Vancouver Sun: Douglas Todd, ‘How has Christmas infused the Chinese culture? Let’s count the ways’

Photo: Handout, Vancouver Sun

I’m happy to be quoted in Douglas Todd’s Saturday article in the Vancouver Sun: ‘How has Christmas infused the Chinese culture? Let’s count the ways.’ As I’ve said in the past, Todd and I come from fairly different philosophical perspectives, but we often meet each other halfway.

Today, I’m quoted on Christmas and Chinese communities. We had a wide-ranging conversation about Chinese cultural practices around Christmas, and Todd was quite insistent that we talk about both Chinese Christians (my area of research) and the secular – or at least, non-Christian – population. Most of my comments were framed around the global cities literature in urban studies. As John Friedman, Saskia Sassen, Michael Peter Smith, David Ley, and Karen Lai have all written in their own way, ‘global cities’ have been conceptualized as ‘command and control’ centres of the global economy that need in their own right to be studied as places, sites where people live and make meaning in their everyday lives, as well as hubs for transnational political networks. You’ll be able to tell very quickly that I’m drawing from this literature as I make my comments.

Photo: Apple Daily

I’m quoted, for example, first on the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement, where protesters largely associated with Narrow Road Church have gone protest carolling in Causeway Bay; members of St. Francis’ Chapel on the Street from the Mong Kok occupation also went carolling in Kowloon. Here’s what Todd says:

Justin Tse, who has a PhD in cultural geography from the University of B.C., says Christmas and its colourful trappings — from lighthearted reindeer displays to solemn church services — are now embedded in Chinese culture in both Canada and East Asia.

Providing just one contemporary example, Tse noted Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators were harassed this week by police for singing Christmas carols. The protesters had adapted the carols’ Christian lyrics to their human rights ideals.

In other words, the protesters are taking a global cities phenomenon that is rooted in consumption practices – the commercial enterprise of Christmas – and turning it on its head for democratic protests.

Indeed, while my work is on Chinese Christians, my training in geography has also had me reading around the edges of political economy. In the work of Aihwa Ong and Katharyne Mitchell, for example, cultural geographies go hand in hand with material circulation. In this way, my comments about consumption are interspersed with observations about labour:

Tse, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington who was raised in Metro Vancouver, says, “I think most Chinese people in Canada would see Christmas as a time for family and enjoying the lights — and maybe shopping and getting a good deal in Bellingham.”

While tens of thousands of Chinese international students in B.C. fly home to East Asia for Christmas break, Tse says many other ethnic Chinese in the region end up working over the holidays.

What I was trying to do there was to give a sense that there are very material class differences that exist among Vancouver’s Chinese populations. Yes, there is a class of people whose worlds revolve around material consumption. But that venues of consumption are open indicates that there have to be people working, including in retail stores and restaurants.

Todd also had me commenting about Chinese festivities. He notes elsewhere that I am ‘BC-born,’ which positions me as a jook sing jai (竹升仔), a ‘hollow bamboo’ second-generation Chinese Canadian who is made fun of for being uncouth in the ways of ‘Chinese culture.’ The term jook sing jai was redeemed for me by reading some of the classics in Chinese American and Canadian literature, such as Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, Frank Chin’s Donald Duk, and Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony. Instead of using it as a derogatory term, I embrace it as part of my identity as I discover Chinese traditions. Here’s my jook sing comments on the Winter Solstice:

For the most part, however, Tse and other observers say Christmas has infiltrated the Chinese mindset. Tens of thousands in Metro Vancouver, for instance, will drive around neighbourhoods this week looking for the houses with the most elaborate Christmas displays.

In addition to celebrating Christmas, Tse adds that winter solstice, on Dec. 21, can be “kind of a big deal” for many Chinese people. Translated from the Chinese, the solstice festival is called “Doing the winter.”

As Tse puts it, many Chinese people before Dec. 21st go around asking each other, “What are you doing for ‘Doing the Winter?’”

The solstice is seen by Chinese people as the first of a string of winter festivals — preceding Christmas and Lunar New Year.

‘Doing the winter’ – 做冬 – is really my jook sing translation. Then again, the act of going around Vancouver looking for Christmas displays can be a real jook sing experience too. I’m just glad that Todd and I got the date right for this year’s Winter Solstice.

