Utah exhibit honors life and legacy of Asian American photographer

May 29, 2023, 1:32 PM | Updated: 1:56 pm

SOUTH SALT LAKE, Utah — We’re closing out Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with a closer look at a new exhibit in South Salt Lake that highlights the contributions of Chinese immigrants in Utah.

The late Corky Lee was a legendary photographer who spent decades documenting the Asian experience and capturing what he saw as injustices among Chinese railroad workers.

“People would call him a ‘Corky-pedia’ because he knew so much about Asian America,” said Karen Zhou, Lee’s longtime partner.

It’s a bitter-sweet time for Zhou. Lee died in 2021 due to complications from COVID-19.

“He lived life with this unwavering purpose,” Zhou said.

She organized the “Making History Exhibit,” showcasing the challenges Asian Americans encountered in everyday life from racial injustice and discrimination.

“This is from my journey with him from 2014-2019 when he was on a quest to reclaim history,” she said. “I was documenting behind the scenes the process, the people, and Corky, of course.”

His sole mission to Utah over the years was to right a wrong.

Lee felt Chinese immigrants who worked on the first transcontinental railroad were omitted from history books.

In 2014, he recreated a photo of the 1869 gold spike celebration at Promontory Summit, this time using descendants of the Chinese workers who laid much of the track.

“I also felt that one day, it’s not only about their story but his story,” Zhou said.

This form of photographic justice has come full circle for Lee.

For Zhou, this is the best way she knows to honor his legacy and make him proud.

“I feel overwhelmed but in a positive way. I know Corky’s here. His spirit is here.”

The exhibit is located inside the Chinatown Supermarket at 3390 S. State Street in South Salt Lake. It’s free and open to the public until October.

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Utah exhibit honors life and legacy of Asian American photographer