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.

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.

Vancouver Sun: Douglas Todd, ‘We Must Stand On Guard for Canada’

In the Vancouver Sun, Douglas Todd has given the Canadian public a fascinating discussion piece on the limits of liberal multicultural democracy. I’m quoted in the piece, so I thought I might offer a few critical reflections in light of what Todd says.

Todd’s piece takes its departure from what he describes as the rise of ‘religious extremists’ and what Immigration Minister Jason Kenney calls ‘homegrown religious radicals’ due to contemporary Canadian migration policy. Interviewing Liberal politician Ujjal Dosanjh and the Laurier Institute’s Farid Rohani, Todd finds these liberals of colour are themselves concerned that new migration trends to Canada are bringing more forms of abusive patriarchy within families, opposition to interracial and interreligious marriage, refusal to fit into the unspoken secular sartorial code in Canadian workplaces, and homophobic discrimination. On that last point, Todd reaches out in collegial fashion and quotes me: ‘Both Rohani and Dosanjh are aware of widespread anti-homosexual beliefs among many religious immigrants, which can lead to actual discrimination. And University of B.C.-trained scholar Justin Tse has cited the strong degree to which many Chinese Christian immigrants find Canada’s human rights laws regarding homosexuality “ridiculous.”’ The main point of the article, in turn, is that Canadian liberal democratic values are under strain from these new migrations and thus needed to be guarded more carefully. What’s smart about the article is that Todd seldom quotes from white Canadian public figures; all of the quotes are from people of colour, including me.

In many ways, Todd represents me fairly well. The attitude that Canadian human rights legislation is ‘ridiculous’ is a direct reference to my dissertation, which was cited in the South China Morning Post saying the same thing – that many of conservative Cantonese evangelicals with whom I spoke in Vancouver felt that Canadian human rights legislation was ‘ridiculous.’ That this is what my dissertation actually finds among conservative Cantonese evangelicals in Vancouver means that I feel very well-quoted and thankful that Todd has reached out yet again in a such a fine showing of collegiality.

But because this is a discussion piece, I also feel that I’m allowed to register a bit of collegial dissent from Todd’s conclusions. This is because I think Todd and I, while recognizing each other as colleagues in the public forum, are working on two fundamentally different social projects.

Gérard Bouchard (left) and Charles Taylor (right) listen intently.

While Todd makes the case that Canada has to guard its liberal multicultural democratic values, my project is to interrogate why it is that some migrants — in my case, some (but not all) Cantonese-speaking Protestants — were opposing the very liberal things that Todd wants to guard. I don’t pass judgment; I ask why. This is because the social (and arguably, political) thrust of my academic project is in many ways informed by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and his call for mutlicultural societies to practice the ‘politics of recognition.’ What this means is that various communities in the modern world have taken on certain identities that they don’t want to be unrecognized or misrecognized; misrecognition, in fact, can be viewed as an insult. What we have to do, Taylor proposes, is to recognize the other — to get past simple disagreements to understand precisely how the other’s identity is formed and how that othered identity is in fact part of the ‘we’ in this society. Taylor himself has put that into political practice: at a time when controversy erupted in the mid-2000s over head-coverings in Quebec (as Todd notes about Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values, it’s still under contestation), Taylor teamed up with Gérard Bouchard to form a commission to get every voice possible on the record about the practice of multiculturalism/interculturalism in Quebec, including all the nasty stuff people wanted to say about the hijab, niqab, and sundry. The result was a report titled Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation, in which Taylor and Bouchard painstakingly detail the problems with interculturalism in Quebec, report on every possible voice that they heard during their time on the commission, and propose that what’s needed is an open secularism, a sort of society where religion is not excluded but in fact included in everyday public deliberations.

In many ways, that’s what that section in my dissertation on Cantonese evangelicals in Vancouver calling Canadian human rights legislation ‘ridiculous’ is trying to do. To stop at that assertion of ‘ridiculousness’ is to cut the project short right at the beginning. If you read the dissertation (yes, it is publicly accessible), you’ll find that my question then goes to why these Cantonese evangelicals thought that Canadian human rights legislation tended to be ‘ridiculous.’ As the South China Morning Post succinctly quoted me in May, it’s because the sort of rights-based legislation around sexuality (hate crime bills, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, etc.) went against a certain vision of a ‘rational, orderly society.’ As I discovered, this wasn’t so much a ‘culture’ thing — ‘Chineseness’ was frequently invoked and qualified by my interviewees — but a performative agenda that understood best practices in civil society to be the creation of private, family-based economic units in which the second generation could be trained to become productive, private citizens in Canada. This means that sexuality is only the tip of the iceberg; other issues that contributed to what they might call the ‘irrationalization’ of society included the legalization of marijuana (medical or otherwise), harm-reduction drug treatment (some spoke of methadone; a few contested halfway houses in their neighbourhoods; most spoke of Vancouver’s inSite safe-injection program), the Anglican Church of Canada’s embrace of religious and sexual pluralism, and the building and expansion of casinos. The Cantonese evangelical public activism that propels this vision is certainly not un-Canadian; it is Chinese Christians wading into the fray of the partisan debates around what it means to be Canadian. That is, the fact that it is a socially conservative, privatized understanding of Canadianness does not make it un-Canadian; it makes it part of the debate around how Canada should be constituted as a nation.