Todd also mentions my academic research, combining my master’s work on Chinese Christian congregations with my PhD on Cantonese Protestant engagements with the public sphere. I provided Todd first with a humorous anecdote of many a Christmas potluck I’ve attended at Chinese churches, though I’m sure similar things could be said of Chinese New Year, Easter, Thanksgiving, and baptism and ordination services. He then picks up on my more controversial work on Chinese Christian politics:

Tse’s academic research has focused on the one in four ethnic Chinese in Metro Vancouver who are Christian, typically evangelical Protestant or Roman Catholic.

Their worship services are often conducted in Cantonese or Mandarin. Tse says another noticeable difference about a Chinese Christian Christmas is the food.

A Chinese church Christmas potluck, he says, typically involves stacks of Styrofoam containers full of chow mein and other Chinese dishes. “But there’s always the guy who brings something from KFC or Pizza Hut. And, of course, there’s sushi. It’s all on the table together.”

In his research, Tse has noted that many socially conservative Chinese Christians in Canada are “fraught” over issues like homosexuality.

While Chinese Christians normally oppose homosexual relationships, they’re torn about what to do because they also appreciate their ethnic minority rights are protected in Canada and they can worship in their own way, without state intervention.

While it’s remarkable how Todd makes the jump from Christmas potlucks to homosexuality, I think I see where he’s coming from. Todd is trying to frame this in terms of multiculturalism and the fraughtness of religious freedom in relation to sexual minorities. This liberal framework reminds me that I need to continue to address this ‘fraught’ dynamic as I produce my own academic work on Vancouver’s Chinese Christian communities over the next little while.

Todd ends with a humorous snippet from me on global cities and cosmopolitanism:

For his part, B.C.-raised Tse equates the rise of Christmas among Chinese people with the ascendance of influential “global cities,” whether Beijing, Hong Kong or Metro Vancouver (where the real estate market, at least, he says, is shaped by international forces.)

An imposing Christmas tree dominating a public square in one of China’s megalopolises, or a small one glowing inside a Chinese person’s home in Richmond, are “what you would expect in a global city,” Tse says.

“This is what it means to be open-minded. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, It’s OK to put up a Christmas tree: I’m cosmopolitan.’”

Read in the context of the whole article, I’m happy to have this global cities literature put into conversation with Todd’s other interlocutors. Throughout the article, Todd quotes from Chinese consumers he met at Aberdeen Mall, fellow academics in Vancouver like Pitman Potter, a nationalistic Chinese think-tank that argues that Christmas is a ‘Western invasion,’ and Chinese Christians from Vancouver Chinese Evangelical Free Church who participate in both the religious and secular dimensions of the holidays. In many ways, this is what studying global cities is about – it’s about the everyday practices of people who live in those cities and the contested ways in which they try to make their own worlds.

I’m quite pleased at this article, and I hope that it will demonstrate to the Vancouver public how complex the Chinese populations in Vancouver are. This will certainly open up conversation on what it means to be a ‘global city’ in terms of everyday lives. Especially in light of the dubious white supremacists whose ‘catfish’ activities of self-multiplication are being revealed in other quarters of the news, this article is refreshing for its complexity while providing enough room for discussion about global cities, the Chinese diaspora, and the interconnectedness of consumption, labour, and religion. I am very thankful to Douglas Todd for spurring the conversation forward.

Relegens Thréskeia: Difference and the Establishment: An Asian Canadian Senior Pastor’s Evangelical Spatiality at Tenth Avenue Alliance Church in Vancouver, BC

I am very pleased to announce that I’ve published a piece in a special issue of Relegens Thréskeia, an open-access Brazilian religious studies journal. This recent special issue, edited by geographer Clevisson Pereira (Universidade Federal do Paraná), focuses on Espaço e Religião (Space and Religion). While most of the articles are published in Portuguese, they also brought on Thomas Tweed (University of Notre Dame) and myself to contribute English-language pieces. While Tweed’s piece proposes a theoretical framework for the study of geographies of religion, my piece is an empirical study of Ken Shigematsu, an Asian Canadian pastor in Vancouver. It also puts to work themes from my theoretical piece on ‘grounded theologies’ to understand Shigematsu’s church, Tenth Avenue Alliance Church, as what theologian John Milbank calls a ‘complex space.’

