By Randall Yip, Editor-in-Chief of AsAmNews
When Jennifer Takagi first moved to New York City in 2002, she couldn’t help but notice this “quirky” Chinese-American man, who appeared with a camera in hand, palms around the lens, and silver-tinted glasses on his eyes Photo zoomed subjects.
It was a scene that was repeated at every community event the film director attended.
“So right away I knew he was someone special and someone interesting, and I wanted to provide a platform for a larger audience,” she told AsAmNews. She immediately decided to produce a five-minute vignette about the man who was introduced to her as Corky Lee. The short film eventually became a 19-year passion project and the new full-length documentary Photographic Justice, The Corky Lee Story streaming through DOC NYC through November 27th.
When Linda Hattendorf released her film The Cats of Mirkikitamithe story of a Japanese-American homeless man in New York who lost half his family in the Hiroshima bombing while the other half lived in US prison camps behind barbed wire, Lee stood in the corner snapping his photos.
A few weeks later, pictures from the event surfaced in her inbox, from a man she really didn’t know.
“I think that was my first impression of Corky: here is an incredibly generous and caring person who not only showed up to the event without my asking, but sent me photos afterwards for free,” Hattendorf told AsAmNews. “It was that kind of dedication to covering what he felt was important. That really impressed me.”
This was Corky documenting events that were important to the Chinese American community, but also to the Japanese Americans, the Korean Americans, the Indian Americans, the Pakistani Americans, the Sri Lankan Americans, the Hmong Americans, the Thai Americans, the Cambodian Americans, Burmese Americans, Filipino Americans and Malaysian Americans, Hawaiians and other Asia Pacific Americans, wrote The New York Times in 2002.
Takagi asked Hattendorf to join her project as an editor, and she didn’t hesitate.
The two knew very little about Corky’s personal life. He’s a largely private person, even to those who have known him for decades.
Linda Lew Woo first met Lee in 1968 while working as an editor for a bilingual newspaper in New York’s Chinatown. She says very few people knew much about Lee’s wife, Marge Dea, until she spent six months battling breast cancer in 2001.
“I think[their relationship]became more public when she was diagnosed,” Woo said. “And then he took time off to help her. So that part of it, we haven’t seen it in a while.”
Woo would sign on as a producer for the film.
Corky shared in the film that he was mourning Marge’s death in the darkroom and was busy taking his mind off her tragic death.
Very little is known about Karen Zhou, Corky’s longtime partner. The two have had a largely quiet relationship, although they have been seen together at community events.
The film introduces Zhou, and the depth of her feelings for Corky definitely comes through in this film.
We also see Corky’s relationship with his mother, Jung Shee Lee, a seamstress, and his two late brothers during an intimate family moment at his mother’s apartment. We also hear from John Lee, Corky’s last surviving brother, who has made it his mission to continue his brother’s legacy through the publication of a new, forthcoming book from Penguin.
“No one knew about his life,” Takagi said. “That’s why I spent so many hours with him interviewing him that nobody knew anything. He immediately showed who he was and his interest in history. He showed how quirky and caring and passionate he is about his community. He kind of did it on his own, he was on his own mission.”
Takagi recalls that Lee suddenly contracted COVID just as her film was about to go into post-production. She had hoped to finish the film and show Lee a segment of it. That didn’t happen.
Lee’s illness worsened. Takagi now had an ending that no one expected.
“I think it was very traumatizing. All the preparation leading up to his death,” Takagi recalls. “Yes, it was a really difficult time. I think nobody expected him to die. It took some time, but we knew the bigger picture would go on. If Linda (Lew Woo) and Linda (Hattendorf) hadn’t been there to lean on and guide me, I probably would have been more lost. I definitely leaned on her.”
The audience at DOC NYC voted Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story one of her five favorite films at the festival. Get the latest news about upcoming screenings here.
AsAmNews is incorporated in the State of California as Asian American Media, Inc, a 501c3 non-profit organization. Check out our new TikTok account. Find additional content on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Please consider doing an internship, joining our staff, submitting a story, or making a tax-deductible donation. We are committed to the highest ethical standards in journalism. Please report typos or errors to info at AsAmNews dot com.