2016 Conference on Critical Geography: Situated Solidarities

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I’m taking the Greyhound home right now after attending a very interesting Conference on Critical Geography at the University of Kentucky in Lexington just this last weekend on October 14-16. I submitted an abstract at the last possible moment when I saw that my friend and interlocutor in geographies of religion Anna Secor had shared it from her home department. This made the preferred transportation method from Chicago to Lexington the Greyhound, which unfortunately meant that I missed Paul Routledge’s (Leeds) brilliant keynote, as well as this morning’s pancake breakfast (a tradition of these Critical Geography conferences). However, I have appreciated the University of Kentucky’s generous hospitality, especially the wine and generous helpings of Mediterranean food to which I arrived late on Friday night.

Secor chaired our morning session yesterday on Activist Imaginaries. The abstract that I submitted focused on a key problematic of my second project on contemporary occupy movements and ‘capitalism with Asian values,’ and because it is so provisional, I won’t post it at this time. Indeed, Anna circulated an email shortly before the conference to encourage us to bring to the table a problem with which we have been struggling in our current research. The talk didn’t have to be a polished academic talk; it was a five-minute introduction to our work. I jumped at the opportunity to talk about how the global Left seems to have labeled two of the social and political movements that took place in 2014 in which I am interested – the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine (which started in 2013) and the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong – as reactionary and regressive in their politics. The question that I asked was: can social movements labeled as ‘reactionary’ and ‘regressive’ still be part of the ideological constellation of the Left?

The conversation that we had throughout the day suggested to me indirectly that this was a bit of an elephant in the room. In fact, we did not get around to discussing my question explicitly in the panel. I learned instead that – to the express dismay of some of the more senior scholars at the conference – what is really meant by critical geography at this moment is the attempt to theorize affect – the way that material and bodily masses react to an external stimulus – as political. Affect, as I have been learning from my friends and colleagues in feminist geography, has to be defined this way because it is not the same as emotion, which is the way that the consciousness of your feelings leads to action in space.

Of course, what all this talk about affect means, as one person put it, is that it’s a bit like Marxism without Marx, materialism without material.

But in the discussion about the possibility of affective politics, I heard quite clearly a debate about the Right. Scholars on the Left (especially those associated with Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School of cultural studies) have long shown that the Right has been very good about using affect to make people react politically. If it was the moral panic of the 1970s (as Stuart Hall had it in Policing the Crisis), it’s (as Secor put it in her five minutes) now as much pictures of refugees as the Trump phenomenon. The question, as Paul Routledge raised in his keynote, is whether these affective phenomena can be mobilized; though I missed the talk, what was reiterated throughout the day was Routledge’s prescription to mobilize anger. In one telling quote from a critical geography conference that happened in Palestine, Palestinian scholars and activists were remembered saying to fellow attendees who cried for their plight, We don’t want your tears! We want your anger!

What this affect means, of course, is that the boundaries between Right and Left in terms of political modes are being erased, which I noticed made some people at the conference decidedly nervous about the implications of politicizing affect. One would, of course, hate to be a conservative in critical geography!

But of course, all that’s to say that I came away with tools to continue to probe my question, and for that, I am thankful, although since I’m known as one of the ‘religion guys’ in geography, I’d hate to become known as a ‘conservative guy’ too.

I also decided to take advantage of my time in Lexington to do some other fun things. I discovered, for example, that my friend, the Rev David Moe, had recently moved to Lexington to be the youth pastor at the local Korean Presbyterian Church while studying at Asbury Theological Seminary just up the road. David and his wife Prissila took me out for Korean food, and over coffee afterward, we spent about three hours discussing Asian American liberation theology. I also found out that the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Kentucky houses a fairly diverse parish community called Holy Spirit Parish, and their assistant priest is a very gentle and thoughtful Sri Lankan priest, flanked by a delightful deacon who can really preach and whose participation in the liturgy helped me to see that the Latin Church still does indeed have a use for deacons going between the people and the altar. Finally, I found a place for Kentucky barbecue and bourbon, where I got to zone out after a long day of processing all these thoughts.

