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Fay Chew Matsuda, Steward of Chinese Immigrant Legacy, Dies at 71


Children of foreign-born parents sometimes consider assimilation their priority, but by her account Ms. 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,” Professor 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.”

Ms. 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,” Professor Tchen said.

Ms. 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 Street that became the museum’s home for a period.

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