I heard the news Saturday morning. Corky Lee, “Unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate”, passed from COVID on January 27, 2021, at the age of 73 in Queens, New York, where he was born. He orbited the periphery of my life like the planets around earth. He was about, played a significant role, but I was not always cognizant of the effects.
The first time I became aware of Corky was through a postcard at a nonprofit where I volunteered a few years after college. On the black-and-white photo, a Chinese woman was sitting behind a taxi waiting for the light. Her left arm rested on the steering wheel, the other hand cupping tea or coffee. The ad on the roof read “Get it done America” with Uncle Sam wielding an ax.
The juxtaposition was unexpected. I grew up in New York City, where my family resided since the 1900s. I attended public schools, but never saw photographs like this of a Chinese woman. She was not in my textbooks, library books, magazines (I loved Sixteen), print or television advertisements. She was certainly not in this “masculine” profession. In my mind, the quintessential New York City taxi driver looked like Robert DeNiro.
After Corky passed, I dug out the postcard for the first time in decades. It was from a 2001 exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA): “Not on the Menu documents the private and public moments of Asian American daily life through the lens of photojournalist Corky Lee…”
Corky and I met in person a few years ago when he covered the Hakka Conference in New York City. We conversed a bit online when he said the Hakka, an ethnic group from Canton, may have been among the Transcontinental Railroad workers and introduced a fish to the west during the Gold Rush. To hear my heritage affirmed endeared him to me even more.
In recent years, Corky was most known for re-staging the photo taken upon the completion of the railroad in 1869. Where a Central Pacific train and a Union Pacific train met at Promontory Summit, Utah symbolized the unification of the East and West Coasts, the photo did not include a single Chinese worker whose labor had been so crucial to the railroad’s construction. In 2014, their descendants gathered to retake that photo for an act of photographic justice.
I’d imagine there was so much more he could have shared with us and years ahead to do so. Though Corky was 73 years old, he was very vibrant. You’d never guessed his age. He needed that vitality. As he said, there is so much to do he wished there were five of him. I wish, too.
There is a virtual tribute for Corky Lee on March 7.
To learn more, see Not on the Menu: Corky Lee’s Life and Work on Vimeo. To support the documentary in progress on Corky’s life, please visit Photographic Justice.
Taylor Zhou shares her passion for her Chinese-American heritage at MsZhou.us. She’s a New Yorker, and graduate of New York University.