Activist and photojournalist Corky Lee holds a camera, ready to take a photo, against an orange backdrop with black and white photos framed in white.

442: Corky Lee was the undisputed, unofficial photographer laureate for Asian America

The late activist and photojournalist used his work to chronicle the AA+PI community and record our history over the course of 50 years

Corky Lee spent 50 years chronicling the AA+PI community through his photography.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

Have a historical tidbit you’d like to share? Let us know!

AA+PIs have a long history in the United States that dates back centuries, and have made lasting contributions to this country.

From establishing birthright citizenship, to decolonizing colleges’ and universities’ largely eurocentric academic landscapes alongside other minority groups, AA+PIs have impacted American society and the lives of millions beyond our community.

Despite this, our accomplishments have often been excluded from the history books.

A young Asian Man holds signs demanding ethnic studies, surrounded by other young people of different races.

In 1996, students at Columbia University demanded an ethnic studies program, including Asian American and Latino studies.

Reprinted with permission from "Corky Lee's Asian America: Fifty Years of Photographic Justice"

Activist and photojournalist Corky Lee (1947-2021) spent five decades addressing these injustices. A new book, Corky Lee’s Asian America, which was published April 9, chronicles his quest for photographic justice, up until his death in 2021 from COVID-19. The book is a 50-year continuous record of the Asian American movement and features about 250 photos, distilled from the hundreds of thousands of photos Lee took over the course of half a century.

As the “Undisputed, Unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate,” (according to his business card), Lee devoted his life to chronicling the AA+PI community. His aim was to break stereotypes that we are docile, passive, and foreign to the United States. Whether it was a large community event, or people going about their everyday lives, Lee’s photos showcase both the “Asian” and “American” sides of our community.

An Asian American woman in a white and blue Japanese kimono holds her arms out, with lanterns and other women dressed similarly in the background.

A celebrant in 2007 at the Seabrook Buddhist Temple's annual Obon Festival in Seabrook, New Jersey.

Reprinted with permission from "Corky Lee's Asian America: Fifty Years of Photographic Justice"

Correcting the narrative

Born in New York just four years after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, Lee was named Lee Young Kok in Chinese, but his birth certificate bore his family’s paper name, Lee Young Quoork. This was how he got his nickname, “Corky,” at school. Lee grew up in Jamaica, New York. His family operated a laundry business, and Lee and his three brothers all worked in the family business.

Lee’s career as an activist and photographer began in 1970 when he worked in social services at Two Bridges Neighborhood Council—just east of Chinatown in New York, where BIPOC residents lived in run-down tenements. His work included organizing rent strikes and taking photos (with a borrowed camera) to document residents’ living conditions. Lee’s photos were initially used in slideshows to educate and organize, but soon, he could be seen at crime scenes, protests and demonstrations, and more. One of his most famous photos was from May 12, 1975. It shows a bloodied Chinese American man being dragged away by police during a demonstration—which was a response to the arrest and beating of Chinese American Peter Yew the previous month. The photo was published in the New York Post that same day in the newspaper’s afternoon edition.

Two Asian American women hold signs in English and Chinese writing, in black and white.

Two women protesting against police brutality in 1975. The sign in Chinese read, "Down with racist oppression/Justice for Peter Yew now/Unite and fight to victory."

Reprinted with permission from "Corky Lee's Asian America: Fifty Years of Photographic Justice"

“Corky was one of those people that showed up everywhere,” says Mae Ngai, an editor for Lee’s book, describing Lee as “tireless.” She adds that no matter the size of an event, if Lee was there, it was important because he was chronicling it. And more often than not, he would be doing it gratis. He occasionally sold his photos as a freelancer, but Ngai says Lee’s work was mostly a labor of love. His day job was as an account executive at a minority-owned print shop, where he worked from 1983-2011.

Ngai met Lee in the early 1970s in New York’s Chinatown. The Asian American movement was just beginning to explode and they were both radical activists looking to make “good trouble,” as she describes it. Ngai says Lee saw storytelling as a way to change the narrative of history—specifically, one that had long erased Asian Americans.

A Sikh American man stands with an American flag wrapped around his shoulders, with more Sikh men and a young Sikh woman in the background.

A candlelight vigil in New York's Central Park on Sept. 15, 2001.

Reprinted with permission from "Corky Lee's Asian America: Fifty Years of Photographic Justice"

Lee’s quintessential act of photographic justice—as Ngai says he described it—came in 2014 at Golden Spike National Historical Park in Promontory Summit, Utah. The site marks where the transcontinental railroad was completed in the 19th Century. Chinese workers played a large role in building the western half of the railroad but because of anti-Chinese racism at the time, they were intentionally excluded from the original photo from 1869, marking the occasion. On the 145th anniversary of the railroad’s completion, Lee brought together 250 Asian Americans, including direct descendants of railroad workers, for a reenactment of the original photo—this time rightfully including Asian Americans’ role in one of the greatest technological achievements of the time.

Lee worked up until the end of his life, photographing New York’s Chinatown through the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic—when the virus was at its most fatal. His last photos included portraits of people standing in front of their favorite then-closed restaurants, as well as folks demonstrating against the rise in violence the AA+PI community was facing at the time. He wanted to show how AA+PIs were victims of the pandemic, not the cause of it, Ngai says.

“They were among the last (photos) that he took,” she says.

An Asian American man in a black shirt holds a sign and wears a face mask that say "Hate is a virus."

Some of the last photographs Corky Lee took were of Asian Americans in 2020, protesting against the racist attacks during the coronavirus pandemic.

Reprinted with permission from "Corky Lee's Asian America: Fifty Years of Photographic Justice"

Published on April 9, 2024

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.

Art by Vivian Lai

Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.