L. Chee (劉伯枝)

Lately, I’ve been tinkering around with my data for a possible paper on the Indemnity Scholars who chose to go to schools in the US South. There are comparatively few of them, so I’m able to really get into each student’s story like I do here in the blog. So I thought I’d profile one such southern student: Leo Chee (劉伯枝, pinyin Liú Bóqí).

Leo Chee, from the 1916 Buffalo, the Milligan College Yearbook.

So, first of all, I have no idea what this man’s name was. In English sources, he is most often recorded as “Leo Chee”, but we can see from his Chinese name that 劉 (liú) was his family name; in the Western style he should be named “Chee Leo”. And, in fact, he is also sometimes recorded as that, such as in the Christian China 1914 Directory (pg. 81), the 1912 and 1914 CSA Directories, and as a second entry in the 1915 CSA Directory (his first entry is as Chee, Leo).

I had hoped that the inclusion of his Chinese name in the 1912 CSA Directory would help, but it only made things more complicated. His name is listed as 劉伯枝, but you can tell right away that this is not his birth name, but rather his courtesy name. Courtesy names were given to men upon reaching 20 years of age and were used after that time by those of the same generation as the man (Wikipedia). This is obviously a courtesy name because of the first character 伯 (bó), which indicates that L. Chee was the oldest son of his family. That’s interesting information, but it doesn’t tell us how this student got the romanized name of “Chee”. It’s possible that the final character 枝 (qí) is the clue, and it’s true that some courtesy names incorporated characters from the person’s birth name. But I can’t say for certain how L. Chee got his Western name.


He was born on 3 May 1890 in Suimoi, which is a location in the district of Xinhui in Guangdong. However, he may have been born as early as 1884, according to one ship’s manifest. I have no information on whether he went to school in China, but I would guess that he didn’t, as one of his college yearbooks remarks that he left China at the age of 11 (The Sphinx 1913, pg. 83). This would have been between 1895 and 1901. Unfortunately, I don’t have any information about whether he traveled alone, with his family, or with a trusted family friend, because he didn’t go to the US at this time – he immigrated to Mexico.

This might explain a little bit about his name. Upon arrival to the US, most Chinese students would simply flip their names around and put the family name last as per Western tradition. However, Chinese immigrants to Mexico often chose Mexican first names and used their family names as a surname (Wikipedia). It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to me that L. Chee, or his parents, chose to use the family name Liu/Leo as a first name, since Leo is a Spanish name.


Anyway, L. Chee seems to have lived in Mexico City. He was one of a very few number of Chinese people living in the capital – possibly as few as 40 people were registered as Chinese in the early 1900s, as per the previously-linked Wikipedia article. A newsletter called the Christian Advocate mentions in a 1910 edition that Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church in Mexico City held a weekly Chinese school of about 40 members (2 June 1910, pg. 28). This was most probably L. Chee’s religious community when he was living in Mexico, since the President and Elder of the church was listed as his closest relation in Mexico when he left the country in 1907. Did he come to Mexico without his parents, then? It doesn’t seem likely; most Chinese came to Mexico at that time to work, mostly on the railroads, and as L. Chee was only 11 when he arrived, he probably didn’t come for that. Did he come with a missionary? Did he learn Spanish? I find this fascinating, and I wish we had more primary source documents to help illuminate this student’s story.

After several years living in Mexico, L. Chee left the country via Veracruz. His entry paperwork (link) indicates that he was headed to Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, but I don’t have any verification that he actually went there. He traveled with a man named Carlos DuBois, who was a Mexican man headed for New York, and possibly through this man’s influence, L. Chee decided to go to New York as well for his education.


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Photograph of the Missionary Training Institute in Nyack, NY

L. Chee continued his affiliation with Protestant religious organizations throughout his college years. The US school he attended first was self-reported as “Nyack Seminary”, which was probably the Missionary Training Institute in Nyack, New York. He was there for less than a year before transferring to Emory and Henry College in Emory, Virginia. E&H is affiliated with the Methodist Church, the same denomination he was associated with when he lived in Mexico. The E&H Yearbook (The Sphinx) mentions that L. Chee was a member of the “Fitting School” when he first came to the college, and eventually matriculated as a regular student. The 1912-1913 E&H Bulletin lists him as a freshman (pg. 119), so he was at the “Fitting School” for 4 years, from 1908-1912, much like a traditional high school.

