” … every time I take my camera out of my bag, it’s like drawing a sword to combat indifference, injustice and discrimination, trying to get rid of stereotypes.” -Corky Lee

Recreating the driving of the “golden spike”

On Photography: Corky Lee, 1947-2021
Corky Lee directs participants at the recreation of the meeting of the railroads.

Corky Lee was a second-generation Chinese American from Queens, New York. While in junior high school in 1971 he noticed that the photo of the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869, that completed the Transcontinental Railroad had no Chinese people in it. He was very troubled because over 12,000 Chinese had labored to build the rail line from the west for the Central Pacific Railroad that met that day for the first time. 80% of the railroad workers were Chinese.

Corky Lee brought together over 200 Chinese, Chinese Americans and other Asian Pacific American groups that would gather at the 145th anniversary of the driving of the Golden Spike to create an act of “photographic justice” — a photograph of current-day Chinese people with two vintage locomotives meeting at the very spot where the original photo was made in 1869 (opening photo, top right, last image.) This time, the people who built the railroad, some of them descendants of those Chinese Americans were prominent in the scene.

This video shows the making of the photo. There is a minute of copy giving background. If you don’t want to read it, skip ahead to 1:05.

Business card

Corky Lee somewhat jokingly had business cards printed up with his title as the “Undisputed, Unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate.” Because of the missing Chinese in the Transcontinental Railroad photo, Lee decided to document the Asian community and their activities. Of his passion, he said, “Don’t get hooked on photography unless you are willing to make tremendous sacrifices in your personal life and also your financial circumstances.”

Asian American Movement documentarian

Lee was concerned that there were few photos of the Asian community and their events. He believed that if something is not recorded by television or in photographs it is something that never happened.

Corky Lee is one of the foremost documentarians of the Asian American movement. “I generally refer to myself as an ABC from NYC.” he says, “That’s short for American Born Chinese from New York City. For the last four-plus decades, I’ve been photographing an aspect that really anybody knows.”

Hua Hsu writing on newyorker.com described Lee’s career, “It was a simple passion that could take him anywhere. For nearly fifty years, New Yorkers never knew where they might run into Lee and his camera: a museum gala or a tenants’ rights meeting, construction sites or local laundries, youth basketball games or poetry readings, community fairs, concerts, or protests. Most often, it was somewhere along Mott Street, in the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown, where his photographs of everyday life helped generations of Chinese-Americans see themselves as part of a larger community.”

Son of immigrants

Corky Lee son of immigrants from China. Neil Genzlinger, a writer for The New York Times says in Lee’s obituary, “[He] was an activist with his camera, striving to bring to light the underrepresented worlds of Chinese-Americans and others of Asian descent, as well as capturing moments of injustice toward those communities. That meant photographing police brutality, protests and rundown housing, but also shop owners at work and young people break-dancing.”

Corky Lee was 73 when he died in New York from complications of COVID-19.

Sources: Chinese American Exclusion/Inclusion, The New Yorker, The New York Times