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How Corky Lee changed a student’s life

Photo by Ben Chan

By Ben Chan

I had no idea who Corky Lee was on the 2005 cold winter day that he photographed me at a protest outside of New York City’s Hot 97 radio station. He approached me, told me liked my “I Am NOT The Chinese Food Delivery Boy” shirt, and asked to photograph me. Then he told me his name. I went home, looked him up, and realized that I had been staring at his photographs in my Asian American studies courses. So I wrote him a letter, because he didn’t have email or a cellphone back then. I was studying Asian American history at Hunter College, and I just wanted him to know how much I appreciated him for preserving history that otherwise would have been lost.

I never expected Corky to reply to the letter. I was flabbergasted when he sent me a reply letter with the photo he took of me, and he told me to go to the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY)’s annual gala where Dale Minami was going to speak. If you don’t know who Dale Minami is, you should look him up like I had to do back then.

Corky included his number in his reply, so I called him. I told him that I was a student at Hunter College that couldn’t afford a ticket to the dinner. He instructed me to show up wearing a suit and carrying a notepad and tell the person working the door that I was covering the event for Hunter College’s newspaper.

“If they give you trouble, just tell them that you’re with Corky.” I didn’t own a suit, so I had to go in a sports jacket and slacks. The dinner was at the Waldorf-Astoria, a very fancy hotel that I’d never stepped foot inside previously. I was astonished when the line about being a reporter for my school paper actually worked. Then I had to find a seat, but I hadn’t been assigned one because I had crashed. I found Corky, and even though he was busy photographing the event, he took me to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)’s table, introduced me as the guy who wore the “I Am Not The Chinese Food Delivery Boy” t-shirt at the protest, and procured a seat for me at their table.

I was awe-struck as I’d never ever been around so many well-dressed, accomplished Asian Americans. Even though the AALDEF folks were very kind, I couldn’t escape feeling like an imposter, which I was. Even if I was actually a student reporter for Hunter College’s newspaper, I would have felt intimidated. After the dessert was served I found Corky and thanked him, assuming that we were about to part ways.

Corky had other ideas. He took me to the afterparty at the hotel bar, the Bull & Bear. Once we arrived, instead of sitting down and decompressing after hours of running around the ballroom photographing people, Corky took me around the bar, introducing me to people by telling them about the “I Am Not The Chinese Food Delivery Boy” t-shirt.

Corky Lee, the undisputed official Asian American Photographer Laureate, was playing the wingman role for a college student he’d met barely two weeks ago. There was a large group of attorneys gathered around Dale Minami, who was holding court, and Corky made sure that I got in front of the line where he told Dale about my t-shirt. Dale laughed, shook my hand, and then we had a long conversation. We talked about the time he represented an Asian American Black Panther and segued into a discussion about how he dealt with time and juggling competing priorities as he got older. He was so generous with his time.

Earlier that night, I noticed that one of the lawyers at the dinner walked in wearing a cowboy hat. I’d only seen Asian people wearing cowboy hats in movies that were not set in New York City. I spotted the cowboy hat lawyer at the Bull & Bear, and asked Corky who he was. “That’s Chris Chan, past president of the Asian Bar”, Corky responded. Then he took me over to Chris and introduced me to him by telling Chris about my t-shirt. Chris was about to leave because he was giving some of the other lawyers a ride home in his car, so he handed me his business card. One of the lawyers in the group, Veronica Jung, had also attended the protest, and also gave me her card. 

I did get in touch with Veronica and Chris, who took me under their wings and gave me an education of how to be a community organizer. In the span of about two months, I went from being a solo attendee at a protest to being the internal communications person for the coalition that formed as a result of the protest. That wouldn’t have happened without Veronica and Chris. Once I became the communications person, Chris asked me to meet him in downtown Manhattan one morning. He proceeded to take me shopping for my first business proper suit, my college graduation gift. Seven years later, I donated one of my kidneys to Chris.

Corky Lee (2nd from left) is seen with Ben Chan at Ben’s wedding (third from Left)

A couple of years after that night at the Waldorf-Astoria, I decided to attend law school. I went from crashing AABANY’s gala to serving as AABANY’s first student liaison, which meant coordinating student volunteers, and working the door at the gala. I always took on a lot more student volunteers than were actually needed for the gala. In addition to collecting their names and schools during volunteer registration, I also asked students to list the area(s) of law they were interested in, because if I knew that there was going to be an empty seat at a particular firm’s table, I put a student interested in the firm’s area of law at that table. I made sure that the students knew that they could and should attend the afterparty, and I did my best to help them navigate the room. 

At that time, I was also volunteering at a college prep program where I took on two high school interns, Brian and Darrell. Brian and Darrell helped me with production of Fight City NY, my weekly boxing and MMA television show that aired on Manhattan’s public access network. I couldn’t pay them, so I’d invited them to AABANY student outreach events to expose them to new experiences, new settings, and foods they’d never tried before. So you’d have Asian American attorneys and law students, and Ben with his Puerto Rican and Haitian high school interns. 

In addition to working the door and supervising the law student volunteers at the gala, I made sure that Corky had an assigned seat. Usually, he’d have to wait until everyone else sat down to hunt for an empty seat. Since I had the seating chart ahead of the event, I already knew which seats were empty. It was not a coincidence that we usually ended up at the same table. One of the things Corky told me was that he’d be so busy taking photographs at events that the waitstaff would take away his plate before he had a chance to eat dinner, so I made it my job to guard his food. The galas were a lot of work, some of it hectic, but I always looked forward to sitting down to eat with Corky.

12 years after I met him, Corky gifted me a framed version of his photograph of the descendants of the Chinese laborers that built the transcontinental railroad posing at Promontory Summit. The original Chinese laborers were banned from the original 1869 photo celebrating the completion of America’s Transcontinental Railroad, so Corky spent years tracking down their descendants to correct the wrong. I was so enamored by this piece of photographic justice that I didn’t notice that there was a red envelope containing money taped to the back of the frame until more than three years later.

Years later I reminded Corky that he played a large role in the series of events that culminated in me donating one of my kidneys to Chris. That wasn’t the only time Corky was my wingman. He liked retelling the story about my t-shirt, but what he really loved was bringing me in and making me feel like I belonged. Corky was universally loved in the Asian American community, which is a rarity. He used his reputation not to elevate himself, or to reap material profit, but to share spaces he had access to by bringing others in. Corky didn’t just document Asian American communities, he helped them grow by bringing in strays like me. I didn’t grow up in one of NYC’s Chinatowns, and English is my first language, so when I was around other Chinese Americans, I felt like an imposter. Corky Lee accepted me and opened doors for me. I will always be grateful to him for that, and try to carry on his legacy by opening doors for others.

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  1. I was never lucky enough to meet Corky but really appreciate this very heart-warming insight into a remarkable person. I did go to high school with Dale Minami though who is a remarkable man in his own right…. thank you for sharing.

  2. I loved reading this and salute all those who have carried on the struggle. What Ben is describing is the “butterfly effect.”


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