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What Corky Lee Taught Me

He showed me that our people’s history
is part of the American story

Corky Lee was a ubiquitous presence at almost every Asian American event. His years of documenting our community’s experience through his camera made him a walking encyclopedia of Asian American events. “Corkipedia, as some call him,” writes An Rong Xu.

This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we pay tribute to Corky, who passed away in January last year, for his decades of perseverance and work to not only document the day-to-day lives of Asian Americans, but also to correct American history that left out Asian-Americans.


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Photo by An Rong Xu Corky Lee

His business card said,
I shadowed Corky for the greater part of a year.
Watching him work, trying to understand what it meant to be
an Asian American in this country.
He was at a different event every week,
In that year, I learned from Corky.
When Corky walked into the scene,
he had this swagger,
he walked with purpose, and you knew what he was there to do.

In the winter, he’d wear his leather jacket,
with his custom leather gloves,
which were made by an Asian American glove maker in the Bronx.
In the summer, he’d have a Hawaiian shirt, or a tank top if it got hot enough,
And always with his Tenba photo bag, slung on his back,
And he’d proudly tell me, that the word Tenba was Tibetan
for strong, unshakeable, and reliable.
That’s how I’d describe Corky.

Photo by Corky Lee “Is that you?” Corky asked Xu, pointing at a seven-year-old in a photo that he (Corky) took more than a decade earlier. Xu said, “Holy shit, that is me.”

Corky, was the Uncle of Asian America.
And by Uncle I mean,
he wasn’t really related to you,
but everyone knew him, loved him, and respected him,
so we’d given him the honorific of

When Corky picked up his camera,
he’d look through his viewfinder and grit his teeth,
ready for a battle, to use his camera as a sword,
to slice through racism and inequality,
in the pursuit of photographic justice.
Then a moment later,
with the camera still up to his eye
he’d purse his lips,
as if he were giving the community a big chef’s kiss.


Corky’s work showed love to the Asian American community,
and reminded us we mattered.
When Corky showed up, everyone wanted to greet him.
They wanted to tell Corky about their cause, events,
and wanted to know if he could show up.
They saw Corky as a beacon of light, truth, and justice.
He’d give everyone time and listen to them, talk to them,
and by the end of the night,
he’d look at me and say,
“ It ain’t easy being Corky Lee.”

Photo by An Rong Xu Corky Lee: “It ain’t easy being Corky Lee.”

Corky was a walking encyclopedia of the Asian American experience.
Corkipedia, as some call him.
He carried in him the hundreds of years of our stories,
and he’d let you know, every chance he had.
When the 4 x 6 prints came out, you would know
about the Sikh Day Parade on 5th Avenue,
the Obon festival in Seabrook, New Jersey,
the Filipino World War II veterans fighting for their veterans benefits,
Connie King’s Toilet Garden in Locke, California,
Basement Workshop,
Chris Iijima, Nobuko Miyamoto, Charlie Chin,
the Bing Cherry.
And that was only the first conversation.

An Rong Xu

Corky would let us know why this event, and why this person and these peoples,
our peoples were significant.
He showed me that our people’s history
is a part of the American story,
He saw that our history must be recorded,
must be told,
Because if we don’t, who will?
He taught me that showing up is half the battle.
He was not, as he would say, a Sunshine Patriot.
Rain, Sleet, or Snow, wouldn’t stop Corky Lee.
Corky’s life was devoted to the people,
down to till his last breath.
Corky taught me
to pursue this path is often a lonely one,
so appreciate the people who show up for you,
stand up for you,
and got your back.