American Association of Geographers, 2016: San Francisco

I’m writing from the Hilton in San Francisco’s Union Square on this second day of the American Association of Geographers’ (AAG) Annual Meeting 2016, which this year takes place from March 28 to April 2. I’m happy to report that we had some very successful sessions yesterday for the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group, and the events this week seem to be gathering momentum for geographies of religion to become increasingly mainstream within the discipline.

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The paper I presented at this year’s AAG was titled ‘”Under a Vast Sky”: Religious Protest Art and Hong Kong Localism’s Demystification of Urban Ideologies.‘ Along with some brilliant graduate students Natalie Hyacinth (Royal Holloway, London) and Laura Cuch (University College London), I co-organized a series of incredibly well-attended sessions titled Creative Approaches to Researching Religion in the City (March 28). The sessions were titled: 1) Embodied Practices and Narratives of Everyday Religion, 2) Exploring Faith Through Participatory Public-Engagement Art, and 3) Negotiating Difference and Urban Space; I chaired the first session and presented my paper in the third session. My abstract was as follows:

The 2014 Umbrella Movement democracy protests in Hong Kong have been noticed for their production of protest art featuring religious themes in makeshift street shrines and sanctuaries. I claim that such religious protest art, which has been a staple of Hong Kong urban heritage preservation (or ‘localist’) politics since the mid-2000s, offers geographers an opportunity to theorize the ontological nature of religion in global cities. While both religious and artistic production are often seen as belonging to the realm of the purely subjective (sometimes to the point of mystifying material processes), Hong Kong localists – usually describing themselves as a ‘post-80s’ and ‘post-90s’ younger generation – have attempted to use religious protest art since the mid-2000s to exegete the Hong Kong government’s urban vision of the Special Administrative Region as an international financial centre as itself a religious artistic vision, one that demolishes local Cantonese cultural geographies to make way for urban spectacles of conspicuous consumption. Based on ethnographic interviews conducted among 45 Hong Kong Christians in 2012 and an audiovisual archive collected from 2013-5, I argue that Hong Kong localist religious art demystifies the seemingly secular state vision of Hong Kong as a global capitalist city by exposing its theological logics. Localist religious protest art thus works against superstition by recasting the symbolism of the urban landscape in Hong Kong. This paper thus contributes to the creative study of religious cultural geographies by showing that reversing the conventional theoretical wisdom on ideology, as religious art reveals the secular as superstitious.

I am happy to have received some very good feedback and supportive comments, including from colleagues from Hong Kong, on this paper. But more as a point of pride, I’m ecstatic to say that this was among the most well-attended and diverse sessions in the history of GORABS. We had a series of excellent papers, as well as the honour of having Harriet Hawkins (Royal Holloway, London) and David Gilbert (Royal Holloway, London) as discussants to our second and third sessions.

This year, as the Chair of GORABS, I also organized a few more sessions, two of which have a time change for today. They are as follows:

GORABS ANNUAL LECTURE *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
Our Annual Lecture (Session 2684) this year will be given by Dr Katharyne Mitchell (University of Washington) on Sanctuary and Refugees in Europe. The *REVISION* is as follows: while the original program has this lecture in a Thursday slot, it has been CHANGED to Wednesday, March 30, 5:20 PM – 7 PM in Metropolitan B, JW Marriott Hotel, 2nd Floor.

GORABS BUSINESS MEETING *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
We have also revised the time for our Business Meeting (which was originally also on Thursday) to immediately follow the Annual Lecture in the same room. All are welcome to stay; our meeting will last no longer than one hour.

JOINT KEYNOTE:
On Thursday, March 31, there is a Joint Keynote Session held by the China Geography Specialty Group and GORABS that will be delivered by Dr Fenggang Yang (Purdue) on Mapping Chinese Spiritual Capital and Religious Markets. This will be held from 11:50 AM – 1:10 PM in Imperial B, Hilton Hotel, Ballroom Level.

