Corky Lee the Unofficial Historian of NYC’s Chinatown and beyond

Corky Lee, a chronicler of Asian culture in Chinatown and nationwide, has succumbed to COVID-19.  Lee put Asians back in the historical picture of American life. He was a great friend to FIT faculty and students, introducing them to chronicling Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Corky Lee

“Corky Lee was the unofficial historian of Chinatown and Asian life throughout New York City and beyond. He led the way. He documented living and working in the Chinese community: factory life, protests, police abuse, Asian-American veterans, the many cultural events. He documented the immigrant experience. I am a part of that. His work is all about people like me. He was a mentor to so many people including me,” says Prof. Kam Mak.

Corky Lee and Prof. Kam Mak

One of Lee’s celebrated photos recreated the Golden Spike Ceremony marking the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. The Chinese workers who laid the tracks were excluded from the original photo. Lee’s recreation featured 400 of their direct descendants. He referred to it as “photographic justice.” Since his passing, many on social media have said: “He helped us see ourselves.”

Lee’s photos are among the few that chronicled Chinatown events and everyday life 50 years ago. He continued photographing until shortly before he died at age 73. “Don’t get hooked on photography unless you’re willing to make tremendous sacrifices,” he once said.

Corky Lee with FIT students

“Corky and I we always ran into each on the streets in Chinatown,” said Photography Professor Curtis Willocks who frequently brought students to photograph there.

“The last image I have of Corky Lee — I was with my students at a gallery on Broadway in Chinatown. Corky was there.  He took them on a grand tour and engaged them. That was him, all about sharing, education and enlightening.”

To learn more about Asian-American life in NYC go to:

Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), located at 215 Centre Street. MOCA is a national home for the narratives of diverse Chinese-American communities. The Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) is part of a national non-profit civil rights organization promoting and protecting the political, economic, and cultural rights of Asian Pacific Americans in America. The Asian-American Journalists Association works to ensure fair and accurate coverage of communities of color.

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