By Patricia Kaowthumrong | Asian Avenue magazine
A photograph commemorating the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 inspired Corky Lee to get behind the lens of a camera. However, the Chinese-American photographer, who has been documenting Asian-American culture for more than 43 years, was not captivated by the ingredients of the photograph, but essentially what was missing from the photograph: Chinese workers.
Lee learned in junior high school that a crew of 10,000 to 12,000 Chinese laborers helped build the Transcontinental Railroad, but no Chinese workers are included in the famous photograph featured in social studies text books taken at Promontory Point, Utah.
“I saw a certain amount of ethnic pride that (the Chinese) had done something to contribute to the development of this country, but in the photograph, there is no evidence that they helped completed it,” says Lee, who has dedicated his life to making Asian-Pacific Americans more visible. “When someone looks at what’s in the public eye—basically TV, movies, current events and even journalism—they don’t see the diversity of inclusion in America.”
From capturing political injustices and activism, to cultural events and milestones, Lee’s portfolio offers an intimate look at the history of Asian-Pacific Islanders in the U.S.
An art exhibit showcasing his photographs called “Eyewitness to Asian-American Activism” will be featured from March 5-27 at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus Health Library.
Lee, a native New Yorker born in Queens, was born Lee Quoork. The family’s last name, “Quoork,” was purchased as a “paper son” by Lee’s father (Yin Chuck) when he entered the U.S. in 1929. Yin Chuck was able to convince the immigration officials that he was a legitimate American-born citizen by birth, Lee says.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented the immigration of Lee’s father and other Chinese until the end of World War II. However, during the World War II, Lee’s father was drafted into service as an arc welder and was part of the renowned Flying Tigers, an American volunteer group hired by the Republic of China to down Japanese war planes prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. That unit was renamed the 13th Army Air Corps when the US declared war on Japan, Germany and Italy, but was decommissioned in 1947, according to Lee.
Lee’s mother (Jung Shee) entered the U.S. as a war bride and became naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1960.
“My heritage has a lot of bearing on historical fact,” Lee says.
Lee studied American history at Queens College in 1965 and became a community organizer for Two Bridges Neighborhood in Chinatown in 1971. In the early 1970s, he started taking photographs with a borrowed camera and helped found the Asian Media Collective, The New York Times reported. While pursuing his passion for photography, Lee also worked full-time for nearly 30 years at a printing company in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Lee’s photojournalistic talent made the front page of the The New York Post in 1975. His photo of a middle-aged Chinese-American who had been beaten and was being hauled away by the police fueled a protest against police brutality. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Lee captured images of Pacific Asians and South Asians protesting racial profiling and terrorism; one of the photos earned him as award from the New York Press Association.
Lee says that a lot of his photographs continue the heritage of Asian Americans from their mother countries; he likes juxtaposing Asian-Pacific subjects with things that are quintessentially American. But when asked about his greatest achievement or the subjects he photographs best, Lee says the jury is still out.
“I’ve been told pretty consistently that I photograph children really well in candid moments, but I tend to disagree,” Lee says. “My money would be on empowering our mental portraiture of Asian Americans in events that illustrate civil rights and activism among Asian-Pacific Americans.”
However, Lee is proud to have his photographs featured by organizations such as Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the New-York Historical Society, which will feature his images in an exhibit highlighting “Chinese in America.”
Lee, who also is a founding member of the Asian American Journalism Association (AAJA), received the organization’s Dr. Suzanne Ahn Award for Civil Rights and Social Justice in 2009.
Lee’s upcoming projects include traveling to Denver to set up and lecture at his exhibit and rounding up 145 Asian Americans to pose in May for a reenactment of the image that inspired him to become a photographer. May 10, 2014 will mark the 145th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and Lee hopes to recruit as many people from across the country as possible to gather at Golden Spike National Park in Utah, where the original photo was taken.
Lee’s enthusiasm for Asian-American history also is evident in his extensive knowledge of the subject. From the origin of treats such as Sriracha and fortune cookies, to the experiences of World War II veterans, Lee is a valuable source for insight behind Asian-American heritage.
His others interests include enjoying Thai and Vietnamese cuisine and following Asian-Pacific Americans in sports like Jeremy Lin and Manny Pacquiao.
“These individuals help bring Asian-Pacific Americans to the forefront of acceptance in America, because everyone remembers sports heroes,” Lee says.
“Sports has a really big influence on how people think. This is very different than actors and actresses in movies or on TV, because somebody can write a script for you, but nobody can write a script for you in the heat of a critical moment in sports. I get a big kick seeing Asian Americans do well.”
Corky Lee: Eyewitness to Asian American Activism
March 5 – 27
Anschutz Medical Campus Health Library
12950 E Montview Blvd | Aurora, Colorado 80045
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights law, CU Denver Asian American Student Services and partners are showcasing the contributions of Asian Americans in the struggle for civil rights with Corky Lee’s exhibit. His body of work expands 40 years and chronicles the diversity and nuances of Asian American life that is not often included in mainstream media.