Salt Lake City, Utah – The Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants’ Association (CRWDA) is proud to present “Making History,” an exhibit of photographer Karen Zhou’s work in honor of her late partner, Corky Lee, a renowned Asian-American activist and photographer. The exhibit commemorates Lee’s unforgettable contributions to the Asian community in Utah.
The opening reception for “Making History” will take place on Tuesday, May 9th, 2023, at the Chinatown Supermarket located at 3390 State Street, South Salt Lake, UT 84115. The reception will begin at 6:00 pm and will continue until late evening.
Karen Zhou’s work captures Lee’s trailblazing journey in Utah, documenting the history of Asians in America, especially the Chinese railroad workers who built massive segments of the Transcontinental Railroad. Lee wanted to honor their sacrifice by documenting their history, despite the discrimination, wage theft, and genocidal massacres they faced. The Golden Spike, which connected the railroad in the middle, is located in Promontory, Utah. Last year, Utah State preservation officer Chris Merritt declared 150 year old remnants of a Box Elder County Chinese railroad worker settlement to be the first of its kind established in North America.
“Corky Lee looked for a Chinatown wherever he went, even and especially in Utah. Hosting this exhibit at the Salt Lake City Chinatown was very special for that reason,” said Zhou.
In 2002, the OCA convention took place in Salt Lake, and Corky organized over a hundred Asian Americans for a photo in front of the two locomotives. The Chinese workers had been intentionally excluded from the original “champagne” photo celebrating the railroad they had just built. A photo that Corky saw in a textbook in junior high school, which led to his first visit to Utah in the 1970’s. He wanted to know more about his own history and the memory never left him. Corky wasn’t satisfied and wanted to honor their sacrifice by snapping the replica photo at its true location. So he came back in 2014 with an even larger group and recreated the champagne photo at the 146th anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory Summit.
“Corky kept coming back in subsequent years, until the 150th anniversary. On the 150th anniversary, he had forgotten his camera and had to use my camera. Taking photos of descendants and their family, Corky wanted to go with them to the Chinese Arch, one of the oldest Chinese railroad worker campsites in America. These Utah locations meant a lot to him,” said Zhou. “I knew then the story was more than about the omission of Chinese railroad workers — it was also about him. He lived his life committed to combating injustice, indifference, and discrimination. I wished this pandemic had never happened and as great as the loss is, it will never change how much I loved him.”
The exhibit represents a full circle of people coming back to reclaim history and to show the community that they are proud of the railroad workers and what they represent. Corky’s legacy lives on through his passion for documenting Asian American stories and for ensuring that they were heard. Karen Zhou’s photographs capture the essence of Corky’s spirit and his contribution to Utah’s Asian community.
The exhibit is open to the public and will run from May 9th, 2023 to October 2023, at the Chinatown Supermarket. Admission is free. We encourage all members of the community to attend and learn about Corky Lee and his contribution to reclaiming this important history of Utah’s Asian community.