Young Kwok (Corky) Lee

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Chinese American, Documentary Photography, Activism

Young Kwok (Corky) Lee


Young Kwok “Corky” Lee jokingly referred to himself as the “Undisputed, Unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate.” In a career that spanned half a century, he indeed did do much to not only document the Asian American community but also helped shape it through photographic exhibits, collaborations with museum and university scholars, and release of his photos to countless periodicals, scholarly publications and online news outlets.

The son of a Chinese American seamstress and a World War II veteran who operated a Chinese hand laundry in Queens, Lee earned an American history degree from Queens College but stated on his Facebook page that he was a graduate of the “University of the Streets at the College of Hard Knocks.”

Starting as a tenant organizer in the Two Bridges neighborhood of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he used a borrowed camera to document horrible living conditions. Later, when the New York Post published his photo of blood streaming down the face of a Chinese American man and it galvanized public outrage against police brutality, he realized that he had found a calling—as an activist photographer dedicated to “Photographic Justice.”

To pay the rent, Lee worked the usual struggling artist jobs: wedding photographer, salesman at a printing company, and stringer to the uptown newspapers. Yet, as he was perfecting his craft, the focus of his lens was often on the Chinatown garment workers, waiters, and sidewalk vendors who, like his immigrant parents, were struggling to build their own versions of the American Dream.  

Corky Lee was present at every festival, banquet, conference, demonstration, or other event where Asian American history was being made. Because of this ubiquity and a prodigious memory, he was able to bring people and communities together, and serve as a one-man archival resource for finding appropriate photographs and identifying events, dates, and people in his photographs.

As his reputation and stature grew, Lee was called upon to help with major educational projects, such as the Asian Pacific American Program at the 2010 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. This ten-day event, with millions of visitors online and in person on the National Mall in D.C., featured several iconic photos by Corky Lee in its signage, website and brochure, including the main photo used to publicize the event. 

In one of his most heartfelt projects, Corky convened the descendants of Chinese American laborers whose valiant labor built the western half of the Transcontinental Railroad but who were noticeably absent from the iconic “Golden Spike” photo taken in 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah. By convening the descendants of those pioneering Chinese Americans and re-shooting the photo in 2014, he used “photographic justice” to correct a glaring omission from the history books. 

His work and legacy can be explored through these projects:

Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story

Asian Roots/American Reality: Photographs of Corky Lee, Chinese American Museum Los Angeles

Press release for Asian Roots/American Reality, “Historic West Coast Opening of Photography Exhibition Will Commemorate CAM’s Fifth Anniversary Celebration.”

Phil Tajitsu Nash