His photos capture Asian American experience

Posted: August 31, 2012

AS THOUSANDS of Chinese and Chinese-Americans marched the mile from Manhattan's Chinatown to City Hall in May 1975 to protest police brutality, Corky Lee snapped an image that made the cover of the New York Post:

A man, his face bloodied after he was struck by a New York City cop, is led away from the crowd by other officers near City Hall.

The photo launched Lee's career as a freelance photojournalist lauded for his work in giving visibility to Asian-Americans in U.S. society - from civil-rights issues to cultural celebrations to scenes of everyday life.

"He's the most widely known photographer who documents the Asian American community, experience and activism," said Steve Wong, of the Chinese American Museum, in Los Angeles.

Lee, 64, will have his first Philadelphia exhibit from Tuesday through Oct. 5 at the Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St. Titled "Into the Picture: Images of Asian Pacific America by Corky Lee," the exhibit of about 60 photos has some Philly scenes and moments of Asian-American activism.

There's a 2009 photo of a candlelight vigil in New York for Laura Ling and Euna Lee, journalists who were captured and imprisoned by North Korean border guards. There's another of protesters in New York demonstrating against hate crimes after the 1982 baseball-bat-beating death of Vincent Chin, 27, outside Detroit by two autoworkers.

Two Philadelphia Chinatown scenes recently shot by Lee are in the exhibit. He photographed a voter-registration drive on 10th Street near Cherry. Across the street, he noticed an elderly man shaping colorful dragon figurines out of dough. Lee notices the little things. To make the dragons' scales, "he uses a comb and presses it into the dough," Lee said in an interview last week at the Asian Arts Initiative.

The exhibit has a photo of South Philadelphia High School students in New York in October for a bullying-prevention summit.

Lee's awareness of the scarcity of Asian-Americans in photos was triggered in junior high. He read in a history book that Chinese people built this country's transcontinental railroad. But the book didn't have a single photo of a Chinese person.

"Chinese and other Asian-American minorities are invisible," he said.

Lee, a Chinese-American from the New York borough of Queens, documents other Asian-Americans, too. The exhibit has a photo of a Burmese water festival and another of Mongolian wrestlers in Washington.

"What I really admire about his work," said the Asian Arts Initiative's Nancy Chen, "is he really saw a need and has been most consistently working toward [addressing] that issue."

Professor Jack Tchen, founding director of New York University's Asian/Pacific/American Institute, has written of Lee: "If you want something other than the usual stereotyped images of Chinatown or 'Orientals,' he has them. . . . He also remembers who's who and always has a story to make the images come alive."

Along with Lee's exhibit will be a slide show of Philly's Chinatown by Wynnewood photographer Jano Cohen.


Contact Julie Shaw at 215-854-2592 or shawj@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter @julieshawphilly.

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