Association of Critical Heritage Studies – what does heritage change?: Montreal 2016

I’m so happy to have been invited to Montréal to give a presentation on behalf of the collaborative project that Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), David Ley (UBC, Geography), and I have been working on since 2010. Our joint project revolves around No. 5 Road, a 3-kilometre stretch of road in Richmond, British Columbia, known as the ‘Highway to Heaven’ because it is home to over twenty religious institutions. So far, our project has yielded a working paper for Metropolis British Columbia (our funders) and a peer-reviewed article in Social and Cultural Geography. This is heads-up that there is more coming down the pipeline.

The conference at which I am representing our team is called the Association of Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS); their theme for this year’s 2016 (from June 3 to 8) meeting in Montréal is ‘what does heritage change?’ David was contacted by Luc Noppen, one of the organizers for this conference who put together a very interesting session titled ‘Heritage and the New Fate of Sacred Places/La patrimoine et le destin des leux sacrés.‘ Luc said that he had heard about our project from various places; we have indeed been presenting snippets of it at various conferences, such as the American Association of Geographers in 2011 and 2012 as well as Metropolis Canada at a policy symposium and their national conference. I was also once on the radio about it. Luc offered to fly one of our team over to Montreal, and after some discussion, the more junior member of the team (me!) got to go.

It will be interesting to be at a conference on critical heritage. I usually associate critical heritage with my friend and colleague Lachlan Barber, who is Assistant Professor of Geography at Hong Kong Baptist University, and when I think of critical heritage, I think of Lachlan’s dissertation on Hong Kong heritage politics, something that I have been thinking a great deal about in light of the origins of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Lachlan is in fact here at this conference talking about Hong Kong. But I won’t be talking about Hong Kong. I’m going to be talking about Richmond. Oh, all of my favourite things…

As I peruse the program, I’m finding that there are a good many sessions on religion at this conference. There is a session on Saturday, for example, on ‘Religion as Heritage – Heritage as Religion?‘ On Monday, there will be an all-day session at the historic church of Saint-Michel de Vaudreuil titled ‘Beyond Re-uses: The Future of Church Monuments in a Secular Society/Au-delà de la conversion: l’avenir des églises monumentales dans une société sécularisée.’ On Tuesday morning just before the session in which I am presenting, there is yet another round on religion as heritage at Concordia University. I’ll try to be at most of these sessions and will be definitely be brushing up on my high-school French when the Francophone presentations happen. Maybe I’ll try to sneak into my schedule a few Asia-Pacific sessions too, especially Lachlan’s paper.

It turns out that the session in which I am presenting on the fate of sacred places is being hosted in a site that has some special meaning for me. On Tuesday afternoon, we’ll be in a conference room at St Joseph’s Oratory. This parish – really, a minor basilica in its final form – was founded by the first canonized saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross (CSC), St André Bessette. CSC tends to be known in secular circles for the University of Notre Dame (which I have not attended) and in Roman Catholic circles for Family Theater (which I do not watch). However, CSC does many other things as well in Catholic education, including running the high school that I attended in the San Francisco Bay Area, Moreau Catholic High School (MCHS), which is named for the order’s founder, Blessed Basil Moreau. Moreau was an educator, and he imparted to his order a philosophy of education with which I continue to resonate: ‘We shall always place education side by side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart’ (Circular Letter 36). If there was anyone who embodied what that kind of education looked like in practice, it was St André, the illiterate doorkeeper who had St Joseph’s Oratory built in the first place. Widely known as a healer who lovingly embraced everyone who came to meet him at the door, St André shows us what the cultivation of the heart in education is: we are educated so that we can come to understand ourselves in relation to others as persons who can look each other in the face with love. One of my closest mentors at MCHS, Fr Harry Cronin CSC (we cofounded a literary magazine there in 2003 called Sea Changes), in fact wrote a play recently about St André called ‘The Lesson of Wood‘ that compares the simple carpentry of Jesus’ earthly father, St Joseph, to St André’s building of St Joseph’s Oratory. St André’s body is still at the Oratory, which means that not only will I get to visit this man who embodies everything I know education to be, but he will be within earshot of what I have to say at this critical heritage conference.

And what will I be talking about in the presence of St André’s relics? SHIT.

