Fay Chew Matsuda, steward of Chinese immigrant legacy, dies at 71
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Fay Chew Matsuda, steward of Chinese immigrant legacy, dies at 71
A photo provided by Barnard College shows Fay Chew Matsuda at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York in 2013. Matsuda, a first-generation Chinese-American who devoted her career as an amateur museum curator to preserving the heritage of overlooked generations of immigrants from China, died on July 24, 2020, at her home in Sound Beach, N.Y., on Long Island’s North Shore. She was 71. Barnard College via The New York Times.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Fay Chew Matsuda, a first-generation Chinese American who devoted her career as an amateur museum curator to preserving the heritage of overlooked generations of immigrants from China, died on July 24 at her home in Sound Beach, New York, on Long Island’s North Shore. She was 71.

The cause was endometrial cancer, her daughter, Amy Matsuda, said.

Fay Matsuda was instrumental in transforming the New York Chinatown History Project, a grassroots campaign to save vanishing artifacts and record eyewitness reminiscences, into a permanent legacy of Chinese immigration.

By 1991, the History Project had morphed into the Museum of Chinese in America, or MoCA. Matsuda served as the executive director of MoCA on Manhattan’s Lower East Side from 1997 to 2006.

She described the incubation of both the History Project and the museum as an urgent campaign to collect, restore and protect irreplaceable ephemera — including a unique cache of scripts and costumes from early 20th-century Cantonese operas, signage from old storefronts, photographs, diaries and newspaper clippings.

“Sometimes it was literally dumpster-diving,” Matsuda said in the Barnard College alumni magazine in 2013. (She was a 1971 graduate.) She added, “We were trying to recover history that was quickly being lost.”

The museum’s archives also include interviews with immigrants more concerned about striving for their children than about conserving their past.

Matsuda began her career as a social worker at Hamilton-Madison House, originally two separate nonprofit community organizations established in about 1900 on the Lower East Side to help acclimate Jewish and Italian immigrants. It now serves primarily Asian and Latino constituents.

She left to join the Chinatown History Project, later worked at the Chinatown Health Clinic (now the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center), the Asian American Federation and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum before running MoCA. She capped her career as the program director of the Hamilton-Madison City Hall Senior Center.

Children of foreign-born parents sometimes consider assimilation their priority, but by her account Matsuda was just as concerned that the history of Chinese immigration, reaching into the 19th century, could be forgotten.

She recognized, too, that though Metropolitan New York has the largest concentration of ethnic Chinese outside of Asia, there was no single museum there devoted to that immigrant experience, nor to the contributions Chinese immigrants had made to their adopted country. Such a museum, she believed, could also explore societal and cultural issues within the Chinese immigrant community, like the tensions between Chinese-born parents and their American children.

All of which led her to the New York Chinatown History Project, which was started in 1980 by John Kuo Wei Tchen, a historian and the first American-born son of Chinese immigrants, and Charles Lai, a Chinatown resident who immigrated from Hong Kong with his parents and five siblings as a child in 1968.

“It wasn’t as if we could go to the library and find history books about laundry workers,” Tchen was quoted as saying in Columbia, the university’s magazine, in 2007. (He was the founding director of the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University and is now director of the Clement Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University, Newark.)

Their fledgling effort evolved into what MoCA describes as “the first full-time, professionally-staffed museum dedicated to reclaiming, preserving, and interpreting the history and culture of Chinese and their descendants in the Western Hemisphere.”

Matsuda, as both a preservationist and a social worker, was “a big part of why Chinatown has so many agencies that serve seniors’ needs, and why generations of their otherwise neglected stories and belongings are remembered and kept safe for future generations,” Tchen said.

Matsuda was particularly proud of a 1991 exhibit called “What Did You Learn in School Today?: P.S. 23, 1893-1976.” The exhibit was inspired by a Depression-era class photograph taken at P.S. 23, a 19th-century school at 70 Mulberry St. that became the museum’s home for a period.

Matsuda said she had been especially gratified that the show drew visitors reflecting the school’s changing demography over the years — former students of Irish, Italian, Polish, Russian and Chinese heritage. “We realized the picture was a real magnet and saw what the school meant to the community,” she said at the time.

The city-owned P.S. 23 building was converted into a Chinatown cultural hub in the mid-1970s, housing both MoCA’s exhibition space and its 85,000-item archive encompassing 160 years of Chinese American history.

In 2009, the museum moved to 215 Centre St. in lower Manhattan, a space designed by Chinese American architect Maya Lin, who is best known for her Vietnam War memorial in Washington. The archives remained at the former school.

In January, a stubborn fire ripped through the upper floors of 70 Mulberry St. While many items from the archives were saved by museum workers, some were lost and others required costly restoration.

Fay Lai Chew was born on April 11, 1949, in Manhattan to immigrants from Toisan, China, on China’s southern coast near Hong Kong, and grew up in the East Village. Her father, Chock Nom Chin, owned a hand-laundry north of the city in Ossining, New York, and several other small businesses. Her mother, Bick Koon Dong, was a garment worker on the Lower East Side. At one time Matsuda’s parents ran a restaurant.

She graduated from Hunter College High School in Manhattan and attended Barnard on a scholarship, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1971 in sociology. She received a master’s in social work from New York University.

Her husband, Karl Matsuda, retired in 2016 as a senior preparator (one who is responsible for installing and deinstalling exhibits) at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. In addition to her daughter, Amy, Matsuda is survived by her husband; her sisters, Vivian Eng, May Chew Ortiz and Rose Chew; and a grandson.

Matsuda always insisted that a museum about the Chinese American experience had to depend, as she put it, on “the involvement of community members in the development, planning and implementation of museum programming.”

“It was about reclaiming our own history,” she said, “and telling the story we wanted to tell.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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