However, the 1910 Census tells another story. L. Chee lived at 369 Stage Road in Glade Spring, VA – incidentally right down the road from a Virginia Supreme Court Justice – but his occupation was listed as “Janitor – College” (link). The only college in the area is Emory and Henry, so he must have been working there. This seems strange to me; Chinese students were not allowed to work while they were in the US studying, although some did. It makes me wonder if he was asked to do so by the college so he could help pay his way.

He took summer classes in 1912, before his first semester as a college student (Emory and Henry Bulletin 1912-13, pg. 125). He also shows up in the 1912 CSA directory as a member of the Eastern Section of the Alliance. The 1913 Yearbook, which was put together at the beginning of the 1913-14 year, lists him as a sophomore on page 83 and then provides a short biography. His field of study isn’t mentioned, but the biography does state that “He intends, after graduation, to return to China as a missionary” (86).


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The Sophomore Class from the Emory and Henry 1913-1914 academic year. L. Chee is on the far left in the first row.

L. Chee of course is listed in the Emory and Henry Bulletin 1913-14 (110), as well as in the 1914 CSA Directory. The information in the directory was probably copied from the Chinese Christian Students’ Association Directory of the same year, which was published in volume 1, number 2 of their magazine (81). He’s also listed in the Emory and Henry Bulletin 1914-15 (115), what would have been his junior year, as well as in the 1915 CSA Directory. He seemed to be in earnest as to his desire to become a missionary, as he became licensed to preach in 1915 by the Holston Conference of the Methodist Church, and was assigned to the Radford District – about 80 miles north of Emory (Holston Annual 1915, pg. 6).


And then, something happened. Or, something must have happened, because L. Chee did not return to E&H for his senior year. After 8 years there, he transferred to Milligan College, a college in Elizabethton, Tennessee affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. Moreover, he was no longer preaching or studying to be a minister, because according to the 1916 Milligan College Yearbook, he was a music student (pg. 43). Now, Milligan was a religious college, so he could have been studying church music, but why the sudden shift?

Fortunately, he didn’t have to do his college work from Emory and Henry over again; he entered Milligan as a senior and graduated with an AB that year (The Buffalo 1916, pg. 23; see photo at the beginning of this post). Incidentally, this is in contrast to L. Chee’s self-reported information, as in the 1921 Who’s Who of the Chinese Students in America he reported that he got his BA in 1916 from the University of Cincinnati.


So, can we understand from that that he went immediately to the University of Cincinnati in 1916? The catalogs for those years are not available online, so we will have to guess. But in 1919, L. Chee shows up again in the University of Cincinnati yearbook as a pre-med student (pg. 347). He was also a member of the Pre-Medic Club (pg. 110). Now both preaching, music, and indeed his strong affiliation with the Protestant Church, as the University of Cincinnati has always been a public, secular institution. I’m not sure what L. Chee planned to do with his pre-med studies. The following year, in the University of Cinicinnati Catalog of 1920, he had taken a job as a “Museum Assistant in Zoology” (pg. 22). So maybe he wanted to be a veterinarian, or a zoologist.

He seemed to move around a bit while he was in Ohio. The 1920 Catalog lists his address as 139 W University Avenue. The 1920 Census, however, lists him at 2536 Auburn Avenue (link). This information was repeated in the 1921 Who’s Who. He became more active in social clubs during his time in Cincinnati; he donated $1 to the Chinese Students’ Christian Association (Christian China, Vol. 7 No. 7, pg. 376) and $2 to the Chinese Students’ Association (Chinese Students’ Monthly, Vol. 16 No. 2, pg. 146).


He also attended meetings of the Cincinnati Chinese Students’ Club, but interestingly enough, in a 1921 club report, he is said to NOT be taking classes at the University of Cincinnati. Instead, the report states that he is taking a course in a medical college (Chinese Students’ Monthly, Vol. 17 No. 1, pg. 47). I’m not sure where he was, or how long he intended to stay. The 1921 Who’s Who indicates that he was planning to return to China in 1924.


However, I have been completely unable to find information about his life after 1921. I don’t know whether he returned to China, whether he returned to Mexico, whether he became a preacher or a doctor or a vet. He doesn’t show up in any of my post-US sources, which is such a shame, because his pre-US and US life was so interesting.



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