Yes, you read that right. Shit. As my students in cultural geography will know well – as well as those who have attended my more recent guest lectures – shit is becoming a bit of a technical term for me. I’d like to say that my new fecal interests were developed by reading the new materialist turns in critical theory, but if I were to be honest, it was because of a previous incarnation of the talk that I’m giving at this conference. I developed the thesis of this talk for a policy symposium with Metropolis BC and Embrace BC – that dialogue on No. 5 Road was really more about infrastructure than interfaith topics – and one item that seemed to make an impression on the audience was my discussion of sewage on No. 5 Road. Because of that, I was promptly invited to Comox for a panel the next month by the Community Justice Centre’s Bruce Curtis. As Curtis introduced me, he declared to a crowd of mostly older, respectable Vancouver Island folks, ‘Justin is going to tell you about SHIT!’ That is the scene that sticks with me now as I make my way through the new materialists, their more-than-human geography disciples, and their theoretical foes who, like Slavoj Žižek (my personal favourite), are equally scatological.

In any case, here’s the abstract for my talk next Tuesday:

Interfaith and intercultural dialogues frequently have an air of immateriality about them, focusing usually on abstract concepts in an effort to reach an idealistic overlapping consensus. The coexistence of over twenty religious institutions on No. 5 Road in Richmond, British Columbia, known as ‘Highway to Heaven,’ provides a remarkably grounded contrast. While this spectacular landscape appears on the surface to be fertile ground for abstract interreligious conversation, our findings from interviews conducted with the City of Richmond and the religious institutions suggest that the religious institutions often conceptualize their property as private, working together only to solve infrastructure problems related to parking, sewage, agricultural land, and the city’s proposals to rework the roads surrounding the area. Advancing an approach to the study of interreligious dialogue in contemporary sacred landscapes that focuses on the material and the mundane, we argue that there has been a shift in the conception of faith communities in relation to their property that has centralized private ownership as a practice of faith for these institutions. We therefore advance the critical study of religious institutions in Canada by showing that religion is not so much a matter of ideological identity as it is related to practices related to land that may have more in common with the secular than previously thought.

That looks tamer than what I think I am going to deliver. What has given me more courage is that I have discovered that I will have thirty minutes instead of my usual twenty. I am sure I could use that to (if I may) talk more shit, especially to sketch out some shitty theory – now that I indeed have a stake in this debate about shit between the so-called ‘new materialists’ and their theoretical foes (as all cultural geographers do, I would argue).

St André Bessette, pray for us indeed. Or as Moreau writes in the same Circular Letter I quoted above, ‘Even though we base our philosophy course on the data of faith, no one need fear that we shall confine our teaching within narrow and unscientific boundaries. No; we wish to accept science without prejudice, and in a manner adapted to the needs of our times. We do not want our students to be ignorant of anything they should know.’ I can only pray that my excremental presentation will be true to this sacramental spirit, which imbues the place where I will deliver it.

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MONTREAL MATERIALIST MADNESS!!

I am thankful to the Highway to Heaven team for tolerating this scatological turn in my scholarly endeavours. I am also thankful to Luc Noppen for so kindly inviting me to this conference. As always, we thank our funders Metropolis BC, who also enabled us to hire the best transcriber who exceeded our hopes and dreams, Airra Custodio. I am looking forward to the hilarity that will inevitably ensue as we discuss heritage this week.

Metropolis BC Working Paper 13-06: Immigrant Integration and Religious Transnationalism: the case of the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Richmond, BC

I am very pleased to announce the publication of a working paper for Metropolis British Columbia on our collaborative project on the ‘Highway to Heaven,’ No. 5 Road in Richmond, BC, on which over 20 religious institutions are arrayed on a stretch of 3 kilometres. Titled ‘Immigrant Integration and Religious Transnationalism: the case of the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Richmond, BC,’ this co-authored report among Claire Dwyer (University College London), David Ley (UBC), and myself explores the question of what ‘immigrant integration’ means on the Highway to Heaven.

The paper can be accessed here. A policy briefing note is also available. For the complete list of published reports in 2013, please click here.

Here is the abstract:

This paper draws on a case study of religious institutions on No. 5 Road in Richmond, British Columbia to explore the role of religious institutions in the process of immigrant integration. Colloquially known as the ‘Highway to Heaven’, No. 5 Road includes over twenty religious communities on a three-kilometre stretch of road, their location the result of a planning policy for an ‘Assembly District’ in the Agricultural Land Reserve. Drawing on interviews conducted with twenty-two out of twenty-four of the religious institutions as well as with policymakers and staff at Richmond City Hall from 2010 to 2012, we argue that integration is a complex term, which can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. We identify a range of different ways in which the religious institutions along No. 5 Road might defi ne their activities as contributing to the integration of immigrants, and we discuss a range of practices that support integration. However, we argue that immigrant integration was not the primary planning objective, nor was it the main theological purpose for religious congregations. Nonetheless, we conclude that policy makers could draw on the range of activities we explore to use the road as an educational resource to promote public conversation about the intricate relationships between faith, migration, and the contested meanings of ‘integration.’