My piece is titled ‘Difference and the Establishment: An Asian Canadian Senior Pastor’s Evangelical Spatiality at Tenth Avenue Alliance Church in Vancouver, BC.’ Focusing on the spirituality of Ken Shigematsu, it demonstrates that his spiritual practice and his Asian Canadian sensibilities have reshaped Tenth Church, a historic Anglo-Canadian church, into a complex, multiracial, multi-class space. This analysis also suggests that there is a theoretical link between church growth theory and the ‘new religious economics’ in the sociology of religion and contends that a geographical approach might be able to complicate the models proposed by these approaches. The theological basis for Shigematsu’s theology, moreover, is the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) from New Testament studies; while I have written elsewhere of postcolonial Paul-within-Judaism models espoused by Mark Nanos and Sam Tsang, what is important to understand is that Shigematsu is himself deploying NPP and achieving these spatial results.

Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores how the evangelical spatiality of an Asian Canadian senior pastor at a historically Anglo-Saxon congregation has transformed it from an ethnically homogeneous, aging church to a heterogeneously-constituted gathering in an evangelical Protestant tradition. This piece challenges the conventional wisdom of the church growth movement and the new religious economics in the sociology of religion, both of which advise religious groups to construct homogeneity and consensus in efforts for numerical growth over against secularizing forces. The paper argues instead that Pastor Ken Shigematsu’s evangelical spatiality from the mid-1990s to the present must be understood as a theological embrace of difference in a church gifted to him by God over which he prayerfully pastors along with his staff. This paper understands Shigematsu’s evangelical spatiality through his own New Testament exegesis, his denominational affiliation with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, his ancient spiritual practices of indiscriminate hospitality, and his mystical reception of Tenth as a welcoming space toward a multiplicity of ethnic, class, and religious backgrounds. This article contributes to Asian Canadian Christian studies by discouraging a future where pan-Asian churches in Canada are homogeneously constructed and by exploring the concrete possibility of non-strategies in which heterogeneous, complex spaces that include Asian Canadians are received by pastors and studied by academics as a divine gift.

I am thankful to Clevisson Pereira for inviting me to participate in what for me is an exciting international endeavour, and I am also grateful to have worked so closely with Ken Shigematsu to have this paper produced. I have written about Shigematsu at a popular level in Ricepaper Magazine; consider this the full academic spelling-out of the thinking there. The paper is open-access, so I will be posting it on Academia.edu, and interested readers can also download it directly from Religens Thréskeia.

Syndicate: The Umbrella Movement and Theology

I’m happy to announce that I’ve become a section editor for Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology. Syndicate is a new publication with both online and print fora for new titles and issues in contemporary theology. I’m responsible for topics relating to what theologian John Milbank has called ‘theology and social theory,’ which as a geographer I include to encompass geographies of religion, secularization, and social theory.

My first foray into this editorial role has been to collate a forum on Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and Theology. Modelled after the forum on Ferguson and Theology, this conversation brings together three theologians to talk about the theological significance of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests that erupted into international attention on September 28, 2014 and that are expecting to be cleared on December 11. Because a fourth contributor was unable to submit his essay, I contributed the final piece in this forum.

The four essays are:

Here’s a bit from the blurb that I wrote to introduce the forum:

While all this has been novel for Anglo-American audiences, the protests have been long in coming for those who have watched and participated in shaping the ground in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover. If theology has percolated to the surface of the Umbrella Movement, one can be sure that theologians have also been watching and participating. The Umbrella Movement may be far from over. But if its themes of democracy, church-state relations, and grounded theologies have been simmering under the surface for quite some time, it is still worth asking some theologians how the movement’s theological significance might be articulated.

With a liberation theologian (Kung), a feminist theologian (Wu), a New Testament scholar (Tsang), and a social scientist interloper (yours truly), we’ve only scratched the surface of what theologies need further exploration in Hong Kong, but we hope that we have raised enough issues for good conversation for some time to come.

WHAT TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Some of the forthcoming titles that I’ll be working on include Gil Anidjar’s Blood, Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, and John Milbank’s Beyond Secular Order. I’ll also be contributing to a forum on geographer David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Stay tuned.

James Wellman: The Oprahfication of Rob Bell? (University of Chicago Divinity School Religion and Culture Web Forum)

Rob Bell has gotten a lot of attention in the evangelical news cycle over the past few days. As Bell is releasing a new book and is solidifying his association with Oprah, the evangelical and ‘progressive Christian’ Internet networks have been ablaze. Books and Culture, for example, has mocked Bell. The Gospel Coalition has excoriated his new book on marriage. Danielle Shroyer has defended Bell as an evangelical. Sarah Pulliam Bailey has analyzed Bell. Tony Jones has analyzed the analysis.

My concern with much of this analysis is that it has left out the University of Washington’s resident expert on Rob Bell, James K. Wellman, Jr. True, Wellman is my postdoctoral supervisor, which might explain why I’m saying something about him.

