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.
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 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.