New York’s Chinatown Lady

Nov 2002    

Mrs Nathalie Means, a missionary in Singapore and Malays for many years with her husband, Dr Paul Means, tells us the heartwarming story of a gifted Chinese American’s mission to her own people in New York City. Sharing God’s love can be done anywhere.

‘Dr Mabel Lee, an accomplished linguist, speaking French and German fluently and English and Chinese as her native tongues, has a charming personality and a Christian ardour and enthusiasm which are bringing scores of Chinese into direct contact with the Saviour.’

‘ … BORN of Cantonese parents, Mabel Lee grew up in a fine Christian home where she was given every advantage of both Chinese and American girls.

Since her father was a wealthy merchant she often made trips with him from America to China and had about equal parts of her education in China and America. She was a good student and graduated from Columbia University with honours. She then entered the Graduate School and took her Doctor’s degree in history and economics.

Having an excellent education in both Chinese and English, Dr Lee was confronted with the problem of what she should do. Without doubt she could have had a good position in some fine Chinese university. There were numerous openings for her in America, but in the midst of her indecision her father died.

He had always been a man of few words and had never discussed the future with his daughter. As he realised his end was approaching he called Mabel to his bedside and said to her: “It has always been my hope that something could be done for the thousands of Chinese here in New York City who live in Chinatown and know nothing about Christ.”

After thinking over her father’s words Dr Lee decided that she should not go to China but rather stay right in New York City to work among her own people. A small City Mission had been organised some years before by four Mission Boards – Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist — but the work had not been very promising because of the lack of a Christian Chinese leader. Dr Lee moved to Chinatown.

She opened a small shophouse for a club room. The work grew like magic under her hand, although there were plenty of difficulties, for Chinatown of New York City presents many and unusual problems. The fact that there are 10 times as many men as there are women is a problem.

The almost impossibility of Chinese meeting American Christians was another difficulty. Dr Lee went to the churches and the young people’s organisations and appealed for volunteers. She believed that the way to introduce the Chinese to Christianity was to introduce them to Christians. She now keeps 200 volunteer workers on her list to say nothing of the large staff of Chinese who give their services free.

The proprietor of a Chinese art and curio shop who had been ordained in Seattle, Washington, early offered his services to Dr Lee and helped to build up a fine Chinese church. He is still pastor and gives his services entirely without pay.

Classes of every variety are held on various nights of the week. Classes in English, typewriting, radio, carpentry, etc, make the Mission centre a busy place. One by one the Mission Boards have withdrawn, leaving this an independent piece of work. So greatly is this work appreciated that many non-Christians contribute large sums yearly.

Dr Lee says that laundry boys sometimes contribute as much as $40 a year from their small earnings. So great is Dr Lee’s influence among the Chinese community that when Tong wars occasionally break out in Chinatown the Chief of Police of New York City sends for Dr Lee and then leaves it to her to settle the difficulties.

Dr Lee, who is an accomplished linguist, speaking French and German fluently and English and Chinese as her native tongues, is able to meet any group with ease. She has a naturally charming personality and a Christian ardour and enthusiasm which are bringing scores of Chinese into direct contact with the Saviour. Not all missionaries are in China!’ — MM September 1934, p. 5.


Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.


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