What Asian America Meant to Corky Lee

Today, Asian Americans still lean Democratic, but they—I mean, we—are becoming more prominent in the Republican Party. It’s common now to see Asians make traditionally right-wing demands, including tough-on-crime laws, landlords’ rights, a ban on affirmative action—rich-people stuff. Our pursuit of social recognition (beyond Hollywood visibility) seems to exploit a feeling of historical grievance, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to recent instances of racially motivated violence. “In 2020 Corky had already documented the ravages of the pandemic on New York’s Chinatown and the upsurge in racism against Asian Americans. But he was gone by the time six Asian women were gunned down at Atlanta spas in March 2021,” the editors, along with one of Lee’s brothers, write in the epilogue. It’s an odd way to wrap up a life. Yes, Lee probably would have travelled to Atlanta, to document this latest Asian American reckoning. But the joy of the book is to get beyond this repetition of mourning and protest—toward some calmer, everyday truth.

A mah-jongg game at the Hong Lok Senior Center. Oakland, 2001.

I love Lee’s photo of a mah-jongg game at the Hong Lok Senior Center, in Oakland, from 2001, in which one player, an elegant old auntie in a cheongsam-style blouse, looks straight at the camera. I love his double portrait of the brothers Arthur and Eddie Ng, from 1996, as they lift weights, shirtless, in what appears to be a janitor’s closet at P.S. 124. Arthur stares at the camera, mid-curl; Eddie’s reflected image, in a mirror, stares at the camera, too. There are personal pictures of great beauty: Lee’s mother, doing needlework in the family’s apartment, next to an ornate shrine to her late husband. Or Lee’s wife, Margaret, in 1999, just before she died, of cancer, posing awkwardly with her own mother at their Chelsea laundry. “I really don’t, in my photographs, show too many celebrities,” Lee once said. “I think ordinary people are probably the most genuine.”

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