Asian Fortune family pays tribute to founder Jay Chen

Jay Chen holds his grandson. Photo courtesy of Lily Chen Ma.

By Marlena Chertock

Published first in The Public Asian

The editor and founder of Asian Fortune, the only English-language Asian Pacific American newspaper in the U.S., died from a brain aneurysm in Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia on Jan. 31, according to his family.

Jay Chen, 61, an immigrant from China, had a vision for a way to bring all APA ethnicities together and educate others about the APA experience, according to his daughter Lily Chen Ma. This vision became Asian Fortune, which Chen launched in 1993.

Ma remembers how difficult it was for her dad to work with a limited budget in the beginning stages of the newspaper. When reporters still used typewriters, Ma, then 13, would help her dad type up articles on their own computer, she said.

“My dad saved hundreds of dollars because we would manually fold all the papers throughout the night to save that money, to the point that our hands were all black,” Ma said.

Before he founded the newspaper, Chen studied journalism as an East-West Center fellow in Hawaii in 1985, a fellowship program that allows participants to study and practice a particular subject, according to an Asian Fortune press release. Chen also reported for Xinhua News Agency, a large newspaper in China, and was a translator for the Voice of America in D.C. from 1989 to 1991.

Chen started the small business and paper, now with a circulation of over 800,000 APAs in the D.C. area, mostly on his own, according to his daughter.

“He always said, ‘Never quit, even if the world gives you crap on a silver platter, you just keep going and trying your best,’” said Larry Shinagawa, the director of the Asian American studies program at this university. “There are people who are takers and givers, and he was definitely a giver.”

Her father was a humble person who tried not to attract attention, according to Ma. “Most of the time, he was a low-key person,” she said.

Ben Wu, Vice Chairman of the U.S.-Asia Institute, called Chen a real leader in the community who focused on others. “But he’s also done it in quite an understated way,” Wu said. “He was using the publication to focus on other people, instead of himself, because of his generous nature, to create a more cohesive community.”

During his time as editor and publisher of Asian Fortune, Chen made major contributions to journalism,  such as being a consistent presence in the APA community in Rockville, D.C. and other regions, according to the press release.

Chen covered as many events as possible and rarely refused to advertise an event in his publication, according to Shinagawa, who was one of the pallbearers at Chen’s memorial service on Feb. 5.

Chen’s attitude toward life translated into how he ran the newspaper. “He was a pioneer,” Shinagawa said. “You would think he would choose to do a Chinese newspaper, but he didn’t.”

Chen was one of Shinagawa’s closest friends. He invited Shinagawa to a welcoming party six months into his directorship at this university, according to the director. “He hosted a party at his house, invited hundreds of people and I got to know the Asian American community in D.C.,” Shinagawa said. “That was the kind of person he was.”

Ma has taken over the business and said that she wants to increase the paper’s online presence. “I have worked with my father before, performing tasks including visiting perspective advertisers, updating the website and doing the layout so I have experience in all aspects involved with the paper,” she said.

“The fact that Lily is able to continue Jay’s legacy ensures that it will continue to serve an important role in the community,” Wu said.

Chen received countless journalism awards throughout his career, including the National Minority Media Cornerstone Award by the U.S. Department of Commerce, Small Business Journalist of the Year Award by the Small Business Administration and the Journalist of the Year Award by the Dallas Asian American Chamber of Commerce.

Chen is survived by his wife Lucia, daughter Lily and her husband Johnny Ma, grandson Zachary Ma and stepson Peter Lin.

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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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