I am grateful to Anna Secor for bringing me onto this panel, where more interlocutors in critical geography have been brought into my life. I also want to extend a special thanks to Laçin Tutalar, a PhD candidate in human geography who is doing very exciting work on the soundscapes of Istanbul, for doing so much of the logistical work to make my stay at the University of Kentucky very pleasant – from organizing lodging to making coffee for those of us staying in the residences yesterday morning.

BOOK: Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement (Palgrave, 2016)

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As the lead editor of Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement – a collection of essays that takes as its theological cue the 79-day protest occupations in Hong Kong in 2014 – I am happy to formally announce on this blog that I have received a hard copy of the book. The text has been available as an e-book since July, and I am now glad to see that a physical version is now available.

I think it’s incumbent on me as the lead editor to say something about how we put together this book, what the book is about, where this book sits in relation to my larger research agenda, and what the book’s limitations are in the ever-shifting situation in Hong Kong at present.

The book had its genesis in a forum that occurred during the Umbrella Movement on Syndicate Theology. In 2014, I was recruited by Syndicate‘s managing editor Christian Amondson to edit its Theology and Social Theory section – a task that included editing fora on Gil Anidjar’s Blood, Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, and John Milbank’s Beyond Secular Order before the site’s format was radically revised – and my first initiative as this section’s editor was to put together a forum on the Umbrella Movement, which I modeled after another quite successful series of essays on Syndicate titled Ferguson and Theology. For this forum, I recruited some of my colleagues in Hong Kong such as Kung Lap Yan, Rose Wu, and Sam Tsang (there were others in the mix as well, but because it was a volatile time in Hong Kong, these three were the only ones who could find the time to write), and I also wrote an original essay for the series critiquing the way that theology in Hong Kong had been done up until the Umbrella Movement and what changes the movement might contribute to the task of grounding theological reflection in the actual material and ideological conditions of Hong Kong as a city with a rich and conflicted history of colonization.

As this Syndicate series wrapped up, Jonathan Tan approached me with an idea that had come out of a conversation with Kwok Pui-lan (who wrote our foreword) to write a book on the Umbrella Movement that would be in English for readers who might not have any knowledge of Hong Kong but could also benefit them in the task of contemporary theological reflection. I drafted and submitted a proposal to the series editors for Palgrave MacMillan’s Christianity in the Asian Diaspora series, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Joe Cheah, as well as a request to Christian Amondson to publish the Syndicate essays in a substantially revised form. Tan also brought on Mary Yuen, who substantially revised an essay she had put into AsiaNews.it on Catholic social teaching and the Umbrella Movement.

As all such writing projects go, the task of ‘substantially revising’ quite rapidly turned into ‘original writing’; indeed, Sam Tsang ended up writing a completely different essay from what he had given to me at Syndicate, and the other essays have been expanded and reworked. My own submission to Syndicate has never been republished, although I’m sure one can find the seeds of what I wrote on the forum now in the book.

When I began to receive the submissions, it occurred to me that what makes sense in Hong Kong’s local context may not be intuitive for those who have no knowledge of Hong Kong. At the same time, Tan found himself consumed by another editing project. While the original plan was for him to write an essay situating the Umbrella Movement in the liberation theologies of Asia (indeed, one has glimpses of this in Kwok’s foreword to our volume when she discusses liberation theologies and the ‘multitude’), it fell completely to me to truly lead with a vision for what this volume would be – combing through the essays with a fine toothcomb to make sure they would speak directly to English-speaking readers and thinking about the scholarly discussions to which this volume would contribute. This is to say, of course, that most of the editorial errors in this book should be attributed to me, though I am thankful to Tan for the initial idea to turn this into a book and for recruiting Yuen.

The plan of the book emerged from these editorial challenges. The volume is divided into two parts. Part I is a detailed primer that I single-authored on Hong Kong’s politics and how it can be used for theological reflection, and Part II contains the four theological reflections from Mary Yuen on Catholic social teaching and the occupy movement, Rose Wu on the queer Pentecost that gave rise to an interstitial Hong Kong identity, Kung Lap Yan on the kairos moment of opportunity and danger of the political movement, and Sam Tsang with a stunningly original account of the colonial occupation of Hong Kong and how such an understanding of occupation radically revises the liberation politics of an occupy movement in Hong Kong.