This report is important as an act of public academic engagement with questions in Metro Vancouver’s civil society. In the last few years, accusations and insinuations have circulated that new immigrant populations are not ‘integrating’ in Vancouver, a discourse that is made even more confusing because there are migrants who both support and challenge this claim. Our report shows that when the question of ‘integration’ is examined in a geographical site like No. 5 Road, there are a variety of ways in which migrants say that they are ‘integrating.’ As a result, our advocacy is not based on whether migrants should or should not integrate. We’re saying that sites like No. 5 Road are excellent sites for public education and discussion about what ‘integration’ actually means.

This is the first in a series of papers that we will be publishing on No. 5 Road’s ‘Highway to Heaven,’ and we will also actively be revising this report for publication in an academic journal. Please feel free to send comments and feedback. We look forward to the public conversation that can develop from this report.

Radio Canada International: Highway to Heaven

ImageI was recently interviewed, along with multicultural activist Balwant Sanghera, by Lorn Curry at Radio Canada International. We spoke about No. 5 Road in Richmond, dubbed the “Highway to Heaven.”

You can hear the piece here. As you’ll hear, I implicitly sneaked in a few fun insights from scholars associated with The Immanent Frame.

I think Lorn did an excellent job putting this together, and I am very happy with the overall final product, although if I were to be just a little bit nit-picky, I found it interesting that he referred to the “rituals at the evangelical Christian churches.” But overall, it’s great. Thanks, Lorn!

Asian Religions Aren’t That Exotic (Ricepaper 16.4)

The latest issue of Ricepaper Magazine 16.4 has just come out, and I’m happy to announce that I have a feature article.  The issue is titled Poetry and Philosophy and includes articles, fiction, and poetry written by Jenny Uechi, Terry Watada, Siyuan Liu, Renee Sarojini Sarkilar, Nancy Kang, Kim Yong-Hi, Yasuko Thanh, and a profile on Valerie Sing Turner done by Loretta Seto.  It looks great.

My article is titled “Asian Religions Aren’t That Exotic.”  You’ll have to read the article in its entirety, but if you ever wondered how Asian Canadian films The People I’ve Slept With and Eve and the Firehorse, stats from the Canadian census on immigration to Vancouver, the ‘Highway to Heaven’ on Richmond’s No. 5 Road, and the controversy in the Vancouver Sun over Chinese Christians and cultural practices during this year’s Chinese New Year all go together, you’re in for a treat.  I take on all these themes with a twist, that really, Asian religions aren’t that exotic, and that because of this, creative artists should feel free to treat Asian religions in Canada as simply part of the everyday lives of Asian Canadians.

Enjoy!

Association of American Geographers 2011 (Seattle, WA)

A few updates on the sessions in this Association of American Geographers in Seattle’s Washington State Convention Center and the Sheraton.

Betsy Olson, Claire Dwyer, and I co-organized a session on Wednesday, 13 April 2011, at 10 AM entitled Religion and transnationalism/Traveling faith (#2244).  This paper featured paper presentations by Murat Es, Abby Day, Ben Kogaly, Sharon Suh, and Patricia Ehrkamp.  Claire Dwyer, David Ley, and I also gave our presentation on Richmond’s “Highway to Heaven”:

While geographers have written much about the varying dimensions of transnational urbanism (Ley 2004, MP Smith 2001, Mitchell 2004) religious transnationalism remains under explored despite the establishment of many new spectacular religious buildings in diaspora cities in the last decade and evidence of the continuing significance of religious practice for many migrants (Levitt 2007, Tweed 2002). In this paper we draw on recent empirical work in the multicultural suburb of Richmond, Vancouver to explore the complex geographies of a transnational suburban religious landscape. Along the Number 5 Road, on the eastern boundary of the city and adjacent to the major 99 highway, more than twenty religious buildings including mosques, churches, religious schools, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh temples are clustered within 3 kilometres. This suburban religious landscape has been produced by the complex intersection of suburban planning regulations, municipal multiculturalism and the transnational activities of a range of different diasporic faith communities living in greater Vancouver and beyond. Our paper traces the processes by which this landscape has been produced and raises some questions about the possible outcomes of planning for religious and cultural diversity and the varying trajectories of religious transnationalism.