But there’s more. It’s not only that Wellman has written a book on Rob Bell (and that the most sophisticated review I’ve seen on it is from my friend and colleague Sam Rocha on Patheos Catholic). The fact is that Wellman, Jon Pahl, and I have gone on record on the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Religion and Culture Web Forum in September to discuss Wellman’s ethnographic analysis of Rob Bell. You can find Wellman’s essay here. Jon Pahl gives a light critique of Wellman being star-struck by Bell’s celebrity. I give an analysis of Wellman’s approach through a distinctive University of Washington approach to religious studies and what I call ‘grounded theologies,’ especially by linking it to both Wellman’s previous work and his predecessor, Eugene Webb.

Have a look. This is no mere evangelical discussion. This is about the academic study of religion – and we have Wellman to thank for making that connection.

Ethika Politika: Hong Kong Catholicism interviews with Artur Rosman

It has occurred to me after I posted on the Missio entry that I have not yet put on this blog my work on the Catholic moral theology venue, Ethika Politika, courtesy of Artur Rosman. I’ve spoken to evangelicals, but I should say that I spend an equal amount of time with Catholics. Rosman interviewed me for a three-part series on the role of Catholicism in the Hong Kong protests. It seems to have also gotten the attention of UCA News, which bills itself as ‘Asia’s most trusted independent Catholic news source.’

The first post is titled ‘Hong Kong’s Moment of Zen‘ and deals with the protesters’ aims and whether religion has been deployed in protest. The ‘Zen,’ of course, refers to Joseph Cardinal Zen, the outspoken retired Bishop of Hong Kong who was with the student protesters from the beginning of their strike. As you will see in this first post, I tried to give a complicated view of the Umbrella Movement:

It depends on what you mean by the “protesters.” There are several different groups involved in this occupation, such as student groups like Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students and democracy groups from across the political spectrum like the more moderate Occupy Central for Love and Peace and the more radical Civic Passion, as well as individual citizens who aren’t associated with a group. There are also pan-democratic legislators who have joined in the protests. No one claims to be the single leader of this movement, and anyone who does is readily rebuffed.

The second post deals with the ‘Catholic Umbrella in Hong Kong‘ and examines how the Catholic Church has carefully engaged with the protests through the mode of ‘passive compliance‘:

My reading of passive compliance is that it’s taken straight out of the playbook of Zen’s predecessor, John Baptist Cardinal Wu. When Wu became bishop in the 1970s, the diocese was allied with the colonial British government in the provision of schools, hospitals, and charities. However, as the 1997 handover drew near, Wu penned a pastoral letter in 1989 called “March Into the Bright Decade.” The central contention of the letter was that even though the 1997 handover would divide Catholics ideologically between supporters of and protesters against the Chinese regime, the Church should focus on parish formation, developing grounded Catholic communities that could resist division. Passive compliance is taken straight out of Wu’s playbook because it’s the practice of balancing out the ideological divisions within the Church vis-à-vis the state regime.

The third post examines the ‘Theopolitical Chess Game in Hong Kong and China‘ and advances political scientist Beatrice Leung’s framework of Sino-Vatican relations as a geopoltical concern:

Here we see the heart of what passive compliance is about. Cardinal Zen developed ‘passive compliance’ ostensibly because he did not want to officially endorse or oppose the Hong Kong Government’s Election Committee. But what precluded active compliance was that fact that the Hong Kong Government, despite being in a ‘one country, two systems’ framework, was effectively under Chinese sovereignty, a state that persecuted unregistered religious minorities like the Falun Gong and the underground Catholic Church.

I’m thankful to Artur Rosman for these excellent interview questions, through which I got a sense of the kinds of questions a Catholic public would have for this, especially Catholics who think about political theology. I’m also very grateful to the Catholics with whom I got to engage through my field work in 2012, including Joseph Cardinal Zen. As with my engagements with academia proper, the public news, and evangelicals, Catholics are an audience with whom I have enjoyed engaging in conversation (see here and here). I’m glad that I’ve been on the record on this issue – indeed, ABC News and Ethics Report has also picked up on this conversation – and I’m thankful that this public discourse around Catholicism and Hong Kong is shaping publications that I hope to submit soon. In short, I’m thankful to be engaged with this audience, and I hope that this too is a conversation that is only beginning.

Missio: Can American Christians Support Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement?

Photo: Antonio J. Alonso

This morning, a post that I wrote for Missio, the online publication of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture, went live. It’s titled ‘Can American Christians Support Hong’s Umbrella Movement‘?