CHINATOWN WALKING FIELD TRIP:
This walking tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown covers the largest Chinatown in the United States. It will be of interest to geographers studying ethnicity, race, religion, and China. Food is available throughout, and much street shopping will be involved. The walking trip is sponsored jointly by the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems and China Geography Specialty Group. We will depart at 2 PM on Thursday, March 31, from the Taylor Street Entrance of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square and will return to the same building at 4 PM.

Looking forward to seeing everyone in attendance this year – it’s been fun so far!

AAG 2016 GORABS IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENTS

The AAG is almost upon us! I’m excited to be making the following announcements for the AAG:

ANNUAL LECTURE *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
Our Annual Lecture (Session 2684) this year will be given by Dr Katharyne Mitchell (University of Washington) on Sanctuary and Refugees in Europe. The *REVISION* is as follows: while the original program has this lecture in a Thursday slot, it has been CHANGED to Wednesday, 5:20 PM – 7 PM in Metropolitan B, JW Marriott Hotel, 2nd Floor.

BUSINESS MEETING *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
We have also revised the time for our Business Meeting (which was originally also on Thursday) to immediately follow the Annual Lecture in the same room. All are welcome to stay; our meeting will last no longer than one hour.

JOINT KEYNOTE:
On Thursday, there is a Joint Keynote Session held by the China Geography Specialty Group and GORABS that will be delivered by Dr Fenggang Yang (Purdue) on Mapping Chinese Spiritual Capital and Religious Markets. This will be held from 11:50 AM – 1:10 PM in Imperial B, Hilton Hotel, Ballroom Level.

Seattle Pacific University: Guest Lectures, Asian American Ministry Program Church Leaders Class with Soong-Chan Rah

I’m very happy to announce that I’ll be giving some guest lectures in Soong-Chan Rah’s ‘Church Leaders Class‘ at Seattle Pacific University’s new Asian American Ministry Program (AAMP). The course is being held on two weekends in February and March 2016: Rah kicked off the course during the February 5-6 session (which I did not attend, but I heard went extremely well), and I will be joining the March 4-5 session. I’m especially thankful to the AAMP’s director Billy Vo for making this happen.

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This is a very interesting endeavour because Rah and I probably come at the question of Asian American ministry from very different disciplinary and philosophical perspectives. Rah lays out his framework very clearly in his books like The Next EvangelicalismMany Colors, and his commentary on Lamentations Prophetic Lament. From what I understand of this work, he uses a sociological understanding of culture – think Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann on ‘plausibility structures’ and ‘externalization’ – and understands his work on Asian American theology as coming out from an immigrant church experience, especially a Korean American one. My understanding is that the first session was devoted to explicating this framework under the banner of a ‘theology of culture’ and ‘contextual theology,’ showing that all theology is done within a sociological, cultural context.

I’m coming in as a dialogue partner who is trained as a human geographer as well as in Asian American studies. My plan – which may get happily derailed by class discussion (which I understand to be very lively) – is to give two lectures. The first will be on what geography has to do with Asian American studies (answer: everything), and the second will try to locate the doing of evangelical theology in relation to (and perhaps even within – which will be an interestingly awkward fit) Asian American studies. I suppose this isn’t an altogether new endeavour; one sociologist who has achieved this remarkable synthesis throughout his career is Russell Jeung (San Francisco State).

Rah tells me that the class is mostly composed of theology students seeking to do some kind of Christian ministry, as well as by pastors who are actually practicing ministry. Because this is a class on race and pastoral ministry, part of my motivation for helping to teach this course is to get a sense of how to navigate my new postdoctoral research on Asian Americans and Black Lives Matter with a focus especially on Seattle. I’m looking forward to meeting the course – and of course, keeping Soong-Chan up until the wee hours of the night in discussion.

Social and Cultural Geography: ‘Highway to Heaven’: the creation of a multicultural, religious landscape in suburban Richmond, British Columbia (co-authored with Claire Dwyer and David Ley)

I am pleased to announce that a paper from the collaborative project that I conducted with Claire Dwyer (University College London) and David Ley (UBC) on the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Richmond, British Columbia has been published by Social and Cultural Geography. It has been quite a journey getting this one published from its earlier incarnation as a conference paper and now into a peer-reviewed journal. I’m glad that it’s out, and I hope to take a crack at another one soon enough.