I am also giving a paper on Thursday, 14 April 2011, at 10 AM in the Issues in Ethnic Geography II (#3220) session.  Here is the paper abstract:

Until recently, ethnic, religious, and ethno-religious spaces in North America have been assumed to be apolitical.  Urban ethnic centres (such as Chinatowns), ethnoburbs (such as Richmond in Metro Vancouver), and ethnic churches and temples have often been seen as sites where migrant cultures to North America have been preserved; indeed, the only politics in which they are involved may be anti-segregation and anti-racism protests.  However, Cantonese Christians have not been apolitical.  In 2008, Cantonese Christians successfully campaigned for the election of a Conservative Member of Parliament in Richmond, British Columbia; a parallel in the San Francisco Bay Area was an alliance of Chinese evangelicals with the larger evangelical movement to pass Proposition 8 to ban same-sex unions.  Such a trend has also been noticed by Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, running a front-page article on immigrants and the conservative vote.  In this presentation, I propose a working approach to such migrant religious communities that takes into account their politics.  We must ask: what are the civic imaginations and practices of Cantonese Christians who are said to vote conservative?  This paper grounds this question in Vancouver and San Francisco as the starting point of a new line of inquiry into the political agency of communities formerly thought to be ethnic enclaves running parallel religious lives in North America.  It is the hope of this paper to initiate a new approach to immigrant and ethnic geographies from which empirical data can be collected.

Finally, in the usual great run-up of speakers for the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems Annual Lecture, Claire Dwyer will be giving this year’s lecture (#4258):

Encountering the Divine in W5 and Highway 99: stories of the suburban sacred
This lecture reflects on my on-going collaborative research on suburban faith spaces in London and Vancouver to explore the significance of everyday geographies of religion.  Recent research on suburban faith spaces offers both into a reinterpretation of the assumed secularism of suburban space and an analysis of the transnational and postcolonial connections shaping suburban geographies. Through this analysis of suburban faith spaces I develop two broader arguments about the geographies of religions and belief systems. First, I ask what geographies of religion have to offer to wider theoretical discussions within the discipline. Second, I reflect on the  possibilities and challenges of accessing the suburban sacred as part of a wider reflection on geographies of encounter and enchantment.

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!

Sing Tao Daily (3 Feb 2011)

At the Metropolis BC conference, I was interviewed by a journalist for Vancouver’s Sing Tao Daily (星島日報).  He asked for supplemental information to our talk on No. 5 Road and wanted to discuss especially the Chinese Christian organizations in the talk.  He asked specifically about new migrants from the People’s Republic of China.

Most of what I said was fairly represented in the following article.  The Chinese version is here.  I have translated most of it (with assistance from family and girlfriend) into English here:

New immigrants are changing the culture of religious communities
Chu Lam (Sing Tao Daily, Vancouver)

An immigration research organization has pointed out that as NGOs and religious communities become increasingly concerned about multiculturalism, multiple levels of officials need more attention and understanding as they make new policies toward minorities’ religions and cultures.

Metro Vancouver’s immigration research organization invited Canadian academics, the government, NGOs, and religious communities for a dialogue on Wednesday.  They spoke from the perspective of all three levels of government on what they should pay attention to in policymaking.

The provincial economic and capacity development organization [Embrace BC] and immigration research Metropolis BC on Wednesday was entitled: Religion and society: a policy research symposium on immigration, multiculturalism, and social change in Canada.  This academic symposium invited the academics, government officials, and NGO leaders from all over the nation to participate in researching minorities and immigrant religious cultures and their impact on the changing Canadian social landscape.

UBC Human Geography’s doctoral candidate Justin Tse used ‘tsunami’ to represent the increasing numbers of PRC migrants to Canada.  He pointed out that Canadian Chinese religious organizations are mostly Cantonese-speaking and are mostly from Hong Kong, and that new migrants from the PRC find a gap in language and political values.  Although there are barriers, Chinese religious organizations are step-by-step incorporating new migrants, and the new migrants are participating willingly and happily because of their curiosity and need for religion, so the religious culture is changing from the inside, and it changes people’s view of politics and culture, causing the policymakers to pay attention.

Ryerson University’s urban planning professor Sandeep Agrawal expressed that up till now, the government has planned insufficiently for religion.  For example, in the Greater Toronto Area, there are 147 religious organizations, but there are only 123 religious places of worship, so on average one of these organizations must serve 10,000 people.  Many religious organizations can only hold their events in residential areas.

