On September 5, 1947, a Chinese immigrant couple, Lee Yin Chuck (father) and Jung Ping Hung (mother) greeted their first American-born son to their home in Hollis N.Y., a suburb of New York City. The proud parents named the child, Lee Young Kok in Chinese but his NYC issued birth certificate bore the ‘paper name’ Lee Young Quoork, using the father’s (Lee Yin Chuck) surname. In what was to prove prophetic, the name bestowed the child translates to “praiseworthy of the nation.” Under the name, Lee Quoork was enrolled in the NYC public school system, and he was eventually given the nickname of “Corky.” The family grew to include three more sons and by 1960 settled in Jamaica, NY where the family’s livelihood rested upon a family operated laundry business where all the boys pitched in to help prosper.
Corky was a product of the NY City public school system and eventually attended Queens College where he majored in History. His adolescent years were shaped by the turbulent social and political climate of the 1960s during which U.S. society was being confronted on issues ranging from the Cold War, rock n roll, civil rights, and the inexorable opposition to the American war in Southeast Asia. As the eldest son of a WW2 military veteran and war refugee the specter of the military draft to fight the expanding war in Vietnam was of particular concern to the family as all four boys were draft eligible by 1969. As the temperature of social and political disenchantment grew, Corky concluded he could not support or participate in a meaningless war and applied for re-classification as a conscientious objector. He was accepted as a VISTA volunteer in 1969 for a two-year stint to serve poor communities of the Lower East Side in NY through the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, a social service agency with an office in NY Chinatown.
Corky selected photography as his “sword” to document and challenge social, economic, and racial inequities impacting the Asian-American communities. Through his work as a housing advocate, he came into daily contact with the social & political injustices in the Chinese immigrant community and began photographing examples of society’s ills. Over the succeeding five decades, Corky became a fixture at every Asian American event in the New York metropolitan area. He attended countless Chinese, Japanese, Korean, South & Southeast Asian, and Filipino cultural and political events with an eye and camera that recorded not only events but also the inherent humanity and passions of his subjects. His passion for photojournalism eventually resulted in a collection that recorded the birth and growth of the AAPI movement and the expansion of AAPI diaspora communities throughout the United States. It came to be said that no event was complete without having Corky and his camera in attendance & acquiring in the process, Corky’s self-styled, tongue in cheek, sobriquet as the “Undisputed, Unofficial, Asian-American photographer laureate.”
Corky considered the reenactment of the completion of the 1868 transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, Utah in 2014 to be his greatest achievement. The event corrected the historical injustice of ignoring the Asian-American contribution to the nation’s history from which they had been excluded. In doing so, he brought together descendants of the Chinese laborers without whom the railroad that finally connected both coasts of the American nation could not be completed. Corky’s efforts gave the descendants’ forbearers the recognition denied them for over a century.
Corky’s many achievements included advocating for and creating a Chinese language voting ballot that increased Chinese American electoral participation in New York City. Participation that eventually led to the election of Asian-American candidates in local, state, and federal elective office. He lobbied with other AAPI activists for Congressional gold medals for the 25,000 plus Chinese American World War2 military veterans (which was posthumously awarded to our father in 2021 and accepted by his surviving son in 2021). He also documented the campaign to seek a day of remembrance for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2. His photography was instrumental in chronicling struggles for health care, employment abuses, police brutality as well as innumerable photographic recordings of the cultural, political, and economic lives and struggles of AAPI communities.
Corky described his life mission as a campaign to “Change America one photograph at a time,” to correct historical inaccuracies, fight stereotypes, injustice & celebrate the everyday struggles and accomplishments of AAPI communities”. He was engaged in that mission when he contracted Covid while documenting the “Guardian Angels” in a campaign against the rising tide of anti-Asian assaults resulting from presidential hubris, misinformation, and race baiting.
Tragically, we lost Corky to complications due to COVID infection on January 27, 2021. His memory and his work will live on, as a living and active legacy to inspire and guide not only for the AAPI community but all the communities that make up the American mosaic. Forever, the first “Undisputed, Unofficial, Asian-American photographer laureate.”
THE ESTATE OF CORKY LEE
JOHN J. LEE, ADMINISTRATOR & EXECUTOR