The abstract is as follows:

We analyse the emergence of the ‘Highway to Heaven’, a distinctive landscape of more than 20 diverse religious buildings, in the suburban municipality of Richmond, outside Vancouver, to explore the intersections of immigration, planning, multiculturalism, religion and suburban space. In the context of wider contested planning disputes for new places of worship for immigrant communities, the creation of a designated ‘Assembly District’ in Richmond emerged as a creative response to multicultural planning. However, it is also a contradictory policy, co-opting religious communities to municipal requirements to safeguard agricultural land and prevent suburban sprawl, but with limited success. The unanticipated outcomes of a designated planning zone for religious buildings include production of an agglomeration of increasingly spectacular religious facilities that exceed municipal planning regulations. Such developments are accommodated through a celebratory narrative of municipal multiculturalism, but one that fails to engage with the communal narratives of the faith communities themselves and may exoticize or commodify religious identity.

Our main intervention is directed toward the celebration of multicultural planning in contemporary cities and suburbs. What we found was that the multiculturalism that is apparent on our celebrated road in Richmond wasn’t planned to be that way at first. It was Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and still is, and whatever multiculturalism one might see there is accidental.

In its early stages, Claire took the lead in writing this paper up for conferences, with me as a second author and David as a third. After presenting it at the American Association of Geographers 2012, Claire again led the effort to transform this paper into the published article that is here. In turn, David added many of the insights concerning Canadian multiculturalism. As always, it has been very educational working alongside Claire in this process – I often joke that what I know of qualitative methodologies was learned from her in the field during this project – and I am very thankful to her for leading on this effort. My plan is to build off this paper to craft some pieces, perhaps, on the materiality of the interfaith landscape and the odd points of spiritual contact among the sites. I’ve especially enjoyed getting to know a place that has long been a ‘wonder’ in the suburb where I lived during my undergraduate and graduate studies, especially now that we’re demystifying it.

We are also thankful for Metropolis Canada for funding this project; our report for them on the Highway to Heaven can be accessed from their website.

South China Morning Post Hongcouver Blog: Ian Young, ‘Crime drama Blood and Water hones in on Vancouver’s Chinese identity’

It’s very funny that I’ve been featured in a post by journalist colleague Ian Young on his Hongcouver blog for the South China Morning Post on November 19, 2015. The post is about a television show about which I have expressed a great deal of enthusiasm: Blood and Water.

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Here’s the quote from the post that I find hilarious:

Justin Tse, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington who spends more time thinking seriously about ethnicity than anyone I know, jokes that the show’s portrayal of white people is particularly authentic.

Tse is a big fan of Blood and Water but has taken issue with the idea that because there are so many Chinese characters, it must be about multiculturalism.

It’s really a great show, and it does open up quite a few questions about multiculturalism, whiteness, and Asian Canada in Vancouver. If you haven’t watched it, you are missing out. I’m thankful to Ian Young for picking up on my comment; as he says, ‘Sharing is caring.’

Syndicate: John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order

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From late December 2015 to early January 2016, Syndicate Theology ran what is being advertised now as the most-read symposium that the site has ever run, a fact that contributor Matthew Tan was generous to point out in his write-up on the forum. I was honoured to be the section editor for this forum, not least because the Theology and Social Theory section played host to the work of the scholar who wrote Theology and Social Theory in the first place: John Milbank. Our symposium focused on his newest book, Theology and Social Theory‘s sequel: Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People.

The book itself is controversial, for reasons that you can read about here in the symposium introduction that I wrote. This led to a controversial forum, which we rolled out in the order of most sympathetic to most outright hostile:

Milbank is beyond generous in his responses. Not only were his answers thoughtful and thorough, but they managed to elicit a new response from Singh calling Milbank’s project ‘racist.’ There’s also a point-for-point refutation of McCarraher that not only reads as a genuine invitation to conversation, but also is surprisingly revelatory of Milbank’s own working-class position in relation to both British politics and the hegemonies embedded in the academic discipline of theology.

