Editorial Notes

Corky Lee: Memories of a Seeker 

Corky Lee was a beloved community organizer, activist, and artist who worked tirelessly on behalf of Asian-American communities, using photography to document the wave of cultural pride that swept from New York to San Francisco.

Corky Lee’s reputation was burnished many years ago. As many know, he prided himself on being the “undisputed, unofficial Asian American photographer laureate.” And that was no joke.

Corky’s reputation preceded him when he paid a visit to the “liberated zone” on the Kearny Street block during one of his trips to investigate the Asian American movement in the West Coast circa 1971. We had heard of him by way of Steve Louie, who told us about Corky Lee of New York, a community organizer with Two Bridges Neighborhood Council in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.[1]

We met Corky when he stopped to get acquainted with our “stronghold of resistance” at the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown, which housed Everybody’s Bookstore and the Asian Community Center.[2] The International Hotel (known as the “I-Hotel”) itself was a focus of the anti-eviction, anti-redevelopment struggle, and Corky wanted to investigate the “socialist new thing” coming off the Third World Liberation Front strikes at San Francisco State University and University of California, Berkeley, where Asian American radicals practiced the vision of fusing campus and community. Of course, he had his camera. I found him to be a cool unassuming dude, and I remembered him. However, I did not meet up or get further acquainted with him until the very late 1990s after Janet and I had migrated to New York in 1975.

b&w image of Asian American protesters holding signs
As hate crimes spiked in the wake of 9/11, activists held a demonstration near NYU to raise awareness about racial profiling. Image: Corky Lee.

On the East Coast, we continued to hear about Corky and his work. In fact, I had been accosted in public and on the bus more than once when people mistook me for Corky. It was not until 1999-2000 that we both happened to be in an elevator in a building at New York University. I had been invited to sit on a panel discussion about the role of artists and community work after being hired as Director of Operations at the Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC), a major private social service organization in the Chinese immigrant and Lower East Side community. I knew that word had gotten out among Asian American activists that I had joined CPC, and it was through that association that Bob Lee from the Asian American Arts Centre invited me to opine on this panel with several others. I was pretty sure my elevator companion was Corky Lee, but I hesitated to introduce myself. Corky jumped the gun, “Aren’t you Steve so and so from the West Coast? Oh, I had heard you moved to New York….”

From that moment on, I began to run into Corky in so many places: Asian ethnic street fairs, dinner galas of other Asian American nonprofit groups, demonstrations, panel discussions, ethnic day parades of various Asian ethnicities, film premieres, day care center grand openings, press conferences of grand and modest consequences. Corky was ubiquitous, always documenting, and most of the time, he was never paid. Using his camera to document, he was fulfilling his mission. He was constantly working it with his camera. You would catch photo credits for his work in small, micro community news platforms, the Asian ethnic press, the Daily News, and the New York Post. In various conversations as we encountered each other, it was very, very apparent that EVERYONE knew Corky.

He began to give me calls. Once I was asked to assist a couple who had fallen into some financial difficulties. After 9/11, amidst the rise of anti-Muslim, Arab, and South Asian racism, he asked me to join him in an action near the NYU campus. He was not just documenting, but also getting politically active. I have a photo that he took of myself and others during one of these actions. He began to refer to me as “Yip Man.”

Corky Lee blowing out candles at his birthday party
A surprise birthday party for the author at the old Project Reach office in New York City during the mid 2000s. Corky Lee can be seen smiling on the left.

Several years ago, he informed me of his intention to organize a press conference and protest action to focus attention on one of the killers of Vincent Chin, who resided in a Las Vegas suburb. Did I know of anyone in Las Vegas, he asked? I told him, yeah, I had a nephew who worked as an immigration attorney who may be able to help. So, I facilitated that hookup.

I found myself calling and emailing him. For a period of many summers, Corky presented and lectured on the Asian American experience through the photos and stories he shared furing CPC’s Summer Internship Program. For the cost of a modest lunch and a cab ride, he would lug a suitcase full of his framed photos to our office. After positioning his photos in CPC central’s conference room, he engaged and fully enjoyed sharing his work, and its historical impact with CPC’s young interns.

But the most poignant time was when I was asked by Corky to find assistance for Margaret, his wife, who was struggling with breast cancer. I shall always remember this, and I am so glad that I was able to help him in that difficult moment.

Corky Lee’s image featured as the cover for the groundbreaking anthology Legacy to Liberation, which analyzed the evolution of radical movements and ideologies in Asian Pacific America.

And in 2000, when we Diane Fujino, Carolyn Antonio, and myself worked with the late Fred Ho to compile the Asian American movement anthology, Legacy to Liberation: Politics and Culture of Revolutionary Asian Pacific America, it was apropos that the cover art chosen to best represent this liberatory spirit was a Corky Lee photo.

As with many other persons throughout the country, Corky and I became lifelong associates who shared common values around social justice and engaged in principled discourse. Corky was a bold and uncompromising practitioner of “photographic justice” (his term), wielding his camera as a weapon fighting for the Asian American communities in a racist white supremacist society. He was sure to record celebrations, weddings, and triumphs.

FundamentallyCorky Lee was a seeker. With camera always in hand, he sought to expose and chronicle the injustices, the trials and tribulations, the necessary resistance, living under this racist, oppressive society. Corky’s example was impactful and set a high social justice standard for generations to come. He was loved everywhere for it. His loss is tremendous and felt collectively.

My personal condolences must also be shared with his longtime partner, Karen Zhou.

[1] Steve Louie, like myself, was a founding member of Wei Min She, the Asian American anti-imperialist organization. He later co-authored Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment with Glenn Omatsu. Louie had done a stint with “Chickens,” a storefront initiative by some Asian American radical activists in Manhattan. Chickens’ name revisited the famous quote made by Malcolm X immediately after the assassination of JFK: “Chickens come home to roost.” (That comment, incidentally, also got Malcolm into hot water with Elijah Muhammad, and eventually spurred his exodus from the Nation of Islam.) I’m not sure if Corky had an affiliation with them. Never had the chance to ask.

[2] The International Hotel resided in the old Manilatown neighborhood which bordered Chinatown San Francisco. It almost took up the entire city block. It was the home of many Pilipino and Chinese bachelor retirees, many of whom laboured in the fields of the Central Valley and in the canneries of Alaska. They faced displacement from investors, and the I-Hotel became a flashpoint where Asian American activists from University of California, Berkeley, San Francisco State, and many others rallied in its protracted defense for many years. We considered it “liberated territory” because it came to house various activist storefronts at the height of the Asian American radical political movement, including the Kearny Street Workshop. The North Beach-Chinatown Youth Council’s location used to be the old “hungry i” nightclub. There was Asian Legal Services as well as Everybody’s Bookstore (which specialized in progressive literature in English and Chinese, and was considered the go-to place for Asian American books), the Asian Community Center (ACC), and the Chinese Progressive Association. The ACC not only hosted the Chinatown Co-Op Garment Factory, it was also the original site of the Field Office of the UC Berkeley Asian American Studies Division.

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