Corky Lee Bio, age, career, wife, photo and cause of death

Young Corky Lee, a Chinese-American activist, community organizer, photographer, journalist, and self-declared unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate, died on January 27, 2021.

In his own words, he identified as a “ABC from NYC… wielding a camera to slay injustices against APAs.” In an effort to integrate Asian American history into American history, his work investigated the complexity and nuanced aspects of Asian American culture that are frequently ignored and underappreciated by mainstream media.

Early life and education

On September 5, 1947, Lee was born in Queens, New York. He was the second child born to Lee Yin Chuck and Jung See Lee, who had both emigrated from China to the US.

His father ran a laundry and had been in the US Army during World War II. He had a seamstress for a mother.

Lee has three younger brothers named John, James, and Richard as well as an elder sister named Fee. Prior to enrolling in Queens College in 1965 to study American history, Lee attended Jamaica High School.

Because he couldn’t afford his own camera, Lee had to learn photography using borrowed equipment.

According to him, the 1869 image in the history studies textbook that commemorated the opening of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, served as the inspiration for his artwork.

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The picture solely showed white workmen, despite the fact that the large building project had hired thousands of Chinese workers.

Photographic work

Lee’s work served as a record of significant political Asian American events. The New York Post published one of his photographs from 1975 showing a Chinese American man being assaulted by NYPD cops. 20,000 people marched from Chinatown to City Hall the day the photo was published to protest police violence.

Following the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin in Michigan, Lee captured protests on camera. Chin, a young Chinese American guy, was murdered by Ronald Ebens, a superintendent at Chrysler Motors, and his stepson. Chin lived in Detroit.

The attackers mistakenly believed Chin, who is of Chinese origin, to be Japanese since Japanese corporations were held accountable for the loss of American car industry jobs.

The “undisputed unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate” designation Lee claimed for himself was never contested. His images captured significant events in American history as well as the ordinary lives of Asian Americans.

By chronicling the lives of minority-American cultures and communities, Lee claimed his camera was a sword to fight racial injustice, to memorialize and make visible people who would otherwise be invisible.

As Han Zhang put it in The New Yorker, “Lee was to Chinatown what Bill Cunningham was to the sartorialists of Manhattan, and what Roy DeCarava was to post-Renaissance Harlem.”

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Later life

David Dinkins, the mayor of New York City, declared May 5, 1988, as “Corky Lee Day,” honoring Lee for his significant commitment to the city’s communities.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Lee frequently contributed images to the weekly neighborhood newspapers Downtown Express and The Villager.

Around 2001, Margaret Dea, Lee’s wife, passed away from cancer. On January 27, 2021, Lee passed away at the Long Island Jewish Hospital in Forest Hills.

He was 73 years old when he passed away and had COVID-19 problems. It is possible that he fell ill while guarding neighborhood watch members from anti-Asian violence while patrolling Chinatown.


1993, Photographer-Artist-in-Residence Award, Syracuse University

1993, Special Recognition Award, Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA)

2002, New York Press Association Award

2002, Artist-In-Residence, New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program & Institute

2008, Pioneer Award, Organization of Chinese Americans

2009, Susan Ahn Award for Civil Rights and Social Justice for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Asian American Journalists Association

2014, UC Regents Lecturer, University of California, Los Angeles Asian American Studies Center and Department & Luskin School of Public Affairs Urban Planning Department.


Lee received recognition on May 5, 2023, with a Google Doodle.

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