Here’s a sample:

It’s a delicate task to write about how American Christians, especially evangelicals, can care about Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. “I shan’t get into details,” the embattled Chief Executive C.Y. Leung told a local journalist, “but this is not entirely a domestic movement.”

Leung’s sentiments echoed the insinuations being passed through the Chinese press. The details, as it was said, were that foreign (read: American) forces had allegedly funded pro-democracy groups like Occupy Central with Love and Peace, Scholarism, and Apple Daily. As the story goes, the Umbrella Movement would end just like the Maidan and Color Revolutions: the supposedly American-funded leaders would lose control of the movement, and the ensuing chaos would destroy it from within.

This is an incredibly popular narrative: when the South China Morning Post interviewed Beijing tourists visiting Hong Kong, they replied confidently that they “of course” did not support the movement: “We know that it’s because university students are stirred up by the American government to take such actions,” they said. One might think that they were channeling Ivan Illich’s 1968 excoriation of America-China relations: “In Asia, the U.S. is threatened by an established power -China. The U.S. opposes China with three weapons: the tiny Asian elites who could not have it any better than in an alliance with the United States; a huge war machine to stop the Chinese from “taking over” as it is usually put in this country, and; forcible re-education of the so-called “Pacified” peoples. All three of these efforts seem to be failing.” Who counts as an “American Christian” is quite loose: if you are “American” and “Christian,” the allegation is that you just might be an interventionist, especially if you don’t actually physically live in America right now. Don’t try to follow up with me to say that you’re actually part of the British Commonwealth; let’s admit that the American empire is really quite the leviathan.

The problem, though, is that this America-in-Hong-Kong narrative’s details don’t add up. Sure, calls for democracy sound awfully American, but the society for which the protesters call looks nothing like America. The students are calling for civil nomination – the election of candidates chosen by the people themselves – which doesn’t really resemble the primary process in the United States, not to mention that the American president is actually indirectly elected by an electoral college.

Read the rest on the Washington Institute’s blog.

As with much of the Washington Institute’s audience, the readership are mostly Anglo-American evangelicals who have a global sensibility. It’s really a pleasure to address this audience as part of my attempt to reach multiple publics with my academic work, including the academy proper, the public media in both Anglo-American-Australian contexts and in Hong KongCatholics, and evangelicals. I’d also be happy to explore other publics as well.

Many thanks to Laura Fabrycky for making this post happen, and to my colleague Sam Tsang for making the connection. I’m as excited about speaking to this evangelical public as I am about my academic and Catholic audiences, and my hope is that this is the beginning of many conversations to come.

CLASS: JSIS C 490B: Special Topics in Comparative Religion: Trans-Pacific Christianities

I am teaching a course next Winter Quarter 2015 at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. It’s a fourth-year special topics class in comparative religion, and it will focus on what I call ‘trans-Pacific Christianities.’

TSE JSIS C490B POSTER

Here’s the syllabus. We will have quite the variety of literary, historical, sociological, and even theological readings. We will read both the Open Letter to the Evangelical Church and Killjoy Prophets’ critique of it à la Suey Park and Andy Smith. We will read both Reinhold Niebuhr’s Irony of American History and the irreverent/bombastic/Asian American nationalist anthology Aiiieeeee! We will watch both Wong Fu Productions’ Just a Nice Guy and Julia Kwan’s Eve and the Firehorse. We will read both the histories of sex in Chinatown and spirits in Korea. We will plough through both Catholic and Protestant sociologies of Asian American Christianities and explore the callings of Asian and Asian American liberation theologies. We will read the Proposition 8 trial transcript featuring Dr. Hak-Shing William Tam, and we will examine both ‘silent exodus‘ and Sa-I-Gu. Our assignments are blog comments and a paper on a topic of your choice. We will criticize all of these people and ideas to no end, and we will let ourselves be criticized by them to no end.

If you are at the UW and want to come have some fun making trouble with us, please consider taking this course. If you have friends at the UW who want to make some trouble, please consider telling them to take this course. The trouble we will make will magnify as we come closer to both discovering and deconstructing what this term ‘trans-Pacific Christianities’ means.

This is going to be fun. I’m excited. I am also heavily indebted to the philosophers of education (especially Sam Rocha) that I met in Chicago last week at the Society for the Philosophical Study of Education for the crafting of this syllabus and for helping me think through how to teach – I’m experimenting with this society being my annual teaching workshop, and I’m anticipating good things coming out from these critical pedagogical conversations.