Obituaries

Fay Chiang, 65, poet who championed Asian-American culture

The poet Fay Chiang (right) with Mary Lum, an artist, in Chinatown in New York in the 1970s.
DORIS LUM MAZUR
The poet Fay Chiang (right) with Mary Lum, an artist, in Chinatown in New York in the 1970s.

Fay Chiang, whose quest to understand her identity as a child of Chinese immigrants found outlets in vivid poetry and in community activism that helped elevate Asian-American education and culture, died Oct. 20 in a hospice in the Bronx. She was 65.

Her daughter Xian Chiang-Waren said the cause was complications of cancer. She had lived in Manhattan, in the East Village.

Ms. Chiang’s poetry — sometimes serene, sometimes angry and sometimes written in all lowercase letters — reflected her anxieties as a first-generation Chinese-American, her desire to etch Asian culture into American society, her involvement with organizations in Chinatown and on the Lower East Side, and her multiple reckonings with breast cancer over nearly a quarter-century.

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She wrote about white friends and classmates who would not invite her into their homes because she was Chinese, the fourth-grade teacher who mocked her intention to write a poem, and the grandmother who admonished her for not being a boy. Her three volumes of poetry included “7 Continents 9 Lives” (2010).

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She remembered the formative experience of growing up in the backroom of her parents’ hand laundry in Queens. Ms. Chiang, her three younger siblings, and her parents crammed into that 10-by-14-foot room with a folding table, six folding chairs, and a convertible sofa, among other furnishings, until she was 9 years old.

And she recalled how hard her father, Bay Doc Chiang, had to work. He had cleaned other people’s clothes since immigrating to the United States as a boy in the 1930s from Sunwei, in the southern coastal province of Guangdong, working in the laundry 16 hours a day six days a week while her mother, the former Hop Kun Leo, who was also from Sunwei, ran their modest home.

In “Parents,” Ms. Chiang wrote about her father:

hey! That dude was some snappy dresser.

during the war, they let him work

the navy yards as an apprentice steelwelder

but when the soldiers came home

laundry customers called him Charlie.

The name Charlie was an ethnic slur, referring to the fictional Chinese detective Charlie Chan.

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While attending Hunter College in Manhattan, she became active in the movement against the Vietnam War and worked with student groups to establish Asian-American studies courses and programs at Hunter and other colleges in the City University of New York system.

But she left college; as the eldest daughter, she was expected to care for her father, who was dying of cancer, and run the laundry. She eventually graduated from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan with a degree in illustration.

In the mid-1970s, Ms. Chiang took the first of what would be a series of jobs with nonprofit groups when she became executive director of the Basement Workshop in Chinatown, a social and cultural organization that mainly served the Asian-American arts community.

“She was a steadfast believer that cultural and educational work was the key to activism,” John Kuo Wei Tchen, a historian at New York University and founding director of the university’s Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute, wrote in an e-mail. “She always talked about people needing to realize they had choices and could get unstuck in their lives.”

After a dozen years with the Basement Workshop, Ms. Chiang worked at the Henry Street Settlement’s outreach program; in New York Newsday’s public affairs department; at Project Reach, a youth program based in Chinatown; and Poets & Writers, a readings and workshop program.

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Ms. Chiang documented the toll that metastatic breast cancer had taken on her in “Landmarks and Geography,” a 2012 poem.

Despite three tumors still in one lung, sciatica coursing from her spine to her toes, and pain from scars, she wrote that she felt joy at still standing and

still walking

all hours of the day

the streets of this city

of my birth;

Chinatown, the Lower East Side,

And East Village my home.

wind, sun, rain, snow sleet —

elements against my open face

still alive.