HomeBad Ass AsiansPhotographer & legend Corky Lee dies of COVID-19

Photographer & legend Corky Lee dies of COVID-19

Corky Lee in front of one of his photos at a recent photo exhibit in New York City. Photo by Shirley Ng

By Louis Chan, AsAmNews National Correspondent

Corky Lee, the highly regarded self-proclaimed unofficial Asian American photo laureate, died of COVID-19 this morning after 20 days in the hospital and two stints in the ICU, his friends and family announced this evening.

Anyone else who gave themselves that title would be regarded as pompous and self-centered. Not Corky. The 73 year old gave so much of himself to New York Chinatown and the Asian American community nationwide, no one questioned it.

Lee died at 1:30 this morning at  Long Island Jewish Hospital. As people woke up to the news, an outpouring of affection for him could be seen on social media.

AsAmNews, at the request of the family through a mutual friend, held back reporting on his death to allow those closest to him to make this official announcement:

“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Corky (Young Kwok) Lee. Corky, as he was known to the Asian American community, was everywhere. He always had a camera around his neck, documenting a community event, capturing a social injustice for the record and even correcting the social injustice of an historical event that took place well over a century ago. He did what he loved and we loved him for it.

“Corky’s had a very unique lens. His passion was to rediscover, document and champion through his images the plight of all Americans but most especially that of Asian and Pacific Islanders. Through his 50 years as a photojournalist he covered anti-Vietnam protests in the U.S, racism, police brutality, fair labor practices, fair housing, ethnic studies and the political and social issues impacting the AAPI community. His most
recent focus was directed toward the racially motivated attacks directed against of Asian Americans and the community because of the pandemic and the impact of gentrification on the Lower East Side communities in New York. He has left us with what is likely to be the single largest repository of the photographic history of Asian Americans of the past half century.

“Corky was the eldest son and second child born to Chinese immigrants, Lee Yin Chuck and Jung See Lee. He was proud of his immigrant roots and of his father’s military service during WWII that Corky advocated for the Chinese American WWII Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Act which was passed into public law December 20,2018. Corky was the first child in his family to be born in the United States to attend and graduate from College.”

The arrest of a bloodied Chinese American during a police brutality protest at New York City in 1975.
The arrest of a bloodied Chinese American during a police brutality protest at New York City in 1975. This is the first photograph he ever sold. It made the front page of the New York Post. By Corky Lee

Corky supported all things Asian American. He devoted so much of his time to others, including AsAmNews. This reporter recalls meeting him for the first time at an Asian American Journalists Association Convention. Still wait behind the ears, I wandered aimlessly around the convention floor.

Everywhere I turned, there was Corky snapping a photo of me. When I finally asked him what the heck he was doing, he just laughed. Then he pointed his camera right at me and set off his shutter in rapid fire as the paparazzi might do to a celebrity.

I still don’t know what he ever did with those pictures. He probably burned them when he discovered how unphotogenic I was.

In the early days of AsAmNews, when our following could be measured by the handful, we could count Corky as our biggest supporter. He constantly commented on and reposted our stories. Getting a seal of approval from Mr. Lee no doubt set us on the right path.

To his last day, he religiously did whatever he could to support our benevolent venture.

On December 27th, just more than a week before he entered the hospital, Lee photographed and wrote about an event put on by the Guardian Angels in New York to ask for the public’s help in apprehending six suspects accused of beating an Asian woman on a New York train after screaming “She’s Chinese. She’s got the coronavirus.”

Sara Chin of the Guardian Angels
Sara Chin. Photo by Corky Lee
Photo by Corky Lee. Guardian Angels Curtis Sliwa puts up poster in hopes of finding the culprit who attacked an Asian woman on a New York Subway

These photos posted on AsAmNews could very well have been the last photographs taken and ever published from Corky.

How he treated AsAmNews is not unusual. Countless other people and community organizations have similar stories about him.

I’m so glad I let him know how I felt about him. His last public post on Facebook featured two photos of the flowers AsAmNews sent him in the hospital. It received more than 700 likes.

Corky is survived by brother John from Carlsbad, CA with his wife Barbara and their two daughters Jade and Jasmine. The surviving extended family includes sisters-in-law and their children as well as his elder sister’s husband and their children. A private service will be held at Wah Wing Sang Funeral Home in New York in the coming days. In lieu of flowers, donations in Corky’s memory can be made to the Asian American Journalist
Association (AAJA) Photog Affinity Group, www.aaja.org.

AsAmNews has Asian America in its heart. We’re an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. Check out our new Instagram account. Go to our Twitter feed and Facebook page for more content. Please consider interning, joining our staff, or making a financial contribution to support us.


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