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Corky Lee

August 4, 2002

Getting Asian-Americans Into the Picture


CORKY LEE has a day job. He works in sales and customer service at Expedi Printing in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the company that prints India Abroad, News Tibet, Dog News, Dan's Paper, The New York Sun, The New York Law Journal and Bamboo Girl zine. When he gets off work, though, he straps on a camera and becomes, in his words, "the Undisputed Unofficial Asian-American Photographer Laureate."

Anything that happens in the lives of Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Indian-Americans, Pakistani-Americans, Sri Lankan-Americans, Hmong-Americans, Thai-Americans, Cambodian-Americans, Burmese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, Malaysian-Americans, Hawaiians and other Asian-Pacific Americans is Corky Lee's business.

It doesn't matter whether it is a group of Japanese chick-sexers in Seabrook, N.J., a Burmese water festival, the Dalai Lama's birthday party, the opening of the Asian American International Film Festival on the Upper East Side (which Mr. Lee helped found) or a march against the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Chinatown. Corky Lee will very likely be there. His schedule is frenetic, political and quirky. He is a fount of trivia on anything Asian-American.

Mr. Lee, 54, was set on his course in junior high school by a famous photograph taken at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869. The picture commemorated the completion of the transcontinental railroad and showed workers posing with two trains, one from the Central Pacific line and one from the Union Pacific. But something was wrong with this picture. No Chinese workers.

Thousands of Chinese men worked on that railroad. In fact, Mr. Lee said, the saying "He doesn't have a Chinaman's chance" comes from the fact that when the Sierra Nevada had to be blasted for the railroad, the Chinese were usually the ones lowered from cliffs laden with dynamite and fuses. Each time they went down to set the charges, they got paid a dollar more. But when the time came to party and be photographed, the Chinese were nowhere to be found.

Since Mr. Lee first laid eyes on that photograph, he has devoted himself to making Asian-Americans visible. That means constantly moving from rally to march, performance to festival, culture to culture. His photos appear in newspapers scattered around the country — Downtown Express, The Villager, Filipino Express, Asian Week, Hawaii Herald and Rafu Shimpo. This summer, starting on Tuesday, his work will also be part of a group exhibition of Asian-American photography organized by AsianLens and shown at the Chambers Fine Art gallery in Chelsea.

Mr. Lee calls himself an A.B.C. (an American-born Chinese). He was born Lee Quoork, the last name given to Mr. Lee's father in immigration papers so he could get around quotas of Chinese entering the United States. Mr. Lee's father, once a welder, started a hand-laundry business in Queens. His mother was a seamstress. He has an older sister who works in a hand laundry in Pennsylvania and three younger brothers, one who works at a Brooklyn lumberyard, one who scoops ice cream in New Jersey and one who is a public defender in San Diego. His wife, Margaret, a bookkeeper, died last year of breast cancer.

Mr. Lee's life took a different shape from the lives of his siblings. In 1965, he began studying American history at Queens College. In 1971, he became a community organizer, working for Two Bridges Neighborhood Council in Chinatown. In the early 1970's, he started taking photographs with a borrowed camera and helped found the Asian Media Collective. That was just around the time when the Asian-American movement was gathering steam, when Japanese- and Chinese-Americans started protesting the Vietnam War.

In 1975 one of Mr. Lee's photographs wound up on the front page of The New York Post. It showed a Chinese-American man bleeding from the forehead and being hauled away by the police. The day the picture was published, Mr. Lee said, 20,000 people marched from Chinatown to City Hall to protest police brutality. In 1983, he captured another big moment. A year after Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man, was bludgeoned to death by laid-off auto workers in Detroit who thought Chin was Japanese and had stolen their jobs, Mr. Lee photographed the protests that errupted when these men were freed with no trial.

Sept. 11 gave Mr. Lee a new mission. On Sept. 15 a group of Pacific Asians and South Asians got together to discuss their fears. Sikhs were being attacked in the United States because of their turbans and dark complexions. How could they tell the world they were not Taliban? That evening, at a candlelight vigil in Central Park, Mr. Lee took pictures of Sikhs wrapped in the American flag holding signs against racial profiling and terrorism. The picture won an award from the New York Press Association. One judge commented: "Unusual juxtaposition of patriotism and ethnicity. The subject's devious stare into the lens is compelling."

And so Mr. Lee's work continues.

In July, he was at the Armenian Church in Midtown Manhattan to photograph a Tibetan festival honoring the Dalai Lama's 67th birthday. He watched the Tibetans dancing and piling white and pale yellow shawls on a table to be sent to the Dalai Lama. But his attention was elsewhere. He took a picture of a Tibetan girl with cornrows. He got on a chair to photograph how some families, ignoring the hundreds of folding chairs available, sat in circles on the floor to have their picnic lunches.

Mr. Lee is highly attuned to cultural clashes. At the Tibetan festival, he pointed to the polo shirt he was wearing, which had a bamboo pattern. "I thought it would be a bad idea to wear this," he said, since bamboo connotes China. "I thought of changing before I came in," he said, noting that he had brought a "Free Tibet" T-shirt just in case. But he didn't change. That would just be subscribing to stereotyping, and also more laundry, he said. "Guys think like that." Besides, he said, his camera bag has a Tibetan logo on it, Tenba.

At the festival, Mr. Lee was accompanied by Phuong Do, a young Vietnamese-American photographer, who was taking pictures of Mr. Lee taking pictures. She aimed her camera as Mr. Lee photographed a monk listening to one of the speakers. Mr. Lee lined up his shot so that a portrait of the Dalai Lama on the wall was right between the two men. "I wouldn't have noticed that," she said. "Like other photojournalists," she added, "he is very specific about what he wants." And what he wants is what Henri Cartier-Bresson called a decisive moment. A decisive cultural moment.

"But is there really a decisive moment?" Ms. Do asked. "Or do you make it?" She seemed skeptical of the kind of telling tableaus that Mr. Lee is known for. "I'm interested in the experience of being uprooted," she said, and "since I'm Asian I can understand the struggle of people of color." For example, "I always get asked if I'm Japanese or Chinese," she said. "But when I take pictures I am uncomfortable. I have just one little camera in this whole room. And I am representing them."

Mr. Lee, who is from an earlier generation, has no such worries about the limits of representation. What he minds is the simple lack of representation, the invisibility of Asian-Americans.

While speaking to a class at the Asian American Writers' Workshop on West 32nd Street, he told them frankly that photography is propaganda. "When you frame a shot, you are saying how people should see this." He also offered professional advice: smile when you approach strangers to take their picture. And in judging how far away the flash on a disposable camera will work, remember that it is about the diameter of a big round table at a Chinese restaurant.

In July, 133 years after the finishing of the transcontinental railroad, Mr. Lee decided to redo the historical moment. The annual conference of the Organization of Chinese Americans, which Mr. Lee calls the Chinese B'nai Brith, had its annual convention in Salt Lake City, where Mr. Lee got a Pioneer award for the last 30 years of his work. But first, part of the group visited Topaz, a camp just south of Salt Lake City where Japanese families were incarcerated during World War II. And then the group headed north to Promontory Point to take a new picture. This time there were 400 Chinese people, from Long Island to Hawaii, present. Mr. Lee said he picked up a bullhorn to organize the crowd. This, he told them, is "photographic justice."   

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