These two parts are sandwiched between two pieces on liberation theology, an introduction and an epilogue, that I took the liberty of single-authoring as lead editor. Thinking through Tan’s original plan to situate the Umbrella Movement in the context of theologies of liberation in Asia, it occurred to me that what was awkward about the Umbrella Movement’s relation with the notion of liberation theology is that it wasn’t a straight-forward application of models advanced in the past; indeed, our authors – disagree as they might about every other aspect of the movement – agree on this one point. My introduction thus outlines the contours of the liberation theology that has gone before and how using the ‘see-judge-act’ analytic lens of theologies of liberation in Hong Kong will yield some surprising results. This transformed the primer that I wrote in Part I into an argument that demands for ‘genuine universal suffrage’ during the Umbrella Movement wasn’t a vacuous ideological slogan but came out of the actual material conditions of Hong Kong. In turn, the epilogue became about the relationship between the concept of conscientizaçao as understood in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and how the Umbrella Movement played out. In other words, my vision as the lead editor was not so much to fit the Umbrella Movement into a model of liberation, but to situate the Umbrella Movement as a contemporary challenge for how to do theology in solidarity with the materially oppressed in both Hong Kong and around the world. Each of the authors contributes to this vision by showing how their vastly different Christian traditions shaped the Umbrella Movement’s theological challenge to reflections on liberation, and my job as the lead editor was to fine-tune these four distinct voices as they made their original arguments to a readership that may not even be familiar with Hong Kong. As I made my way through these tasks, I received constant encouragement from my friend and colleague (and now Patheos Catholic editor) Sam Rocha, a philosopher of education who has thought a lot about liberation theology and who exhorted me to keep in mind the pedagogical aims of the volume.

Leading this editorial work (which included single-authoring about half of the book) forced me to think about what doing all of this work had to do with my larger scholarly agenda. I came to understand working on this volume as a sort of pivot point between my first and second projects and as the culmination of my Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Washington. The first project (which became my PhD dissertation and on which I am still generating publications) was my attempt at an ideological map of Cantonese-speaking Protestant engagements with Pacific Rim civil societies, especially Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong. While the research for this project ended before the Umbrella Movement, it can be said that the lead-up to the protests, the protests themselves, and the aftermath has been fascinating to watch in light of this research, especially because Cantonese Protestants (and Catholics) are key to understanding the Umbrella Movement, both its supporters and detractors. This topical interest has led to a broader thematic inquiry that is becoming my second project, which is on the relationship between the theological underpinnings of some of these contemporary occupy movements and the intriguing ideology of ‘capitalism with Asian values’ (which, as Slavoj Žižek reminds us, has very little to do with persons whose bodies are marked as ‘Asian’). Some of my new interests – Asian Americans getting involved with Black Lives Matter, the rhetoric of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv around ‘Eurasia,’ and protests in Vancouver’s Chinatown that bring together issues of housing and indigeneity – might seem to have only a tangential connection to Hong Kong, but what holds this together are the inquiry into what forms liberation, solidarity, and occupy movements take – which are precisely the concerns of the book. In this way, I’m thankful for the task of leading the editing on this volume, because it pushed me to think about why I do what I do.

This book has been described as ‘timely,’ and I take that as a compliment. However, I of all people am deeply aware of how timeliness can hardly describe any book about Hong Kong because political developments in Hong Kong have always moved quickly. The book was written in 2014, substantially revised and edited in 2015, and touched up in 2016. The last reference to an actual event in Hong Kong is the Fishball Revolution that took place in February 2016. The book came out around the lead-up to the Legislative Council elections of 2016 and doesn’t include much about the emergence of youth political parties such as Demosistõ and Youngspiration. It certainly does not contain any information about the assassination threats made against Eddie Chu Hoi-dick.

My hope, then, is that the ‘timeliness’ of this book is a reference to the themes of the book, that people both inside and outside of Hong Kong want to read the events of contemporary occupy movements closely and judge them theologically before making the next move. That is why what we have offered are reflections and why we are so pleased that Benny Tai’s endorsement of our book also speaks about this book perhaps being able to help with writing Hong Kong’s next chapter. Certainly, we expect criticism for what we have written, but we hope that that process of critique will not be about us, but for the good of Hong Kong as a city that is wrestling with questions of justice and peace. This book is an offering to readers who want to join us in that task of reflection. May our conversation be lively!

