In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the Google Doodle for May 5 celebrated the life and work of Corky Lee (1947-2021), a Chinese American photographer, journalist and activist whose photos recorded the diversity and nuances of the Asian Pacific American community often overlooked by mainstream media.
Google posted the following tribute: “On this day in 1988, May 5 was proclaimed to be ‘Corky Lee Day’ in honor of his lifelong contributions to New York City’s communities.
“Lee was born in Queens, New York City to Chinese immigrant parents on Sept. 5, 1947. When he was in school as a young boy, he learned about the Transcontinental Railroad in social studies class. During the lesson, he saw a photo that celebrated the completion of the railroad — but noticed a lack of representation for the thousands of Chinese laborers who helped build it. Lee later shared that this event inspired his life’s work. He went on to teach himself photography and attended Queens College to study history.
“Throughout his career, Lee attended protests, rallies, and demonstrations where he captured powerful moments that depicted the struggles and achievements of the Asian Pacific American community. Notably, in 1975, he snapped a photo of young Chinese American Peter Yew as he was dragged away by police. Yew had intervened upon witnessing a 15-year-old boy being beaten by police for an alleged traffic violation. Yew was also severely beaten on the spot and at the station before being charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.
“A week after the photo was taken, thousands of Chinatown residents gathered to protest the rampant police brutality in their neighborhoods.
“Across his life, Lee’s photos were included in countless publications like Time Magazine, The New York Times, New York Post, and more. He also won many awards for his works, and his life has been covered in movies like ‘Not on the Menu: Corky Lee’s Life and Work’ (2013) and ‘Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story’ (2022).
“Later in life, Lee often visited Promontory Summit in Utah to recreate the photo that had been taken when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. He invited several descendants of the Chinese laborers who were not pictured back in 1869 in an effort to show that Asian American history is American history.
“Thank you for your dedication to preserving the stories of so many, Corky. Yours, too, is not forgotten.”
Lee’s brother, John “Johann” Lee, and E. Samantha Cheng, founder and executive producer of Heritage Series LLC and APA Legacy, collaborated on this Doodle.
“Throughout our childhood, our parents expounded upon the importance of doing the right thing,” said John Lee. “Simply because it was the right thing to do and carried with it an implicit call to action. Perhaps they were prescient in giving Corky his Chinese name (Lee Young Kuo). Loosely translated it means ‘to praise,’ ‘uplift the nation,’ and so he did.
“Through his lens, he gave Americans of Asian descent their history, pride, and dignity and reminded all Americans of Asian contributions to the national American mosaic. Corky raised the consciousness not only of his camera’s subjects but that of the nation as well.”
“Although Corky is gone, his life’s work and passion live on in his photographs,” said Cheng. “Through his commitment to raising the visibility of all Asians and their contributions to America, his images have become tools to combat racism and bias and proof that we are all Americans.”