Corky Lee grew up in New York in the 1950s. In his childhood, he noticed a complete absence of historical documentation of Asian Americans. He dedicated 32 years of photographic work to correct this absence.

After his death on January 27, he left behind the single largest collection of photographic Asian American history in the past century. Here we will take you through some of his photographs to celebrate his legacy.

Young Corky Lee attending a meeting of the activist group, Basement Workshop, at Catherine Street headquarters,(1973)

Born in 1947 in Queens, Lee was the son of Chinese immigrants. He worked as a community organizer in the Lower East Side. 

Some of his work included connecting elders to social services and ensuring new immigrants understood their American rights. And throughout it all, Lee had his camera.

Everyday life in the Chinatown health fair, (1971)

Lee was crowned the “Unofficial Undisputed Asian American Photographer Laureate.” 

He utilized the perspective of a bystander to capture personal narratives and human experiences of Asian Americans throughout NYC.

Garment factory on Elizabeth Street, (1976)

Chinatown postcard held up by Lee, (date unknown)

Lee started taking photos of rallies and demonstrations in Chinatown in the 70s. During the influx of Asian immigrants caused by the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, Lee’s photography united Asian Americans through their shared dreams and struggles.

Protesta on Broadway against the portrayal of Vietnamese people in “Miss Saigon”, (1991)

In 1975, Lee took a snapshot of a bloody Peter Yew being dragged away by police. The police beat him after he tried to stop them from assaulting a teenager involved in a minor traffic accident. 

The photo ran on the front page of the New York Post, and thousands of Chinatown residents took to the streets in protest as a result. 

Chinatown, (1975)

A protest in Chinatown post-Peter Yew beating,(1975)

Lee appeared at almost every key political event in Asian American history. He aimed to use his photography ‘like a sword’ to fight against injustice and discrimination. 

Lee worked as the unofficial documentarian for the founders of Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE). When AAFE gathered the Chinatown community to fight for worker rights in 1974, Lee was there to capture it.

Confucius Plaza, (1974)

Even with his stunning portfolio, Lee fought to have Asian faces featured in established publications. At the his exhibition in the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles, he said, 

“It was hard to get the images into the papers sometimes, and I would have to explain why these events and these people were important.”

Protest in support of Kaity Tong, a Chinese American news anchor, after she was fired from WABC-TV, (1991)

Lee’s images represent the importance and worth of Asian Americans in American history. 

Lee’s photography is one of the only records of Chinatown during the peak of its activism. It stands as a reminder of the power behind Asian American voices

Virginia Yu in Chinatown during the Hunger Strike for Labor Rights, (1995)

These photographs aimed to bring Asian Americans into focus as a part of American society. 

Lee emphasized the powerful relationship between photography and historical memory. When people are able to see themselves in the past, they are empowered to change the future.

Lily Chin, the first Chinese woman to drive a New York City cab, in Chinatown, (1983) 

We thank Corky Lee for his amazing work for the preservation of Asian American history. 

Corky Lee directing the reenacted Promontory Summit photo with direct descendants of Chinese railroad workers, (2014)

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Emma Federer

Emma Federer is a wacky screenwriter that uses her voice to celebrate of all things Asian: from C-pop to female stand-ups to the heart-warming experiences of queer Asian Americans.
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