Patheos Catholic – Eastern Catholic Person

I have been blogging with Patheos Catholic as Eastern Catholic Person for a little over a month now. In fact, both of my previous blogs – a theological one known as ‘Chinglican at Table’ and a current events one called Religion Ethnicity Wired – have both been migrated there.

It has been quite a rewarding experience to be able to blog so personally, and I expect the engagements to become even more lively in times to come. What I write about on Eastern Catholic Person is quite different from my professional academic work on Asian modernities, Asian American ideologies, and theological ontologies. Instead, I write simply as a person who happens to have become ‘Eastern Catholic,’ which means that my canonical place in the Catholic communion is among the Eastern Catholic Churches that are in full communion with Rome but do our theology in ways are different from but are ultimately complementary with the Latin tradition. The church that I joined is the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC); we are a people who practice the Kyivan tradition of the Byzantine Rite, an liturgical mode of Christianity with its origins in the city of Byzantium-Constantinople. In other words, we are part of the ancient Byzantine church that comes from the city of Kyiv, and our hope is that we do not exist in a sort of museum preservation mode, but actually have something to offer to the contemporary world by way of peacemaking, human liberation, solidarity, and supernatural wisdom.

In the contemporary humanities and social sciences, we are often called upon to be explicit about our positionality when we write, to situate ourselves as persons so that our readers understand how we are reading whatever texts, events, interviews, and other phenomena we find ourselves to be studying. I’ve been finding that blog to be helpful for writing myself to clarity on my own positionality as an Eastern Catholic person studying situations that usually have nothing to do with Eastern Catholicism.

In fact, I see the blog as an exercise in what my friend, Patheos editor, and philosopher of education Sam Rocha calls folk phenomenology. Drawing from personalist philosophy and liberation theology, Rocha explains that all that we really are as scholars and teachers, students and children and adults, are persons. As persons, we seek to make sense of the world around us, a world in which we are faced by other persons. All that a person can do in such a world is to offer themselves to the other, without even the presumption that the other will reciprocate. The world of ordinary folk is thus one of offerings.

All I understand myself to be doing as a scholar and teacher is to offer myself as a person and what I have learned in my research and teaching. But the offering that I have in my academic work usually only hints at who I am as a person; after all, I don’t presume to be studying myself. What the blog does is to make what is implicit there explicit, to be yet another outlet of offering alongside my scholarly repertoire.

This means of course that I am no expert in Eastern Catholicism, nor do I write as such. My training is in geography, Asian American studies, and religious studies, and those comprise my academic offerings. Eastern Catholic Person is a complement to that as an even more personal offering, despite the personalism that also pervades my academic writing.

I hope that this blog will be as fun for my readers as it is for me to write. I have been learning a lot from my personal engagements there, and I expect that I will learn a lot more as I continue to write.

SCMP: ‘God’s servant’: Beijing-friendly and born again, former HK official Stephen Lam wants to woo Christians in Canada

I am thrilled that journalist extraordinaire Ian Young has put up a story about the upcoming visit to Vancouver of Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary, Stephen Lam Sui-lung, on his blog, The Hongcouver on the South China Morning Post. I was interviewed for this piece. I also discovered that – independent of my leads (which means that Ian has to be credited for doing his homework!) – my colleague Dr Sam Tsang (Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary and Ambrose University) also gave his two cents.

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Here’s what’s happening. Later this month in June 2016, Lam will be visiting three Chinese evangelical churches as part of a ‘cross-Canada evangelistic tour’ where he will be speaking on the theme, ‘From Public Servant to God’s Servant.’ The event is being hosted by the Chinese Christian Mission (CCM) Canada, a parachurch organization that tries to bridge the gap between ‘the church and the world.’ This upcoming set of talks has been generating some commotion among Christians about whether Chinese Protestant churches in Vancouver are, in Hong Kong terms, ‘pro-establishment’ (supportive of the Hong Kong government and its ties to Beijing) or ‘pro-democracy’ (critical of the Hong Kong government and its ties to Beijing for not allowing Hong Kong residents full political agency in, say, ‘genuine universal suffrage’ or even ‘Hong Kong autonomy,’ depending on how radically democratic one is). It is uncontroversial to say that Lam himself is ‘pro-establishment’: as the former second-in-command in Hong Kong’s government establishment, he was active in attempts to push forward a democratic reform bill that would lead to a Hong Kong that would have a democratic façade but be ultimately controlled by Beijing. As Young rightly notes, this reform package split the pan-democratic parties in Legislative Council in 2010 and ultimately generated the frustration that led to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the 79-day street occupation where Hong Kong residents demanded ‘genuine universal suffrage’ (instead of democratic reforms that were all for show with no real substance).

