Local Journalist Pays Tribute to Corky Lee

It is devastating that we had to add an iconic friend of the community to the staggering list of more than 440 thousand Americans who have died of COVID-19. Corky Lee, 73, passed away on Wednesday, January 27 after a brief battle with the unforgiving virus.

A Queens native, Young Kwok “Corky” Lee was a photojournalist, storyteller, activist, and champion of equality for Asian Americans. He documented the struggles and the triumphs of Asian Americans, not just in New York City, but across the country. His photographs shine a spotlight on the racial injustice that Asian Americans have endured and continue to endure, inviting everyone to include the Asian American experience in the bigger picture of this country’s history.

Lee was an integral part of helping a small group of Japanese Americans establish JAJA (Japanese Americans, Japanese in America), which has grown to become the social heartbeat of New York’s Japanese American community. One of JAJA’s founders, filmmaker Jennifer Takaki, is in the midst of producing the documentary Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story, compiling footage and interviews over the course of almost two decades.

Lee was at all of our events, documenting everything from New York Day of Remembrance, Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, to Obon celebrations. He was everywhere a story needed to be told. That there is now one fewer storyteller in our community is another painful reminder of the senseless casualties of the pandemic. Corky Lee did not deserve this fate; we do not deserve this loss.  

Lee’s friends and associates have flooded social media with touching messages and tributes. Major news outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, NPR, NBC, and CNN among many others recognized the invaluable contributions of this pioneering photojournalist.

One personal account embodies the spirit of Corky Lee and his determination to transmit the stories of Asian Americans to a wider audience. Heather Harlan is an independent journalist, reporting and producing stories for several Japanese news outlets. She has written a column for Shukan NY Seikatsu and is a consultant for Japan Intercultural Consulting. Harlan’s tribute to Corky Lee first appeared on social media on January 29; it is reprinted here with her permission.

– Susan McCormac

Corky Lee (front, right) chats with author and historian Daniel H. Inouye at the New York Day of Remembrance in 2013. Photo by Susan McCormac.

Tribute to Corky Lee

by Heather Harlan

I first met Corky Lee in 1996. I was in my mid-20s and had just left a job at the NY Bureau of Kyodo News, a Japanese wire service, where I had worked as a reporter for several years. Just before I left that position, I had started freelancing on the side for the Rafu Shimpo, the historic LA-based Japanese American newspaper. At a crossroads and unsure what exactly I wanted to do next in my career path, I decided to try full-time freelancing for a while. A mutual friend suggested I call Corky for help and advice.

I introduced myself and told him a little about my background. He immediately urged me to get in contact with AsianWeek, an English-language Asian American newspaper based in San Francisco and offered to introduce me to the editor. He suggested I offer to cover Chinatown and other NYC APA (Asian/Pacific American) communities for them because they didn’t currently have anyone regularly covering NY. Honestly, I hesitated. I had a background in Japan studies and working for Japanese media and spoke some Japanese, but . . .

“But, um, I’m not Asian American, is that . . . really . . . OK?” I asked.

He laughed, “Oh, if anyone ever questions it, just tell them your underwear is made in China!”

The editor was indeed happy to have someone to cover NY and, like Corky, didn’t care about my own personal ethnic background.

Only once did anyone question it. At a press conference we attended shortly after we started working together, I approached an Asian American city official for a quote and introduced myself as a reporter for AsianWeek. The woman looked at me, raised her eyebrows and said, “YOU work for ASIANWEEK, really?”

I took a deep breath and said with a smile, “Corky Lee told me to tell anyone who ever questioned that that I should tell them my underwear is made in China!” I motioned toward Corky, who was chatting with someone he knew nearby because he, of course, already knew everyone in the room. “Well then,” she said with a big laugh, “I guess it’s OK!”

Heather Harlan with Corky Lee. Photo by TK Nakagaki.

