Preserver of the Past

Fay Chew Matsuda ’71 dedicated her life to safeguarding the rich legacy of Chinese American immigrants

By Solby Lim ’22

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Photo of Fay Chew Matsuda '71
Fay Chew Matsuda ’71

History is a powerful act of remembrance. Fay Chew Matsuda ’71, who spent decades preserving the memories and stories of Chinese immigrants, made history her life’s work. In the many roles she held over the years — social worker at the Hamilton-Madison House, early member of the Chinatown History Project, and executive director of the Museum of Chinese in America — she was dedicated to honoring the rich heritage of New York City’s Chinese American immigrants. 

Matsuda died in July, at the age of 71, at her home in Sound Beach, N.Y.

Matsuda became a leading figure in the Chinatown and Lower East Side communities. She was active in the Chinatown History Project, where she joined local activists and volunteers in an effort to collect photos, artifacts, and personal mementos that told the stories of generations of Chinese immigrants. Her commitment to documenting this history was vital to the establishment of the Museum of Chinese in America, which she helped to transform from a grassroots operation into a fully-fledged archival institution housing 85,000 artifacts and covering 160 years of history.

“[Matsuda 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,” historian John Kuo Wei Tchen, co-founder of the Chinatown History Project, told The New York Times last August.

For Matsuda, who was the daughter of Chinese immigrants, the Chinatown History Project was as personal as it was groundbreaking. She grew up in the East Village and was one of a handful of Asian Americans who attended New York City’s Hunter College High School. Her mother was a garment worker, and her father ran a laundry service and later worked in restaurants. After graduating from Barnard with a degree in sociology, she went on to earn her master’s in social work at NYU.

The job of a preservationist, as Matsuda knew all too well, meant responding to an abiding sense of urgency. “Sometimes it was literally dumpster-diving,” Matsuda told Barnard Magazine in 2013. “We were trying to recover history that was quickly being lost.”

Yet she persevered. At the time, there was no museum that focused solely on the experiences of Chinese American immigrants, and Matsuda, along with devoted peers and stakeholders, helped to fill this void and create a space to celebrate the experiences of immigrants often ignored or forgotten by public memory. “It was about reclaiming our own history,” Matsuda said, “and telling the story we wanted to tell.”

In a move that would take her full circle, she returned to the Hamilton-Madison House, where she first began her career, to serve as the program director of City Hall Senior Center. There, she assisted and empowered the Chinatown and Lower East Side senior populations — the communities that meant so much to her.

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