Here were my comments to Young on Lam’s upcoming visit:

Lam’s visit is being debated in Chinese-speaking Christian circles in Vancouver, according to Dr Justin Tse, who teaches religious studies at the University of Washington in Seattle and human geography at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He said the tour and the reaction to it were emblematic of the way “democracy and establishment forces in Hong Kong [are] vying for the attention of the diaspora” in Canada. Churches, he said “served as political hubs” of the Hong Kong diaspora in Canada, even as they claimed apolitical status.

“It’s a contest over whether these churches should be having a pro-Beijing politician speak for an evangelistic event, a mass rally intended to convert people to Christianity,” he said. The debate was being played out in private Chinese-language social media, drawing hundreds of comments.

One Facebook posting highlighted by Tse called for “joint action” against the tour. “If any of you or your righteous relatives would like to welcome in Vancouver Stephen Lam Sui-lung, the servile former official who tries to wipe the slate clean with theology, please send me your personal messages,” said the poster.

“There’s no denying that for Chinese people living in Vancouver, there is a sense that the Church has a moral voice. Even if you are not Christian, for instance, you might want to send your kids to Sunday school so that they can learn to be good and moral people,” said Tse. “There’s a sense [even among non-Christians] to think of the church as a moral centre of the Chinese community, and we have the former chief secretary come over to speak and spout a particular version of Hong Kong ideology.”

Tse said that Lam’s previous efforts in such venues had amounted to a “Christianised account of his time in office”. “Chinese churches in Vancouver have this thing where famous people – politicians, movie stars, singers whatever – are used to attract people. Stephen Lam’s celebrity comes from his time in political office. That’s the draw.”

He said the CCM was not overtly political, and Chinese evangelical churches traditionally prided themselves on being able to separate “the private face of the church from public political life”. “It’s being billed as an apolitical event, but what we have seen of the content [of Lam’s previous evangelical speeches] they are fairly ideological” he said, and likening such events to claiming a “biblical mandate”.

“Democracy people or autonomy people are lamenting this event – not just that Stephen Lam is being given this platform, but from their understanding that the church as an apolitical institution… is very easily manoeuvred into political positions without knowing it.”

In this way, I hope that I have successfully and clearly made several important points that Young’s audience can easily understand. For many historical and ideological reasons, Chinese evangelical churches in Vancouver have billed themselves as apolitical since the 1970s – they take particular pride in being able to distinguish their private religious community from their involvement in secular, non-Christian politics. That Lam is a politician means nothing except that he is an individual who will be speaking on putatively apolitical things, like why his audience needs to convert to (evangelical Protestant) Christianity. However, as pro-democracy Christians in Hong Kong have been pointing out, this apolitical bent is a politics in and of itself. What sometimes happens is that people and institutions that are good at circulating ideologies will couch their messages in apolitical tones and be able to convince people in apolitical churches that what they are saying is simply the way things are in reality. As Young’s reporting shows several paragraphs above my comments, this is what Lam has been doing since his resignation from political office in 2012: in 2014, he spoke about the ‘resurrection’ of the hotly contested political reform package in 2010 as an example of how God was with him in his political maneuvering. The God-talk feels apolitical; the content, for those who know the context, has a bit more of a bite.

This is by no means something that is unique to Hong Kong-Vancouver Chinese Christianity. The relationships between churches and transnational political geographies constitute a particularly interesting part of our news cycle currently. One useful comparison, for example, could be the way that the ‘Russian World’ ideology from Putin’s government circulates through the Moscow Patriarchate in the Orthodox world and is combatted by, say, Ukrainians who have churches of their own; interestingly, this ideology may well be affecting the last-minute preparations and scrambling for the Orthodox to get their Holy and Great Council together next week. Another interesting case to come through Vancouver’s news cycle is of a Filipino man who fled an authoritarian church in the Philippines but is currently being targeted by that institution through its international membership. All of this seems to be about the political attempts of national church structures attempting to ideologically influence their transnational diaspora churches, which is not a straightforward process because this often results in ideological contestation in the diaspora religious communities – and increasingly so because of social media. I find all of this very geographically interesting, which is why I said what I said to Young.

