HomeAsian Americans'Corky Lee's Asian America' showcases AAPI social justice history

‘Corky Lee’s Asian America’ showcases AAPI social justice history

by Matthew Yoshimoto, AsAmNews Intern

One month from now, a dream of the late Corky Lee, a “beloved” figure and photographer in the Asian American community who passed away from COVID-19 in 2021, will come true.

April 9 is the release date of the photographer’s book Corky Lee’s Asian America, edited by Chee Wang Ng and Mae Ngai.

The book is the first of its kind with it “ambitiously presenting not only an iconic photographer’s work but a sweeping, rich visual account of the AAPI social justice movement,” said Natalie Yera-Campbell, associate publicist at Clarkson Potter & Ten Speed Press, in an email to AsAmNews. 

“Corky is so beloved in our community,” said Mae Ngai, one of the book’s editors and Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and professor of history at Columbia University, in an email to AsAmNews. “He loved to share the stories that were captured in his photos but he was also a modest and unassuming, everyday kind of guy. And he was always there, at every event, big or small […] His slogan was to break racial stereotypes, one photograph at a time.”

Ngai said Lee took photos in hopes of spreading awareness of the “realities of Asian American communities,” memorializing everyday struggles and the history of social justice movements. 

Before Lee passed, Ngai explained he had long hoped to self-publish a book. In 2011, Lee chose 100 of his best photos and started compiling them into a collection titled “Not on the Menu.” However, he was never able to complete the project. 

Months after Lee passed away in 2021, an Asian American editor at Penguin Random House talked with Lee’s sole surviving sibling and executor of Corky’s estate, John Lee, who proposed publishing a book documenting Lee’s work. For this book deal, Ngai said they used the original 100 photos that Lee selected for his original book idea as well as other images that Corky considered to be his best work.

“Young Asian Americans are really inspired by Corky,” Ngai said in the email with AsAmNews. “They come up against the model minority stereotype all the time. Corky proudly said he was not a model minority and his photos further cut against that stereotype.”

Ngai shared that the book is organized chronologically, which she believes allows readers to understand the history of the Asian American community’s growth and diversity in relation to growing social justice movements. 

Each photograph in the book is accompanied by short essays that provide the historical and social context. 

Noting that a Los Angeles teacher once used Lee’s photographs as inspiration for her art class and Curtis Chin’s short film Dear Corky intrigued college students across the country, Ngai believes that audiences will learn a lot about Asian American history and feel “inspired” after reading the book. 

“It’s rare for anyone to document a community for fifty continuous years,” Ngai said in the email with AsAmNews. “This was an amazing feat, and we should remember that much of it was a labor of love, not paid work. The book shows the evolution of Asian American community life and social justice struggles over the course of decades, from the waning days of ‘sojourner’ (老 华侨) Chinatown to the “new” immigrations after 1965 and to the present. The book is about us.”

The book will be on a national book launch tour this April and May, and more details can be found at www.corkylee.org.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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