Chasing Stories

Soon we were running all over the city together several times a week chasing stories, most of which Corky gave me leads on. Many were hard news stories. There were labor strikes at Chinatown dim sum halls, a lawsuit filed by a civil rights organization in response to a discrimination incident at a Denny’s in upstate NY, a firebombing at the headquarters of a local workers’ rights organization. One day we would be at a Buddhist temple in a second-floor walk-up above a Grand Street souvenir store, interviewing an elderly person about their loss of SSI benefits after governmental cuts to the program; another day at City Hall, lobbing questions at then-Mayor Giuliani about his controversial ban on the traditional New Year’s fireworks in Chinatown; and a few hours later squeezing behind large vats of tofu at a shop on Canal Street to ask the owner what he thought about the ban.

In the evenings we would be at a Pan Asian Rep play, a reception at the Vivienne Tam boutique in SoHo, or a glamorous gala fundraiser at Windows on the World for an Asian American legal organization. Actually, we covered A LOT of fundraisers for APA groups, especially at Jing Fong and other dim sum restaurants where, in addition to feasting on the great variety of juicy stories throughout the week, we ate some really good food. Corky would introduce me to local community leaders at those events, several of whom became longtime friends.

He brought me to Asian American Journalists Association meetings, where yes, I was the only non-Asian in that room, yet everyone welcomed me anyway, so that I could be even more in tune with the beat we were covering.

Expanding the Scope

Corky also introduced me to editors at several other local English-language APA newspapers in other parts of the US and later The Villager, which covered downtown Manhattan. At that time, none were publishing on the internet yet, and since they were all in separate non-competing local markets, I realized we could sell the same stories to all of them. And some to the Japan Times as well, if it involved something Japan related. So, after a few months, we basically had our own de-facto syndication service up and running.

It worked because we were covering stories from communities that otherwise were not getting much coverage in major news outlets, or when they did, were often not getting covered with the depth they deserved.

I was happy because like any journalist, I wanted to cover stories that others weren’t doing. Corky was happy because it was easier to get his photos into publications with a written story to go with it.

However, there were more stories than the editors had room for. Or that I had time to cover, as my freelancing career expanded, and I also started to take producing jobs for Japanese TV networks.

Corky would call me almost every day with something. One day he called me up to tell me he had just come across a guy on a corner on Canal Street who was carving dragons out of watermelons. He insisted it would make a great story. “Watermelon dragons . . . really?” I said. “Yes, really!” he said, not grasping in his excitement at his discovery that I had meant it more like . . . “REALLY???? Like . . . really, we can make a story out of THAT?” The watermelon carver unfortunately didn’t make the cut that week, and he disappeared after that initial sighting.

Photographic Archive of Asian American Life

I had never met a photojournalist like Corky. He didn’t shoot subjects because he was on a paid assignment to do so. He shot simply because they were there, and he wanted to document their existence. Gradually, I came to understand that what he was doing was building a comprehensive photographic archive of Asian American life that he had started many years earlier.

Others who knew him have commented that what drove that in him was a desire to right the wrong of Asians being excluded from visible representation throughout American history. That is true. There was a righteous anger there. But what also shouldn’t be overlooked is an essential, relentless curiosity that fueled him to ask the questions in the first place of where were they, what were they doing, and why they were doing it. All good journalism starts with those basic “where? what? why?” questions. His curiosity was so passionate, and often joyful, in his desire to explore what interested him, which was everything Asian American, and share it with others.

He also taught me that journalism and activism often overlap, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

For the next 14 or so years, we covered hundreds of stories together.

By traveling those streets with Corky and climbing those stairs in and out of all those buildings, I came to appreciate how layered our collective immigrant experiences are in this city, in this country, how each group travels mostly down the same paths as each that came before them. I could comprehend in a very visceral way that this is the essence of what it means for so many to be an American, no matter where you are from.”

Personal Discovery

Along the way, something unexpected happened: I began to discover traces of my own family’s history and their immigrant experience.

My maternal grandfather was born in a tenement building on Baxter Street, in what was then part of Little Italy. His parents had immigrated from the outskirts of Naples and Murano at the turn of the century. I’d often glance up at the building that he was born in—still there with an Italian restaurant that has occupied its storefront since the 1940s—as I passed by and remember Grandpa’s stories of how there was only one shared toilet for everyone on each floor and the bathtub was in the kitchen.