I am thankful to Young for being interested in this story. It is also good and interesting to have my comments alongside my friend Sam Tsang. I hope that SCMP/Hongcouver readers will find this piece interesting because Chinese evangelical churches are part and parcel of the landscape of Vancouver’s civil society.

International Conference on Paulo Freire 2016: Mechanizing Conscientization in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace: failures of pedagogy, theology, and solidarity in contemporary social movements

I’m at a conference at the University of British Columbia (UBC) at Vancouver organized by my friend and colleague Sam Rocha (UBC). Titled the ‘International Conference on Paulo Freire,’ it has a stellar lineup of philosophers of education and other people who think about pedagogy. I usually treat these as my super-enhanced teaching workshops as I sit and learn from people who think about teaching all day in a way that is philosophically smart. The keynotes are phenomenal – Eduardo Mendieta (Penn State), Deborah Britzman (York), and Eduardo Duarte (Hofstra) – with an undercurrent of theologies of liberation carrying through all the talks and paper sessions.

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I’m happy to also be presenting this afternoon. My paper is titled: ‘Mechanizing Conscientization in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace: failures of pedagogy, theology, and solidarity in contemporary social movements.’ Here’s the abstract:

Critics of Anglophone critical pedagogy have suggested that North American readings of the word conscientizaçao in Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed tend to reduce the building of a liberating consciousness to a liberal ‘mechanization of Freire’s revolutionary pedagogical proposals’ (Macedo 2000: 24). These critiques also apply to activists attempting to use technical educative approaches for conscientization, mistakenly framing the use of religious overtones in such mechanized pedagogies as liberation theology while foregoing a ‘communion with the people’ that ‘is really human, empathetic, loving, communicative, and humble, in order to be liberating’ (Freire 2000: 171). However, these liberal misreadings of Freire may also be fostering the contemporary phenomenon of ‘occupy’ movements, said to be primal eruptions of a collective consciousness while also failing to actually overturn oppression before their dissipation. My case study is Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), an initiative noted for its Christian leadership that attempted to ‘conscientize’ (as its founder Benny Tai put it) the Hong Kong public through a mechanistic model of civic dialogue and ultimately failed to deliver on its promises of civil disobedience. Instead of stifling activism, the disappointment of OCLP arguably generated the protest occupations in 2014 known as the ‘Umbrella Movement,’ said to be a primal (and theological) explosion of the Hong Kong populace’s discontent with oligarchic oppression, but which ultimately met its demise due to internal dissension. I argue that OCLP’s misappropriation of conscientization as a liberal mechanistic pedagogy generated an ‘occupy’ movement that externalized the primal unconscious of the oppressed without a cognate sense of solidarity derived from the communion for which Freire actually calls. Contemporary ‘occupy’ movements may thus manifest incomplete processes of conscientization due to mechanistic readings of Freire leading to activist expressions that may even be religious, but are not truly theological in the humanizing tradition of liberation theology. Closely re-receiving Freire’s call to communion may in turn yield pedagogies of the oppressed with more primal depths, perhaps generating the ontological revolutions that can truly negate the oppressions ineffectively protested by contemporary social movements.

I’m looking forward to learning a lot this weekend. I’m also going to attend many of the Spanish- and Portuguese-language sessions, even though I am in no way competent in any of those languages, in order to broaden my horizons. Many thanks, Sam, for letting me play along!

Chinese America: History and Perspectives: Liberal Protestant Chinatown: Social Gospel Geographies in Chinese San Francisco

I am very pleased to announce the publication of one of my articles in the very interesting peer-reviewed academic-community-collaboration journal, Chinese America: History and Perspectives – The Journal of the Chinese Historical Society of America. I picked up my copy of the most recent issue at the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) directly after the field trip that I led for the American Association of Geographers in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Founded by the late Chinese American historian Him Mark Lai, this journal’s point of interest for me is that it speaks directly to how the academic work done at San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) College of Ethnic Studies – the founding site of critical ethnic studies – is immediately related to community organizations. With the recent academic controversy around the university budget cuts that immediately affect this College, the perseverance of this journal is quite moving, especially as it looks like the journal is growing with an editorial board that is starting to look like a who’s who of Chinese American studies.

