At the turn of the twentieth century, the Chinese diaspora was a lively cacophony of political debate about the future of a weakened China. The military humiliation of the Qing by Japan in 1894 gave rise to an urgent call to modernize and empower China. Saving China, it was believed, would also improve how Chinese were treated by their host countries. As debates between reformist and revolutionary advocates intensified, Chinese Christians were deeply engaged. They believed that China’s salvation required integrating Western technological prowess and spiritual values (i.e., American democratic ideas and Christian faith) into Chinese cultural heritage. Before the Sino-Japanese conflict of the 1930s, this optimistic point of view made sense.1
One of the most prominent advocates of this perspective was Ng Poon Chew (1866–1931). Born in Guangdong province, Ng moved to California in 1881 and started as a domestic servant. He quickly mastered English, adopted Western dress, and became a Christian. After completing his studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1892, he became the first Chinese Presbyterian minister in America and pastored a Chinese church in Los Angeles. He soon decided to focus on publishing Chung Sai Yat Pao, the first Chinese language daily newspaper outside of China. The newspaper spoke forcefully for Chinese civil rights and encouraged Chinese to embrace American values. Ng and his newspaper were the public face of opposition to the Chinese Exclusion Act and its abuses in the early twentieth century. Ng traveled the country extensively, spoke out against Chinese exclusion, and published books and pamphlets that opposed discrimination against Chinese. Though he was well received, public opinion did not change. America remained opposed to the “yellow peril” and restrictive immigration practices were not modified.2
Chung Sai Yat Pao became the leading advocate for a modern Chinese republic influenced by Christian values. Though this covered the speeches of Dr. SunYat-Sun (1866-1925), Ng did not embrace revolutionary republicanism until his visit to China in 1910. Afterwards, his editorials wholeheartedly supported Sun, and he started raising money for Sun’s efforts. Following the 1911 revolution, Ng was in great demand on the Chautauqua speaker circuit and throughout America. He did his best to explain events in China and to fight against anti-Chinese discrimination.3
During this time, Chinese Christianity in North America became an urban haven for an evangelical social gospel. In partnership with white missionaries and allies, Chinese Christians helped build public schools, YMCAs and YWCAs, and hospitals to serve the community. Women missionaries drew increased attention to the social conditions of Chinese women and children. The most famous example was Presbyterian missionary, Donaldina Cameron, who devoted her life to “rescuing” Chinese prostitutes and helping them establish new lives and new families. Chinatown missions increasingly looked like family-centered communities. The women missionaries encouraged Chinese women to become Christian homemakers. Ironically, a generation of American-born or raised Chinese women preferred to follow the example of their public leadership.4
Mabel Pin Hua Lee (1897–1966) is a striking embodiment of female empowerment in the Chinese community. She was a bridge to a younger generation of American-born Chinese Christians who were greatly concerned about racial discrimination. Like Ng Poon Chew, she shared that generation’s vision for China’s salvation, but she devoted her life to women’s suffrage and community service. Lee was born in Guangzhou in 1897, the only child of Pastor To Lee. She spent her early childhood in China and enrolled in a missionary school where she became proficient in English. She reunited with her parents in New York City shortly after her father was appointed to pastor the Morningstar Baptist Mission in Chinatown. Mabel attended public schools until she was accepted at Barnard College. Mabel then earned a PhD in economic history at Columbia University in 1921. After her father’s untimely death, Lee decided to remain in New York and led the mission and its community center until her death in 1966.5, 6
Mabel was a gifted communicator and an ambitious young leader who was dedicated to improving society. Along with their work at Morningstar Mission, Mabel Lee and her mother raised money for Chinese famine victims, worked with the YWCA, and participated in Chinatown parades. When the Qing imperial rule was deposed in 1911, the new government enfranchised woman. This intrigued white American suffragists. In the spring of 1912, Chinese women like Mabel were invited to speak at their meetings. That same year, at the age of 16, Mabel Lee, who was still a high school student, helped lead a parade of 10,000 for women’s suffrage while riding a horse. She gave speeches and wrote papers in high school and college that argued for the necessity of woman’s suffrage. She and her peers also advocated for US citizenship for Chinese immigrants. After 1930, she devoted her life to leading the mission, serving Chinatown’s children, and mentoring young men and women.
