My research focuses on the diversity of imaginations and ideas of what ‘civil society’ should be and how these ideologies translate into geographical forms. At a conceptual level, ‘civil society’ usually refers to the sphere where citizens publicly engage each other independently of states, markets, and sometimes religion, but this ideal is often messier in practice. Typically, civil society deliberations take place in cities, which is why my work usually has an urban dimension.
My case studies have usually been drawn from the region that is known in some circles as the ‘Pacific Rim,’ the area of the world covering the West Coast of the Americas and the Eastern seaboard of the Asia-Pacific. Some say that the ‘Pacific Rim’ is a wonderful notion of market integration across the Pacific Ocean, others say that it’s a terribly socially unjust vision that throws people under the bus by racializing, criminalizing, and disenfranchising them, and both views (and all the views between) tend to make it onto my maps – not because I see them as equal dialogue partners that should reach a certain consensus about everyday life in this region, but because both ideologies are instrumental in making the civil societies of cities on the ‘Pacific Rim,’ sometimes with a good deal of conflict and others with some measure of conviviality. This interplay of placemaking, peacemaking, and protest on the Pacific Rim is what I call Pacific civil societies to refer to my interest in the elusive search for peace in the public spheres of what it means to be a civil society that is socially just on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
I’m especially interested in the ideological work that imaginations about ‘Asia,’ ‘Asians,’ and ‘Asian Americans’ do in making these Pacific Rim civil societies. These are all ideological terms that have their own intellectual history, but they also mean different things to people on the ground, especially when they put these concepts of identity into social, cultural, and political practice. For me, these terms (as well as other related terms like ‘Greater China’ and ‘Chinese diaspora’) all fall under the umbrella term ‘Asian modernities,’ a moniker that scholars who study transnational migration, political and economic development, and urbanization in Asia use to describe a self-conscious attempt by state, market, civil society institutions, and individual citizens to try to think about being ‘modern’ through Asian ‘cultural values’ (in the many ways that that’s defined). My inquiries into the geographical work that these ideologies do has left me intrigued with more philosophical questions of what ‘ideology’ actually is, especially because ‘cultural values’ usually slips quickly into talk about religion and secularization. It’s to the end of thinking through what ‘ideologies’ actually are that my more theoretical interest in ‘grounded theologies‘ come into play, as I theorize that even secular geographies, at the root of their existence, are still constituted by theology – what philosopher Charles Taylor describes as the ‘supernatural,’ ‘be this understood in terms of the one transcendent God, or of Gods or spirits, or magic forces, or whatever’ (A Secular Age, p. 16). In terms of disciplinary orientation, this means that I still find my intellectual home in human geography, but I also tend to branch out toward religious studies and theology as well as Asian and Asian American studies.
My doctoral project, entitled Religious Politics in Pacific Space: Grounding Cantonese Protestant Theologies in Secular Civil Societies, explored how some of these concepts – ‘grounded theologies,’ ‘Pacific civil societies,’ ‘Asian modernities’ – played out among Cantonese-speaking Protestants as they have tried to engage the civil societies of three Pacific Rim cities: San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong. I wanted to make sense of how they understood and imagined ‘civil society’ and put those imaginaries and ideologies to work in trying to make their version of civil society happen. In some ways, my project was motivated by the news breaking in the 2000s about how ‘Chinese Christians’ – mostly of Cantonese Protestant background – were vocally supporting socially conservative political positions, including opposing same-sex marriage (such as in California’s Proposition 8 controversy), advancing politically conservative electoral candidates (such as in the Conservative Party of Canada), and aligning with establishmentarian forces to advance their own private interests (such as in accusations that Christians cooperation with the pro-People’s Republic of China (PRC) factions in Hong Kong politics). In so doing, I dug up a history of how Cantonese Protestant imaginaries shifted toward what might be called a private consensus that their institutions (churches, families, market institutions, and even their conception of government and civil society) should be autonomous and motivated by self-interest. What was especially fascinating was how this ideology of privatization tended to be justified by appeals to an ethnic Chinese culture, making ‘Chineseness’ the focal point of the ideological work here. Such invocations to an essential ethnic cultural proved to be quite slippery, as I also discovered that there were significant challenges to this private consensus from among Cantonese Protestants challenging racism and homophobia while advocating various kinds of progressive solidarities (e.g. the Asian American Movement, democratic challenges to Asia-Pacific state/market regimes, indigenous sovereignty, feminist and queer politics).
