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Corky Lee remembered by 400 in online memorial, photos

  • By Louis Chan, AsAmNews National Correspondent
  • Photo essay by Ellen Lee, AsAmNews Senior Editor

RIP, Corky Lee.

More than 400 people attended a virtual memorial service Friday evening to honor a hero in the Asian American community, Corky Lee.

Known for living a life of photographic justice, Lee documented the Asian American Pacific Islander community for five decades through pictures before his passing from COVID-19 on January 27.

“Corky Lee brought us all tonight together. Not with his camera, but with his passion that has lived with us. This is not just a memorial. It’s remembering Corky Lee,” said Potri Ranka Manis of Kinding Sindaw, a Filipino Folk Dance group who emceed the tribute.

More than one person at the service organized by La Mama Experimental Theatre fondly recalled Lee’s photograph recreating the historic 2014 photo commemorating the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Lee’s photo showcased all that were omitted from the original, the thousands of Chinese Americans who built that railroad. This time he included descendants of those railroad builders who finally got the recognition they deserved 145 years late.

In 2014, Utah, 145th anniversary of the first Transcontinental Railroad, the act of Photographic Justice at Promontory Summit, by Corky Lee.
By Corky Lee, taken 2014 at Promontory Point, Utah.

Lee may have been known for his photographs, but he loved the arts and many of those who spoke came from the art and theatre community. Lee founded the Asian American Arts Alliance four decades ago.

“We continue Corky’s work in representation. He was a founder, mentor, and truth seeker to thousands. Corky’s tenacity and commitment to photographic justice will serve as a model to Asian American activists,” said Lisa Gold, Executive Director of the Asian American Arts Alliance.

Lee’s long time partner and best friend, Karen Zhou, tearfully expressed her thanks to all those in attendance and all those who have reached out to her.

“We love Corky very much,” said Zhou. “His work was about bringing Asian Pacific America to the mainstream consciousness. That’s what he did . We lost our community hero and friend. This is hard.”

Just as Lee did, Zhou has also volunteered and taken photos for AsAmNews.

Many expressed hopes that a street could be named after Lee in Queens. Some even pushed for a statue of him in Chinatown and others suggested a photo award should be named for him.

State Senator John Liu (D-NY) pledged that he would help make the renaming of a street to honor Lee happen.

“I don’t remember a time there hasn’t been Corky Lee around,” said Liu. “Whatever’s happening, Corky Lee was there. He chronicled events in the Asian American community in New York and beyond when no one was around. If not for Corky Lee, much of our history would have been unnoticed and forgotten. Corky leaves such an incredible legacy.”

Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY) called Lee “an institution” who captured the “contributions and struggles of the Asian American community.”

“This loss is a sudden and heavy one,” said Malaika Queano, who has known Lee since birth. “Corky is one of those people I always thought would be there. He represents everything about our community-strength, courage, justice generosity, love. He’ll forever be etched in our hearts like his photographs.”

People who paid tribute to Lee came from diverse segments of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, including the South Asian community, the journalism world and Native American community, to just name a few.

Glenn Magpantay, an LGBTQ Filipino American activist, is Executive Director of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance. He tearfully regretted not being able to carry out his dream with Lee.

“I run a gay Asian organization. We had planned out a whole exhibition, because he had the biggest photo collection of LGBTQ Asians and I really wanted to show it and he f*cking passed and died. I miss Corky so much and I’m so grateful. Thank you.”

A private funeral will be held on Saturday in New York. However, the public can pay tribute to Lee when his casket is driven past some of his favorite spots in Chinatown.

The procession begins at 10 a.m. Stops include:

  • 70 Mulberry Street, the site of a former school house that was the home of several non-profits before fire destroyed it.
  • The American Legion Post 1291
  • 54 Elizabeth Street, home of the Basement Workshop
  • Bayard & Elizabeth Streets
  • Confucius Plaza
  • 21 Pell Street
  • Kimlau Square
  • 22 Catherine Street
  • 99 Madison Street

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