When I came down the stairs of the nearby PS 23 building, after interviewing someone at a social services agency on the top floor or visiting the Museum of Chinese of the Americas, then located on one of the lower floors, I would remember Grandpa telling me about the street games he would play with his young friends on nearby streets after class let out. The first time I found myself in that building to cover a story and touched a plaque on the wall commemorating its time as a public elementary school from the 1890s until the 1980s, I realized I would probably never have found my way in there otherwise.

Documenting Workers’ Abuses

One day, Corky and I went to interview a group of garment factory workers at the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, located in the back of a rear tenement on Grand Street, a couple of blocks from the address my great-grandmother wrote down as her destination when she came through Ellis Island. There weren’t enough chairs, so I sat on the floor drinking a cup of half black tea and half coffee with milk—a beverage, popular among garment workers, they had offered me—and listened to their stories while Corky snapped away.

They were shocking tales about the abuses they regularly faced: One woman described having her arm broken when she complained to her boss about wages owed to her. Several others told me about how they gathered to confront an abusive owner who attempted to close up shop and run away in the middle of the night to avoid paying them, literally grabbing the sewing machines out of his arms to keep him from fleeing. I sat there listening and wondering for the first time what conditions my great-grandmother had faced when she worked as a garment worker after she arrived here a hundred years earlier, before modern labor laws and unions.

By traveling those streets with Corky and climbing those stairs in and out of all those buildings, I came to appreciate how layered our collective immigrant experiences are in this city, in this country, how each group travels mostly down the same paths as each that came before them. I could comprehend in a very visceral way that this is the essence of what it means for so many to be an American, no matter where you are from.

Changing Tide

But then . . . around 2008, AsianWeek started having internal difficulties. They later shut down completely. Small ethnic papers, including the ones we were sending stories to, also began to struggle. Those that survived moved on to the internet, making it less attractive to purchase the same stories that would now be accessible from anywhere. Meanwhile, my Japanese TV producing work increased. Corky and I gradually stopped doing stories together. Around the same time, with the proliferation of social media, Corky’s work became more widely known and appreciated, and he started to gain the recognition that he had always deserved.

We stayed good friends. He came to my 2009 wedding—as a guest—but of course, took pictures, and of course, they were the best pictures anyone took that day. He would often let me know about various APA events happening around the city, and when I could, I would show up just to hang out with him and the many friends we made over the years through our work. When my husband started teaching a weekly Buddhist studies class at a temple in Chinatown on Sundays about ten years ago, I would often hitch a ride with him, and which street I decided to head down after meeting friends for dim sum would often depend on what event Corky had messaged me about or posted. We’d meet up with other friends and his beautiful, sweet, longtime companion, Karen Zhou, to watch films at the First Chinese Baptist Church on Pell Street, to attend a lecture and view a photo exhibit in a new arts space on the Bowery, and of course, to watch the parade and lion dances at Lunar New Year, often eating dinner at nearby restaurants afterward. Seeing Corky in Chinatown was such a regular experience that I can’t even remember right now when the last time I saw him before the pandemic was. He was just always . . . there.

It’s been a few days since he passed, but I still can’t quite imagine traveling those streets and not wondering if I might bump into Corky unexpectedly as I often did. Right now, I would pay money, rather than be paid, to time-travel back to a certain day and drop whatever else I was doing to jump on the train and go meet him on a street corner, listening to that watermelon carver tell us the story of who he was and why he was there while Corky clicked away, both of us dodging full red shopping bags carried by mask-less shoppers hurriedly walking past in a blur.

Corky Lee, 1947-2021. Photo by Stan Honda https://www.stanhonda.com/

Celebrating Corky Lee

La MaMa Experimental Theatre and Kinding Sindaw, in partnership with Nai-Ni Dance Company and the Asian American Arts Alliance, are hosting an event to honor Corky Lee. They invite the community to come together and share remembrances of him this Friday, February 5 at 7:00 p.m. To register, please visit La MaMa’s website.  

Those wishing to honor Corky Lee may make donations in his memory to the Asian American Journalists Association in order to support the next generation of artists working for photographic justice. Please visit the AAJA donation page, select “In Memory Of” and write “Corky Lee.”

If you are interested in sharing your memories of Corky Lee, please email me at susan@japanculture-nyc.com.