While completing my doctoral project, I also broadened the interfaith dimensions of my research on religion and civil society by participating in a collaborative project with Drs Claire Dwyer (University College London) and David Ley (UBC) on the state, market, and civil society forces that have constructed the Highway to Heaven, a stretch of 3 kilometres of agricultural land in Richmond, BC, with over 20 religious institutions. My doctoral research on Cantonese Protestants, who tend to share an affinity with Hong Kong despite their ideological diversity, also incorporates work that I completed in my BA (Hons) on the history of masculinities in Hong Kong and my MA project on the geographical imaginations of a transnational Hongkonger church in Vancouver. This doctoral work has yielded six peer-reviewed publications so far and forms the basis of my ongoing research and publishing on Pacific civil societies, especially when it comes to the private consensus and challenges raised against its ideological slipperiness on the ground.
My current postdoctoral project is tentatively titled The Private Consensus Is Unraveling: Asian Modernities and Protest Cultures in Pacific Rim Cities. I am interested in the politicization of civil societies and what the emergence of protest phenomena in Pacific Rim cities have to tell us about how people, especially those who inhabit ‘Asian’ and ‘Asian American’ bodies, want to live their everyday lives in the face of state, market, and even civil society institutions that are usually governed through the ideology of the private consensus. My case studies include the origins and aftermath of the 2014 Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, the participation of Asian Americans in the Black Lives Matter movement in American cities (especially Seattle), and the engagement of Chinese and Japanese Canadians in the neighbourhood politics of Vancouver’s Chinatown and Downtown Eastside. In each of these cases, I also reflect on the continued presence of grounded theologies in shaping these contested ideologies of civil society and what it means to be ‘Asian’ and ‘Asian American’ on the Pacific Rim. In some ways, this project emerged out of work that I had originally conceived for my SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship on ‘younger-generation’ Asian North American Christian engagements with public spheres of Seattle and Vancouver, as well as reflections on Asian American evangelical struggles for representation in contemporary evangelical public spheres. This work might also be usefully compared with the emergence, aftermath, and ongoing struggle for democracy around the world, such as the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Latin American protests, and Euromaidan, as these sustained demonstrations offer windows into emerging concepts of civil society as protest cultures, a way of inhabiting everyday lifeworlds through conscious and unconscious practices of resisting the private consensus. Research for this project is still in its early stages, but the work has already been officially launched by a forthcoming co-edited book (with Jonathan Y. Tan) with Palgrave entitled Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, as well as some experimental academic articles, encyclopedia entries, and posts on my blog, Religion Ethnicity Wired.
In short, my engagement with academic conversations often falls under several themes that are broader than my particular topical interests in Cantonese Protestants, interfaith suburban landscapes, and protest cultures. At a conceptual level, I seek to understand social, cultural, and political geographies of civil society, especially in cities. Theoretically, my engagements with the ideologies and practices of civil society have led to an interest in the ontological dimensions of ideology, especially in the ‘grounded theologies’ of religion and secularization that seem to pervade most forms of placemaking. My regional focus is on the Pacific Rim, with all of its ideological contests around Asian modernities and Asian American cultural politics at various scales of the state, the market, civil society, and individual reflexivity. As it is, I feel most at home calling myself a human geographer, but as geographers tend to be rather promiscuous when it comes to the disciplines, I feel quite free to engage conversations in theology and religious studies as well as Asian and Asian American studies and seek to do so on an active basis.