My dissent, then, from Todd’s otherwise excellent, provocative discussion piece is that Todd seems to be portraying new immigrants, including the Chinese Christians that I studied, as bringing their religiously-based homeland politics to contest our hard-won liberal, multicultural, democratic Canadian values. But as my dissertation clearly states, the reasons that some Cantonese evangelicals thought that their rational, orderly vision of society was under assault tended to be modern and secular. It wasn’t a sort of backward homeland politics being imposed onto Canadian values. After all, this sort of politics of privatization comes from the need not to protect ‘culture,’ but as a business strategy in a globalizing world. This sort of rationality may be ideologically ‘conservative,’ but it is rooted in a very modern version of how society should operate. It may be theologically informed (as I argue elsewhere, what isn’t?!), but the reasons given for this rational, orderly society sound rather more to do with the very secular goal of maximizing private participation in the market economy. One may not agree with this sort of vision for a ‘rational, orderly society,’ especially one so rooted in the politics of privatization. But one cannot disagree that it is a vision.

In other words, I’m collegially dissenting from Todd’s piece because I don’t think that Canadians need to stand on guard for liberal, democratic, multicultural values. Instead, what’s more needed is a recognition that the ‘other’ is one of us, locked into the deliberations of democracy of which we are all a part. Contrary to Todd’s interview with Tung Chan in which Chan says that we need to ‘educate’ people and then let them go their merry way, this public deliberation is itself educative. It’s because it’s in deliberation — public, honest, open, and even heated deliberation (like the Bouchard-Taylor Report) — that we realize that the solution is never ideological entrenchment, but openness to the other as fellow citizens, persons even. Talking softens us. What perhaps needs emphasis is not so much the part of the national anthem to ‘stand on guard’ for Canada. It’s rather that if this is indeed ‘our home and native land,’ well, then, it is ours together. We need to keep talking.

Metropolis Canada: 23-26 March 2011

Just wanted to check in and report on the success of a paper session I co-organized with my friends Claire Dwyer, David Ley, and Paul Bramadat at Metropolis Canada.  Here’s the session information:

Immigrant Integration, Religious Diversity and the Suburbs
This session brings together academics and policy makers to discuss the ways in which the civic engagement and integration of immigrants is facilitated through religious institutions and organisations. It focuses on the emergence of new religious spaces in the suburbs of many Canadian cities and the challenge of planning for diversity.

Organizer | Organisateur
Claire Dwyer, University College London
Justin Tse, University of British Columbia
David Ley, University of British Columbia
Paul Bramadat, University of Victoria

Participants
Claire Dwyer, University College London, Justin Tse and David Ley, University of British Columbia
‘Highway to Heaven’: The Making of a Transnational Suburban Religious Landscape in Vancouver

Ranu Basu, York University
Kali in the Legions to Eid with Christmas Lights: Integrative Multiplicity in Toronto Suburbs

Meharoona Ghani, Ministry of Regional Economic and Skills Development, British Columbia
Multiculturalism and Inclusive Communities

Alan Hill, City of Richmond
Cultural Diversity and Integration

Chair | Modérateur
Paul Bramadat, University of Victoria

Discussant | Commentateur
Balwant Sanghera, Interfaith Bridging Project

A CLAIM TO FAME: our session was mentioned by Douglas Todd in The Search for our presentation on religion.  Thanks so much, Douglas, and yes, it provoked some great discussion on religion, secularism, migration, and the suburbs in Canada!

“Highway to Heaven?” New suburban religious landscapes and immigrant integration (Metropolis BC)

In 2010-2011, Professor David Ley (University of British Columbia), Dr. Claire Dwyer (University College, University of London), and I will be conducting a study of No. 5 Road in Richmond, British Columbia.  The road is better known as the “Highway to Heaven” because it features multiple religious buildings on the road between Blundell Road and Steveston Highway .  Examples of these institutions include five Chinese Christian churches, two Christian schools, two mosques (one Shia, one Sunni) with Muslim schools, a gurdwara, three Buddhist institutions, two Hindu centres, a Jewish day school, one Korean Christian church plant, and three older English-speaking Canadian churches.  Other religious institutions are slated to join the road in due time as well.

We are interested in how religious landscapes like the “Highway to Heaven” emerge in suburbs like Richmond and how these religious institutions are part of the migrant experience in metropolitan areas like Vancouver.  In particular, we have three foci.  First, we are interested at an urban planning level in how suburban planners plan for these religious landscapes.  Second, we want to explore how these religious institutions help immigrants to Canada integrate into society and how people at these churches experience this help in their everyday lives.  Third, we want to understand how residents in Richmond understand the role of No. 5 Road in how they practice being multicultural Canadians.  What this means at a very broad level is that we are interested in how No. 5 Road intersects with the everyday lives of people in Richmond, and we are very happy to talk to anyone who wants to talk with us!

This project is funded by Metropolis BC (http://riim.metropolis.net), a provincial division of the larger Metropolis Project (http://canada.metropolis.net) that examines how migration is changing the face of Canadian cities.  It is NOT my Ph.D. dissertation research, although the presence of Chinese churches (three of which are Cantonese-speaking and Hongkonger-based) means that this research is not too far afield in what I have been interested in for my MA research on a Hongkonger Christian church in Richmond and my upcoming Ph.D. research on evangelical Christianity in Hong Kong.  It is a collaborative project between David Ley, Claire Dwyer, and myself: the teamwork and discussion has been phenomenal as we have been able to openly talk through issues in geographies of religion and migration.  A link to the University College London announcement of this project is here: http://www.geog.ucl.ac.uk/about-the-department/news/highways-to-heaven.

If you’re interested in knowing more about this project, you can approach me by email at jkhtse@interchange.ubc.ca or Claire Dwyer at claire.dwyer@ucl.ac.uk.