American-born Chinese who attended college in the 1920s and 1930s represent a third example of Chinese Christians who engaged in public witness. As children and youth, most grew up in Chinese churches in segregated communities. They were initially enthused about developing multiracial friendships in college and experiencing life outside Chinatown. However, after experiencing racial discrimination in white Christian student clubs, they joined the Chinese Student Christian Association (CSCA). The CSCA was a student-led campus ministry for students from China sponsored by the YMCA’s Committee on Friendly Relations among Foreign Students (it also sponsored the Japanese Students Christian Association and the Filipino Students Christian Movement). Unlike their student work in the south which addressed racial discrimination, YMCA administrators insisted that the prejudice directed towards [international Asian] students was not racism so much as a generalized suspicion of foreigners, a problem that the students could easily overcome by “building a cultural bridge with Americans,” offering a social and cultural solution to the issue. But when American-born Chinese reported similar incidents to the CSCA, they and the other Asian student associations challenged the YMCA to recognize the problems of Asian discrimination and to interpret the racial climate and the discrimination as violations of Christian ethics. They also “responded with influential social, cultural, and later political tactics requiring interracial and interethnic solidarity.”7
The CSCA was disbanded in 1951. Under suspicion of harboring communists, the CSCA faced intense scrutiny from the FBI and CIA. During the Cold War, distinct group identities, whether racial-ethnic or religious, were discouraged in favor of integration and assimilation. Though the number of Chinese international students had risen in the 1950s, they were encouraged to enter mainstream American life. Chinese (and other Asian) American students no longer wanted to participate in ethnic-specific groups as they “celebrated a perceived acceptance among white Americans and an assimilation to American cultural, social, and political life that had been out of reach prior to World War II.”8
On the other hand, many American-born CSCA alum continued their activism. Some joined interracial movements that focused on African American civil rights. Others, such as Ching Wah Lee, focused on changing the image of Chinatown by promoting Chinese culture and education. Despite pressures to assimilate, most Chinese churches refused to drop their ethnic identification. In cities with large Chinatowns, many mainline Protestant churches were buffeted by the “baby boom” and increased numerically. A new generation of American-born Chinese came of age in the 1960s. One study concluded that the Chinese churches in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s “are growing and are youthful.” The United States was not a “melting pot where different cultures and traditions are merged indiscriminately together.” The study argued that multiple ethno-religious cultures neither balkanize the nation nor hinder racial integration. Chinese American mainline Protestants spoke English, felt comfortable in the United States, and were committed to their denominations. Many also appeared to be open to “secular” culture and reluctant to draw sharp religious boundaries.9
Both interracial activism and Chinese-centric faith communities would have played into the model minority identity. However, in the 1970s, Chinese Christians found in liberationist critique of white supremacy a way to embrace Asian American empowerment and pan-ethnic solidarity without resorting to the model minority myth. They also reconnected with Chinese American history and culture.
It would be a mistake to assume that public witness and social justice were the only concerns of Chinese Christians who would be identified as mainline Protestant today. They also display a rich liturgical and devotional diversity that belies a broad range of spiritualities. But because they were born in the womb of nineteenth century abolitionism and liberal evangelicalism and raised in partnerships with white missionaries, this Chinese Christian tradition, which has never been numerically large, remains faithful to social justice and civic responsibility. Resting on biblical kingdom values, Chinese American Christians during this period envisioned a truly welcoming American society, tried to improve society, and worked for unity in the church.
