“Hey, Emil,” Corky would say.
It was always the opener from my pal Corky Lee, our self-described Asian American photographer laureate. After 73 years, he earned that title for being the man who always had a camera and was always there at every significant Asian American moment.
He saw it all, documented it all. And if I went to some event and was lucky enough to see him, I knew I was in exactly the right place. My luck, not his. Photographers like Corky have the gift of knowing—at all times—where to stick that lens.
“Hey, Emil, “ Corky would say, in that accent that wasn’t Chinese. It was Queens. And New York. All of it. It was Chinatown, past and present. It was that mix of Asian America that always made me feel welcomed. All the time.
It didn’t matter how long it had been since we last saw each other in person. Our relationship was timeless. Just like he was. Corky Lee.
I don’t even know if that was his real name. Corky? Short for Corkitudinous? We never got that deep. Just deep enough to know that we were both in this racket for the right reason. Not for the money or the glam. But for the best story, the best shot of the Asian American experience that you wouldn’t get in the Times.
Sure, he was always running the photo display at the silent auction at the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) convention. There, he would feature the work of the best Asian American photographers, including another late and lamented friend, Dith Pran, the New York Times photojournalist and inspiration for the movie “The Killing Fields.”
But Corky was at the Filipino American National Historical Society event, too? And the Chinese American veterans? And the AALDEF dinner? Yes, of course. And all the others. Parades. Demonstrations. Protests.
Fun times too. I remember one winter night, Corky and Karen drove me from Chelsea to midtown Manhattan to drop me off where I was staying. I can see the car driving off in the snow back to Queens.
It was after a memorable night at Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest dim sum joint in New York City.
Corky introduced me to everyone, managers and workers alike, and we dined like we were in dim sum heaven.
He’s probably there now.
Last Sunday, nearly 300 friends and family members gathered on Zoom to pray, but not for some anonymous Covid warrior, intubated and comatose. A hospital chaplain held the camera, and the lens was on Corky.
He did not say, “Hey, Emil.”
The Zoom gallery was like a who’s who of community activism. We were all praying, as the memories began to trickle back.
The time when, the time when, the time when.
No, I wouldn’t jinx it. Healing prayer only. Not going to say anything in the past tense. This was a prayer circle, not a wake. Not going to pre-write some obit like a good journo. I was just going to pray like a good friend.
On Wednesday as I was writing something about Vincent Chin, I thought of Corky and what he did to document the events as that seminal story unfolded.
I wrote his name, then an email popped up.
Corky didn’t make it.
After years of making it, of being there.
Corky pushed me all the time. To do more, to see more. To say more.
My Corky moment was at the AAJA convention in Los Angeles in the ‘90s. The media icon Connie Chung finally came to speak to the group of Asian American journalists after years of indifference. During the question time, I asked her what we all wanted to know: What took her so long? And more. I was politely confrontational. They still cut off my mic.
But I almost didn’t rise to ask.
Who pushed me forward?
It was a gentle nudge, with resolve, preceded by, “Hey, Emil.”
That’s what bonded us.
The image on Sunday showed Corky barely there. It was just a body hooked to a tube. But his energy was all around us in the Zoom. And you know what they say, you can’t destroy energy.
Corky has the best perspective now. The bird’s-eye view of Asian America. Of everywhere.
His images of us are surely everywhere, though the photographer is almost always absent from the best shots.
He’s taking them.
Speaking of which, Corky probably would say get your shot when it’s your turn.
Get vaccinated. Covid is real. He was one of 4,101 in our country to die on Jan. 27. One of 429,312 Americans to die in the Covid war.
Corky would want to remind us. He’d be persistent. And have the last word. “Hey, Emil…” I will miss his gentle nudge dearly.
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NOTE:_ Listen to Emil’s May 2017 podcast interview with Corky Lee, as he describes his concept of “photographic justice” and how he addressed the exclusion of Asian Americans in the famous Golden Spike photo of Transcontinental Railroad workers.