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My contribution to this issue, which is backdated to 2015 (academic journals sometimes take time to produce!), is titled ‘Liberal Protestant Chinatown: Social Gospel Geographies in Chinese San Francisco.‘ Here’s the first paragraph as an abstract of sorts:

This paper is about the cultural geography of what I call “Liberal Protestant Chinatown” in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I show that, since the 1920s and 1930s, a younger generation of Chinese Americans coming of age in San Francisco espoused a “liberal” theology, which in American Protestantism refers to the interpretation of Christian conversion as the “social gospel,” the call to convert the structures of society to be more politically and economically equitable based on a rational, scientific view of just distribution in modern circumstances. While this liberalism is usually opposed to a “fundamentalist” position seeking to defend the scientific inerrancy of the biblical text and the primacy of individual subjective conversion in Christian experience, Liberal Protestant Chinatown rejected both the conservatism of Christians who placed their emphasis on personal subjectivity and a non-Christian Chinese establishment in Chinatown that sought to retain village kinship structures, clan associations, and ritual practices. In this way, liberal Protestants sought to build a new trans-Pacific cultural geography in Chinatown, one marked neither by missionary activity to westernize China nor by an economy linking the United States with Chinese villages, which they alleged at the time to be fraught with the criminal underworld trafficking of persons and narcotics (although this is difficult to fully substantiate and led during this period also to the unfair stereotyping of Chinese American young men as gangsters and “gooks,” which the liberal Protestants also sought to mitigate). My central argument is that the social gospel of Liberal Protestant Chinatown thus configured the cultural geography of Chinatown into a network of non-profit organizations seeking legitimate economic advancement for Chinese Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, reframing “Chineseness” as the local heritage of the Chinatown community for which they sought material improvement.

Consider this my first published try at attempting a theological re-reading of the discipline of Asian American studies. Certainly, there have been many other attempts at this – look no further than the work of Rudy Busto, David Kyuman Kim, Russell Jeung, and Timothy Tseng, especially at their essays in the formidable Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America –  but I suppose what I’m trying to contribute to this enterprise in this essay is to show that a site like San Francisco’s Chinatown is a place ripe for studying the material manifestations of Asian America as a theology. Moreover, my paper deals explicitly with the rift within Chinese American studies (which has spilled out across Asian American studies) between Frank Chin’s anti-Christian advocacy within Asian American literature and feminist novelists who have some connection to San Francisco’s Chinatown (especially Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan). For these ideas, I am also very grateful to Dean Adachi for organizing a session at the Association of Asian American Studies in 2014 on San Francisco as the ‘Asian American Holy City,’ where I presented the first iteration of this paper. I also cite one of my students from my trans-Pacific Christianities class, Mariam Mathew, who wrote a very helpful paper probing why Frank Chin hates Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club so much. In some ways, then, this is also a contribution to understanding that academic-community nexus in Asian American studies as constituted by ‘grounded theologies.’ You could say that I think that the grounded theologies in Chinese American studies are worth much more interrogation, and I plan to do just that in future articles, hopefully to be published in other Asian American studies journals.

Some have asked about which churches I covered in this essay. The answer is that my research is awkwardly situated in relation to the norms of sociological congregational studies, which means that I often engage churches as institutions when they are part of the story I am telling about Cantonese Protestant engagements with civil society. While readers will find references, say, to First Chinese Baptist Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Chinese Church, and the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, this paper is really about San Francisco’s Chinatown more generally as a civil society – that Chinatown itself should be read theologically.

I am very thankful to Chinese America: History and Perspectives‘s editor-in-chief Jonathan X. Lee (SFSU) for encouraging me to submit to this journal. Because of him, I am a big fan of this journal now; indeed, the authors in the past issues read like a who’s who in Chinese American studies. I am also grateful to the two anonymous peer reviewers whose comments strengthened this essay significantly and for the CHSA’s Johnson Zheng for seeing through all the logistics for this essay’s publication; I especially appreciated personally connecting with him when I picked up my complimentary issue from the CHSA museum last week.