- L. Eve Armentrout Ma, Revolutionaries, Monarchists, and Chinatowns: Chinese Politics in the Americas and the 1911 Revolution (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1990). See also Ryan Dunch, Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of Modern China, 1857–1927 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001) and Timothy Tseng, “Chinese Protestant Nationalism in the United States, 1880-1927” in New Spiritual Homes: Religion and Asian Americans, edited by David Yoo (University of Hawaii Press, 1999): 19–51.
- Corrine K. Hoexter, From Canton to California: The Epic of Chinese Immigration (New York: Four Winds Press, 1976). A helpful historical analysis of the Chung Sai Yat Po can be found in Shehong Chen, Being Chinese, Becoming Chinese American (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002).
- In addition to publicizing particular immigration cases in the Chung Sai Yat Po, Ng brought new information to light by authoring the fact-filled dossiers, The Treatment of the Exempt Classes of Chinese in the United States (1908), and co-authored with Irish American Patrick J. Healy, A Statement for Non-Exclusion (1905).
- Judy Yung. Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (Berkeley: University of California, 1995) and Unbound Voice: A Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1999); Peggy Pascoe, Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874–1939. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); Kristin and Kathryn Wong, Fierce Compassion, The Life of Abolitionist Donaldina Cameron (Saline, Michigan: New Earth Enterprises, 2012). Missionaries also fought against anti-Asian American immigration and naturalization laws. See Jennifer C. Snow, Protestant Missionaries, Asian Immigrants, and Ideologies of Race in America, 1850–1924 (New York: Routledge, 2007).
- Timothy Tseng, “Chinatown’s Suffragist, Pastor, and Community Organizer: Why Mabel Lee left behind great expectations in China for her American immigrant community.” Christianity Today (June 16, 2107) https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2017/june/mabel-lee-chinatown-suffragist-pastor-community-organizer.html?share=Ry%2foxbmLaCXBuLOVA51bV6fQnOyzUMEV and Grace May, “Leading Development at Home: Dr. Mabel Ping Hua Lee (1896-1966)” WCIU Journal (Nov. 1, 2016) https://wciujournal.wciu.edu/women-in-international-development/2018/10/14/leading-development-at-home-dr-mabel-ping-hua-lee-18961966.
- Ibid. See also Cathleen D. Cahill, “Mabel Ping-Hua Lee: How Chinese-American Women Helped Shape the Suffrage Movement” Women’s Vote Centennial (April 30, 2020) https://www.womensvote100.org/the-suff-buffs-blog/2020/4/30/mabel-ping-hua-lee-how-chinese-american-women-helped-shape-the-suffrage-movement and Carl Samson, “Meet the First Chinese American Woman to Fight for Voting Rights That History Almost Forgot” Next Shark (November 6, 2019) https://nextshark.com/mabel-lee-womens-suffrage-pioneer/.
- Stephanie Hinnershitz, Race, Religion, and Civil Rights: Asian Students on the West Coast, 1900–1968. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015). See also Tseng, Timothy “Religious Liberalism, International Politics, and Diasporic Realities: The Chinese Students Christian Association of North America, 1909–1951,” Journal of American-East Asian Relations 5:3–4 (Fall–Winter, 1996).
- Frederick Bird, A Study of Chinese Churches in the San Francisco Bay Area (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Community Research, 1968), 1, 20.
Image credit: Radiogram; 6/26/1937; Case #12-943; Chinese Exclusion Act case file for Mabel Lee (Ping Hua Lee); Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files, ca. 1882 – ca. 1960; Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Record Group 85; National Archives at New York, New York, NY. [Online Version, https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/radiogram-mabel-lee, November 18, 2020]
Timothy Tseng is the Pacific Area Director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Graduate and Faculty Ministries (GFM). His has served as a seminary professor, scholar, founder of a non-profit organization, and pastor. Tim is all about helping Jesus followers flourish wherever faith and life intersect. Over the years, he has worked …View Full Bio