Not that anyone is counting, but as a point if one were to go down the ‘identity politics’ route and accuse us of selling out to white theology: I note that three of the contributors are men of colour (in fact, two are Asian American, and one is Asian Australian) from very different ideological perspectives, and the white woman is married to a Korean American. I am (quite obviously) not white. And yet, here we are – engaging. There’s something to be reflected upon there – I’m not quite sure what it is, but it may have something to do with Milbank’s theology, for all the shots fired at it as a white man’s ideology, having some resonance in geographies that are not white, surprisingly not from the elite classes, and perhaps weirdly socialist in political orientation.

I’m grateful to Christian Amondson for having the fortitude to host such a wild and crazy symposium on Syndicate. Milbank’s oeuvre has been profoundly influential in my own work on grounded theologies, so to have done this forum where the contributors engaged each other with such gusto is a deep honour and privilege. As for the symposium being widely read, all I can say to our readers is, ‘Thank you,’ and, ‘Hang on tight!’

CLASS: Geography 420, Cultural Geography (Simon Fraser University)

From January to April 2016, I’m teaching a course at Simon Fraser University (SFU) called Geography 420: Cultural Geography. It’s a four-hour class that happens on Thursdays from 2:30 PM – 6:30 PM at SFU’s downtown campus at Harbour Centre. I have 21 exceptionally smart students who regularly challenge me, which is brilliant as a form of intellectual engagement as they give me many ideas for my own research and thinking about the discipline of cultural geography more generally.

You are free to view the syllabus. Here’s the course description:

In this course, we will attempt to practice cultural geography in a Vancouver setting. To do that, we will first have to figure out what we mean by ‘practice’ and who or what gets to ‘practice’ the making of spaces and places. Though we might end up having a productive disagreement as a class (unless we reach some consensus, which, given the state of human geography as a discipline, is not likely), I will propose in the second half of the class that we channel our possible tension into projects in cultural geography in Vancouver. Students will have an opportunity to choose case studies from Vancouver, including (but not limited to) geographies of affordable housing, the international property market, ethnic and migrant communities, intercultural initiatives, mediated publics, spaces of consumption, gendered spaces, simulacra, etc., and the final assignment will be a project to be submitted in some material form, either as a paper or in a creative medium discussed with the instructor.

Our key texts are Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and David Ley’s Millionaire Migrants: Trans-Pacific Life Lines,  among other short articles I’ve selected to supplement these readings.

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The way that I’ve imagined the class is as an exercise in actually having students get experience in the practice of cultural geography. Instead of having traditional exams, the course is (like the course on ‘Trans-Pacific Christianities‘ I taught at the University of Washington) oriented toward a final project. The ground rules for the project are that it has to be in Vancouver and the methodology must be ethical. I’ve broken down the project in several stages: a proposal due early in the course, a literature review, a class conference from which students get feedback, and a final material form (usually a paper, but there is some variety, such as GIS mapping, a choose-your-own adventure book, video documentaries, and photo essays). The weekly reading reflections are also geared toward reflecting on the project, which allows me to give students constant feedback about the direction they are taking on this project.

With such a structure, I’m finding that most of my teaching tends to wax on the theoretical side, instructing students in the theories that have been used in the discipline so that they can make use of them in their practice of cultural geography. This is a novel form of teaching for me, and I am having fun with this experimentation and learning a lot. The students seem to be very invested in making their projects theoretically and practically sound, and this makes me a very happy instructor. In this sense, I feel that I am developing as a teacher and crystallizing a philosophy of education for my own purposes as an educator in geography, religious studies, and Asian and Asian American studies, hopefully empowering students to discover their own agency as they engage the world around them as active practitioners of thought and mapping.

NOTE: At present, I am teaching as a Sessional Lecturer at Simon Fraser University, while also simultaneously retaining my affiliation as an Affiliate Faculty Member at the University of Washington in Seattle.