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.

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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.

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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.