By Hye-Jin Kim
The nondescript, grey block of a post office serving New York City’s Chinatown already owns a piece of history. At 6 Doyers Street, it shares the address of a famous distillery run in the 1800s by the street’s namesake, Hendrick Doyers.
Soon, the location might claim a second name to fame, as the “Mabel Lee Memorial Post Office.”
A bill to dedicate this post office to a leading Chinese American suffragette passed the House earlier this week. The bill now awaits senate vote, another step closer to the president’s desk.
Introduced by Nadia M. Velazquez (D-NY) last November, the bill garnered support from every New York representatives, including nine republicans who agreed to be cosponsors.
“[Dr.] Mabel Lee’s life is the story of breaking down countless barriers at a time when women had few opportunities,” said Velázquez. “All New Yorkers and especially women in public service owe her a debt of gratitude. Renaming this post office in her honor is a fitting tribute to such an inspiring figure.”
In May 1917, a 22 year-old Mabel Lee organized a group of women in her Chinese community to march in New York City’s parade for their right to vote. A graduate of Barnard College, Lee was the first Chinese woman to receive a PhD from Columbia University where she studied political science and economics. Lee was also the only daughter of a Baptist minister, and devoted her life to nurturing a congregation that doubled as a community center for the city’s Chinese American community.
According to community activist Karlin Chan, a Chinatown resident for more than 57 years, it’s about time she be recognized.
“Back in November, I remember getting the email from Rep. Nydia Velasquez,” Chan said to AsAmNews. “I personally felt elated that she sought to honor a Chinese American woman at the federal level. It’s something that just doesn’t happen often. In New York City, at least.”
Chan is also a frequent visitor to the First Chinese Baptist Church on 21 Pell Street, the congregation and community center that Lee started in 1936. Today, the church sustains her legacy of political activism by screening films about Chinese American history and holding meetings for local activists. Inside the church is a bronze plaque engraved with Mabel Lee’s name.
It’s unclear whether any of Lee’s relatives still attend the church at 21 Pell Street. Lee had no siblings and was single all her life, having no kids of her own.
Many of the public details about Lee’s personal life can be traced to Tim Tseng’s research, a former pastor in San Jose, California who wrote his seminary dissertation on Mabel Lee in the early 1990s.
“I was looking at the history of Chinese Americans and her name came up. At the time, I was living in New York City, so I simply went to the church [at 21 Pell Street],” Tseng recalled. There, he met Steven Gee, one of the church’s pastors. Though initially tight-lipped, Gee granted him access to a trove of notes, letters and records that Lee left behind when she died in 1966.
Evidence of her smooth fluency in both Cantonese and English, Tseng said he couldn’t translate the Cantonese chunk of her memos, but her prolific English writings pieced together much of her adult life.
Born in Hong Kong in 1896, Lee spent her childhood in China, before emigrating to the U.S. on scholarship and enrolling at Barnard College. Early on, she began championing women’s rights in student publications. In one essay, she wrote that true feminism is “nothing more than the extension of democracy or social justice and equality of opportunities to women.” Later, her speech at a 1915 suffrage meeting earned her a New York Times headline.
Shortly after she completed her PhD at Columbia University, Lee wavered back and forth between staying in the U.S. and resettling in China, debating where she might leave her mark.
“The welfare of China and possibly its very existence as an independent nation depend on rendering tardy justice to its womankind. For no nation can ever make real and lasting progress in civilization unless its women are following close to its men if not actually abreast with them,” she had written earlier in college.
In the end, Lee chose to straddle both, living in New York and working for a shipping firm based in Hong Kong. Until the sudden death of her father by heart attack immediately froze her plans. She took over his director role of a Baptist mission and devoted herself to buying a building in his memory, creating a physical space for their religious community — now known as the First Chinese Baptist Church.
When Tseng first started digging into her past, he said very few people knew her story besides local Baptists. And by the time he began his research, many of the pastors who had known her personally had retired or died.
“I’m glad this bill recognizes her,” Tseng said.
Today, one of Gee’s grandsons, Jeffrey Gee Chin, is also filming a documentary about Mabel Lee’s life.
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