Remembering Corky Lee, the teller of our stories

The beloved Corky Lee with Kinding Sindaw founder and Artistic Director Potri Ranka Manis.

By Malaika Queano

Corky Lee has been with Kinding Sindaw since the very beginning, when it was only our family that made up the dancers and the musicians of the dance troupe.

My mother Potri Ranka Manis founded Kinding Sindaw, the New York-based Philippine dance/martial arts troupe, in 1992. My father Nonilon Queano was the master musician.  Instead of leaving me with a babysitter, mom would let me join her on stage and dress me in tiny person traditional clothes. Corky, who had seen me grow up from baby to adult, documented it all. My friendship with him is that of family.

He had been photographing my mom when she was dancing solo — even before Kinding Sindaw started — in 1991. He photographed her backstage and on stage, when my mom was new to the U.S. He appreciated that what she was doing was very rare. He said he had already photographed many Filipinos but he had never seen dancing like my mom’s.

Mom explained to him that she is Maranao, and what she learned from her aunt and family is what she has been dancing during performances. Corky said he was president of A4 (Asian American Arts Alliance) and suggested mom could apply for a grant, and it that would help build an organization. It was a technical assistance grant for new organizations. So Corky was really key to building Kinding Sindaw because he really guided Potri on how to start the organization. He connected her with so many people in the Asian American community. He was nurturing. She thought of him like a fairy grandfather, seeing him photograph every performance and affirming that it was really a great performance. He followed us all the way to Binghamton and Syracuse and really documented Kinding Sindaw as it was growing and gaining a following. He was a pioneer, became a board of director, and stayed with us, inspiring and guiding us, and capturing our story with his camera.

The author as a little girl with her parents. ‘I was born in 1992, so he was there even before I was born. He photographed my mom when I was in her tummy.’

His passing was a sudden and a heavy one because Corky was one of those people I felt would always be around. He was always at any important event, like that distant uncle at family gatherings, reminding you that you’re always on his radar, that he’s keeping an eye on you as you grow up.

He captured every important moment in my life — my childhood raised as a Maranao in New York City, my student organizing days, summer play streets in Woodside, my wedding day.  

Back in college, Corky would call me once in a while with a bunch of invites for events or topics my student club should cover. Sometimes he would go off on these tangents, telling me about how there was a prosperous import/export trade of ginger from the U.S. back to Asia during the old days and how the laborers found ginger native to America. Who knew!

Kinding Sindaw through the lens of Corky Lee.

Back then we were called Asian Student Association. Later we became known as Asian Pacific Islander Student Alliance. One time, he came up to New Paltz by bus carrying at least 80 pounds of equipment, frames, and photos to teach us about the unforgotten history of Asian American communities. He mounted his photos all over the multipurpose room, handed the students post-its and had us place a post-it on the photo that intrigued us. He took the photos with the most post-its and told us the story behind each snapshot. It was more than a glimpse into the weight of his work. It was a look into the past and the legacies we all continue to carry with us.

My friends and I decided to spend my birthday at the @legaleaseus exhibit in Queens. You invited my friends and I to get hotpot in Flushing with your friends but we had other plans. We’ve had a coffee book of all your photos of the 29 years of Kinding Sindaw on the backburner for so long until we could find a designer. I’d finally recruited one this past year, right before the pandemic.

So many what ifs.  It’s so hard to fathom that I’ll no longer see you in passing moments. So many missed opportunities to sit and hear more from you — the teller of our stories, the fierce spirit and light that shone on our communities in this country.  

I pray you are at peace now, my friend.

Malaika Queano is  the Co-Executive Director and main musician of Kinding Sindaw, a NYC-based nonprofit dance theater troupe dedicated to preserving the oral history of the indigenous peoples of Mindanao, Southern Philippines. She has a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Cybersecurity.

Corky Lee, is a Chinese American photographer known for taking pictures of regular Asian American folks, events, and festivals. He did this for almost five decades until his death on January 27 from COVID-related complications. He died at 73, a legend in New York City.

NaFFAA continues to update its list of newly elected, re-elected Filipino American officials in 2020. Email for information.

© The FilAm 2021

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