Emil Guillermo: Remembering Corky Lee and the deaths from the Covid War and Modern Life
We remember our war dead today– those who lost their lives in the act of duty.
I don’t intend to diminish that.
But most of us don’t have a direct personal connection to those men and women of valor.
There’s a good chance, however, we may know someone who died in the current “war,” the American Covid war, which as of today stands at more than 594,051 deaths—more than any American war since the Civil War.
It was a national effort that clearly from the start was a failure, only coming into a better sense of control with a new administration’s no-nonsense, more scientific approach.
I thought about that all the way through a memorial tribute on Sunday to Corky Lee, the Asian American photographer who made it his life mission to document our AAPI lives.
It was an event I was honored to have emceed.
While some people were trying to get back to normal around the country over the weekend, I was on Zoom with about 300 other people celebrating my friend Corky, who died of Covid on Jan. 27. On that day, he was one of 4,101 to die of Covid in our country, making the total number back then around 429,000 deaths. In four months, the number of deaths has increased by nearly 30 percent.
And that’s now considered normal.
The program was put together beautifully by Corky’s longtime partner, photographer Karen Zhou, who talked about how Corky used his camera “to combat injustice, indifference, and discrimination.” She thought about how he would be so busy in May, especially this year during the rise in AAPI hate violence. “He went out to countless rallies to document the movement of Asian Americans and others speaking up against hate because it was very important to him,” she said.
Zhou described how May from beginning to end was non-stop. “Every May 10, he’d be in Utah, remembering the Chinese railroad workers and their contribution to America,” said Zhou. “I know because I was with him.”
The event was co-hosted by the Friends of the Chinese American Museum (Dr. Gay Yuen and Museum Executive Director Michael Truong). And it brought together all the different parts in Corky’s life most of us didn’t know about.
Rev. Toshikatsu Nakagaki kicked it off with Buddhist prayers and a meditation reflecting on Corky’s life–how life is more like a circle than a straight line. “In a circle one can go, and then you come back right there,” said Rev. TK. “So it can feel like you’re together, then gone; it’s a circle.”
I’m meditating on that.
Friends like Nobuko Miyamoto recalled the time in the 1970s when like-minded artists and activists gathered at the Basement Workshop in New York’s Chinatown. “We woke up, we discovered, we were Asian Americans,” said Miyamoto, who called them all “Yellow Pearls.” “We were a movement. We were going to change the community. We were going to change the world.”
She introduced a slide show, put to music, that captured Corky’s images of the ‘70s. “Corky, you’re still here,” Miyamoto said, “in those images with the love and the light you put into them. You’re still here.”
Victor Huey was another longtime friend of Corky’s for over 50 years. He spoke about the need to connect with the young who are living through this tide of anti-Asian hate.
“I don’t want to think about a memory of Corky, I want to think about the future,” Huey said. “What would Corky want us to do? Right now, our community’s under attack. And what happens, our communities are fighting each other.”
Huey said Corky was our moral compass who would tell us “to unite, to work together, young and old, left or right, doesn’t matter, that we need to work together and stop fighting amongst ourselves. That’s what Corky would want us to do.”
The program went for over two hours and included Pastor Bayer Lee from the First Chinese Baptist Church, Sister Joanna Chan of the Maryknoll Sisters Center and co-founder of Four Seas Players and the Yangtze Repertory Theater in New York City.
Corky had a love of art and theater and would watch the rehearsals of groups like National Asian Artists Project and H.T. Chen & Dancers. He documented Pan Asian Repertory Theater’s shows. The group Slant performed. Journalist friends, like Wilma Consul and Joann Lee, also recalled their memories of Corky.
I was honored to have played a role, especially during the interactive segment when people were asked to hold up a piece of paper that described Corky in one word.
Among my favorite words from attendees were “BadAss,”(thank you for that, Ben Chan), “Truth,” and “Love.”
I said the word “push,” because Corky would always push me to do more, see more, say more. (See my column on that and hear the podcast)
On my podcast, I read the column and play a 2017 interview with Corky here:
It was truly an honor to spend Memorial Day Sunday in a tribute that was both personal but with a community touch. On Zoom, of all places.
It definitely was an event worthy of the ubiquitous presence of Corky Lee.
Many of us felt he was there too in spirit, watching it all
THE WAR OF MODERN LIFE IN AMERICA This Memorial Day, Paul Megia, 42, would have been driving home to San Jose from Disneyland in Southern California. He would have finished celebrating the middle school graduation of one of his three children.
Instead, the family is in mourning. Paul Megia, a Filipino immigrant, died last week in another mass shooting in America.
These are the other little wars worth remembering on Memorial Day, the war of modern American life.
The deaths from gun violence in our country have become routine. We hardly pay attention to them unless they are “mass shootings” and even then, there are so many that some only get cursory news coverage. (More than 239 as of May 31, according to the Gun Violence archive).
But the ones covered are usually carried out by a gunman, a man on a mission, armed with a military assault weapon, and since March, a surprising number of Asian Americans were killed.
In Atlanta on March 16, six of the eight were Korean Americans.
In Indianapolis on April 16, four of the eight victims were Sikh Americans.
The latest one took place in San Jose on May 26. It was last Wednesday. Have you already forgotten?
The Valley Transit Authority shooting claimed nine innocent lives and a gunman who took his own life. It was the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the Bay Area.
Two of the nine were Asian American. Taptejdeep Singh, 36, a Sikh American, was seen as a hero–,in the final moments of his life, he alerted others about the gunman. And then there was Megia, who immigrated to America from the Philippines as a toddler and found his American Dream working his way up the ranks from bus operator to assistant superintendent.
By my count, that’s 12 Asian American deaths in the three most publicized mass shootings since March.
The San Jose gunman, Samuel Cassidy, had three semi-automatic handguns, 32 high-capacity magazines, and fired 39 shots, as he went from building to building militaristically, killing some people, passing over others.
Cassidy had been known as a disgruntled employee since 2016, when he was stopped upon re-entering the country after a visit from the Philippines. DHS found books and notes about terror and violence, and how Cassidy hated his work.
This is modern life in America, where people like Megia and Singh can go to work with no guarantee of returning home. You just know if you hear about an incident in California, home to the nation’s largest Asian American population, there’s a good chance there will be Asian American victims. And you know the gunman will have a profile similar to Cassidy.
On this Memorial Day, let’s remember all victims of mass shootings.
The situation only seems destined to get worse because political leaders are too fearful to acknowledge the war within our modern America.
Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.