justice for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. His influence extended beyond the lens, leaving a lasting imprint on academia, journalism, and the broader cultural landscape.
Corky Lee Age
Corky Lee, born on September 5, 1947, in Queens, New York City, sadly passed away on January 27, 2021. As of 2021, he was 73 years old. His life and work left an indelible mark on the documentation of Asian American history and culture through his lens.
Corky Lee Net Worth And Income
Corky Lee, a highly accomplished photographer, accumulated a substantial fortune during his illustrious career. His life’s work centered around capturing the diverse experiences of Asian Americans through the lens of his camera.
Reports suggest that Corky Lee’s net worth reached an impressive $7 million USD, establishing him as one of the most prosperous photographers in his field. Despite his financial success, Lee retained a humble demeanor and stayed unwaveringly dedicated to his primary objective: narrating the narratives of Asian Americans and emphasizing the significance of their history and culture as integral facets of the broader American story.