Remembering Corky Lee, "Unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate"
Corky Lee, the “Unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate” and a friend to AALDEF for more than four decades, passed away on January 27 from Covid-19 complications at age 73. More than a man with a camera, he was a historian with a cyclopedic knowledge of people and events in Asian American communities across the country. As a fixture at so many celebrations, demonstrations, press conferences, and meetings over the decades, Corky depicted and amplified Asian American history as it was being made each day. Before the internet, he was the human web that bound us together.
Some of the most dramatic photos of AALDEF’s early activities were captured by Corky’s lens: Demonstrations against police violence in the Peter Yew case (1975); representing striking workers at Silver Palace Restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown (1981); and advocacy for Japanese Americans seeking redress for unjust World War II incarceration (1980s). He covered numerous AALDEF press conferences and demonstrations, such as protests against yellowface casting in the Broadway musical “Miss Saigon,” back wage victories for Saigon Grill take-out delivery workers and Kum Gang San waiters, and the impacts of 9/11 on Asian New Yorkers.
Corky was a photographer at every AALDEF lunar new year gala since 1987, and many assumed he was an AALDEF staff member over the years. Typically, Corky would take it in stride as he helped an elderly person to get a glass of tea or find his table , all with a big smile and a witty comment.
Corky was also an activist who spoke out against racial injustice. In the 1990s, AALDEF challenged the NYC Board of Elections’ failure to provide bilingual ballots for Chinese American voters, as required under the Voting Rights Act. We asked Corky to print out a sample Chinese-English ballot (at the time, he worked at Expedi Printing), and he testified at public hearings, demonstrating to election officials that the ballot would fit in NY’s antiquated voting machines. New York City for the first time in 1994 provided fully-translated machine ballots in Chinese and English. Corky’s invaluable assistance in this community victory was described years later in the New York Times article, “Before Victories on Ballot, a Fight to Be Able to Read It.”
As a photojournalist, activist, and friend, Corky encouraged us to serve Asian American communities and always fight for racial justice. He will be missed.