Agrawal said that when the government plans the city, they need to have the right amount of religious sites planned, so that they can ensure that multicultural and different religions are incorporated into the city development plans.

——

A FEW CLARIFICATIONS:

Sadly, and perhaps fortunately, I was not the one who coined the term “tsunami.”  I got it from another article written on 5 February 2010 in a Christian newsletter on Canadianchristianity.com on Chinese churches by Meg Johnstone entitled “Chinese churches thrive.”  In my own interviews for my master’s project on a transnational Hongkonger church, there were also people who expressed the phenomenon as new migrants “flooding into” the church “all of a sudden.”  We found similar sentiments expressed by some of the Cantonese-speaking churches on No. 5 Road.  A similar phenomenon was also noted by a fourth-year undergraduate geography student I helped who studied a prominent Cantonese-speaking church in Vancouver for his Research Methods: Migration course in Geography.  So no, “tsunami” is not from me; it is common parlance from the ground.

My comments on language also need to be taken in the context of Chinese Christianity in Metro Vancouver, not religion as a whole.  Most of the Buddhist places I’ve been studying on No. 5 Road are actually Mandarin-speaking: the Lingyen Mountain Temple is mostly from Taiwan (although there is a Cantonese tour guide, as well as a prominent figure who is non-Chinese), as is the Dharma Drum Buddhist Meditation Centre; some of the monks at Thrangu Monastery are proficient in Mandarin in addition to Tibetan.  But 74% of the Chinese Christian churches in the 2007 Vancouver Chinese Evangelical Ministerial Fellowship’s directory are Cantonese-speaking; the major Chinese Christian events also seem to be in Cantonese.  This situation is quickly changing as we speak, though, as many churches have started Mandarin ministries.  Moreover, far from all Mandarin ministry being new, there are also very well-established Mandarin-speaking churches in Metro Vancouver, such as Evangelical Chinese Bible Church (ECBC); I also have some very good Taiwanese Christian friends in the area as well; and Stream of Praise (讚美之泉), a very popular Taiwanese Christian music group based near Irvine in Orange County, CA, comes here to tour quite a bit too (and their Mandarin songs are sung in many Cantonese churches too!).

Christianity is important within the Chinese population because according to the 2001 census, there were more Christians (24%) than Buddhists (15%) within the Chinese population in Metro Vancouver.  For further reading, see Yu Li’s chapter on “Christianity as Chinese religion” in the edited 2010 volume on Asian Religions in British Columbia as well as my 2010 article in Population, Space, and Place on “Making a Cantonese-Christian family.” David Ley also has a section in his new book Millionaire Migrants: Trans-Pacific Life Lines (2010: pp. 213-217) on Chinese Christian churches as new civic spaces as well as a 2008 article in Urban Studies on the immigrant church as an urban service hub that focuses on German, Korean, and Chinese churches in Metro Vancouver.

On the difference of “political values,” I was referring to what my respondents had noted as a difference of political sensibilities between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China.  Of course, the PRC is a big place, and Hong Kong is also very diverse, but this was also a common sentiment on the ground.  As I told the reporter, I think the jury is still out on whether PRC migrants are more politically conservative, liberal, apathetic, etc. than their Hongkonger counterparts in Vancouver.  That may partly comprise some of my doctoral research.  Stay tuned.

The paragraph also seems to suggest that I think that Chinese religious organizations in Vancouver will completely change from Hongkonger to PRC.  I think it’s messier than that, although with new migrants coming into the church, some things will inevitably change.  I am starting to see that already.  But will it completely change?  That also remains to be seen.

Lastly, on the policymakers paying attention, yes, I think this was a hopeful sentiment.  I spoke with a policymaker today, however, who couldn’t care less.  But I think this is perhaps the main thrust of my upcoming doctoral project: what are the civic imaginations and practices of Hongkonger Christians in the Pacific region?  If there is change from new, non-Cantonese migration, then perhaps some things may change politically in perhaps swinging religious votes or perhaps affecting land use or perhaps engagement in new forms of civil participation.  Perhaps.  I still have to do the research there.  But yes, like the article, I hope that policymakers do pay attention to Chinese Christians.

All this said, I think this article is overall a fair representation of the interview I gave and the symposium as a whole (at least the morning portions).  My hope is that the comments quoted especially by Sandeep and myself will not be taken as written in stone by the experts but will prompt further research by academics and policymakers as well as deeper reflection on religion and society by the people reading this in their daily newspaper.