South China Morning Post: School Transgender Policy Row

I have received quite a warm welcome back to Vancouver for my doctoral graduation today. Ian Young has done a masterful job of quoting me in today’s edition of the South China Morning Post.

scmp_ianyoung

The article is about how Chinese Christians — in particular, Cantonese-speaking evangelicals — in Vancouver are contesting the Vancouver School Board’s proposed policy for transgender faculty, students, and staff. There is both a main article and a side column based mostly on a reading of chapter 5 of my dissertation.

The controversy centers on those who have opposed the policy because they feel that their ‘parental rights’ to educate their children primarily in the private sphere have been violated. As I explained to Young:

This is not really a debate about homophobia. It’s a debate about parental rights … and this has been the long-standing theme in these debates in Vancouver…Chinese Christians have this vision for a rational orderly society. A particular reading of the Bible may inform this, a particular reading of the Chinese classics may inform this. But at the heart of it, it’s about a rational orderly society, where parents are the primary educators for their children. What they are seeing instead with this kind of stuff [the board’s proposals] is that this is irrational and disorderly. That’s why there is such a strong pushback.

In addition, I emphasized that these political activities ‘were not a “church effort” but involved churchgoers in a secular way, “through Chinese Christian e-mail chains, informal conversation and assorted Chinese Christian media”.’

I am very thankful to Ian Young for our collegial relationship. He first contacted me last year about an article on youth transitioning to adulthood between Hong Kong and Vancouver, a topic that Jo Waters and I had written on in Global Networks. I found Young’s questions very perceptive and incisive, always pushing me to draw out my points, to illustrate with examples, and to pose counter-illustrations. I suppose I should expect no less from the former International Editor of the SCMP, but I must say that it is always a pleasure to work with someone at the height of his craft.

I also appreciate how Young engages multiple sources in his account in order to draw out the multi-sided complexity of this debate. His interview with Cheryl Chang is revelatory both because of how Chang insists on her secularity as a concerned parent activist and because she was the legal advisor for the Anglican Network in Canada, a realignment group that sued the diocese for their property because they insisted that it was they who were holding to historic Anglican orthodoxy on theological doctrine and sexual praxis. He not only quotes me about the non-church-based Chinese Christian networks, but goes right to the source, Truth Monthly, one of the two premier Chinese Christian newspapers in Vancouver (the other is Herald Monthly). He has done his research on Charter Lau, mostly through my dissertation, but instead of just quoting the thesis, he has used it to trace the precedents for this poobah in both Burnaby’s Policy 5.45 controversy in 2011 and the ongoing debate about Bill C-279 to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (my dissertation fieldwork took place during the C-389 controversy).
[UPDATE: May 23, 2014: These items have been corrected in the online edition.]

As this information develops, however, I do want to make two very minor clarifications to the record, none of which affect Young’s larger point. The ‘CSCF’ that Young mentions is the ‘Christian Social Concern Fellowship,’ not the ‘Christian Social Conservative Fellowship.’ While many of its members are politically conservative and some are card-carrying members of the federal Conservative Party of Canada, ‘social concern’ is a term derived from mainline Protestantism in Hong Kong to talk about the church getting involved in social action. The second is that the Truth Monthly post date is from the January 2014 issue. That this post predates the debate by four months instead of several weeks in fact strengthens Young’s point about this transgender issue being widely discussed in Chinese Christian media.

Again, many thanks to Ian Young for a very thorough article and sidebar for SCMP. I look forward to further collaboration in the future.

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SSHRC Postdoc Fieldwork, Summer 2014

I’ve got some fun news. I’m back in the field!

I’ve really missed this. Much of my PhD was consumed with doing ethnographic fieldwork, key informant interviews, and focus groups, both for my actual doctoral project (see my work in San Francisco [x2], Vancouver, and Hong Kong) as well as for the collaborative project on the Highway to Heaven in Richmond, BC. After finishing all of that, I did a ton of writing, which has resulted in a dissertation and will result in a series of publications that you can expect to roll out over the next few years.

But as the summer is starting up, teaching is done, and frameworks are being solidified, it’s time to do some new fieldwork for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship. That’s the whole reason I’m here in Seattle in the first place.

I need your help. I need to talk to people.

Here’s what the project is about.
I am interested in publics. Asian American and Asian Canadian Christian publics, to be specific. And to be really precise, in Seattle and Vancouver, for now. And to be super-precise, publics produced by the younger generation.

What are publics?
That’s actually what I want to find out. There’s a huge academic literature on publics, as well as a lot of popular reflection. In general, a public is just whenever someone puts something into circulation and creates an audience. This is usually contrasted with the private, which means stuff that’s not supposed to be circulated outside of a self-governed institution, like a family, a church, or a corporation. But do younger-generation Asian American and Asian Canadian Christians think of their work as public or private? That’s the golden question.

So what are you really interested in?
I’m interested in how younger-generation Asian American and Asian Canadian Christians understand their participation in making publics. This can be really broad. It can include stuff like electoral politics, grassroots activism on a variety of issues, social media participation, artistic/musical production, social services, and a lot more stuff. Like my PhD on Cantonese-speaking Protestants and how they engaged the civil societies of Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, I let the data drive the issues that I explored.

So what’s the key research question? (Because I’m a social scientist and I know what I’m talking about.)
The key research question is: how do younger-generation Asian American and Asian Canadian Christians in Seattle and Vancouver engage and create publics?

How will you find out about this?
By talking to people. My research is usually driven by key informants. These are usually named individuals (although I always give the option for anonymity) who are positioned well to provide information about a phenomenon. My research is qualitative, so unlike a statistics-based project, I’m not aiming for representativeness. I’m trying to get stories, opinions, perceptions, and insider explanations on the record. To make sense of this data, I usually overlay it with focus groups of lay people and extensive methods where I consult quantitative data that’s already out there. I also use the key informant research to point me to documents that I need to put in my archives.

Who do you need to talk to?
I need to talk to key informants who can talk intelligently about how younger-generation Asian American and Asian Canadian Christians make publics. This means that they are usually a) talking about their own work as an individual or part of an institution or b) talking about people that they work very closely with.

What do you mean by Christian?
I mean people who self-identify as Christian. Evangelicals, liberal Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, hard to categorize, etc. If you’re from another religious tradition or not part of a religious tradition and still want to talk to me, let’s also talk…about Christians.

By Christian, do you mean that you want to talk to Asian American and Asian Canadians who are doing Christian stuff in the public sphere?
NO. I’m also interested in people who are working in the secular public sphere but personally identify as Christians. If the public stuff doesn’t have much to do with personal identification as Christian, that’s interesting too!

What do you mean by younger-generation?
I mean ‘second-generation’ (i.e. born in North America) + people who came here when they were young. This way, I don’t exclude people I should be talking to arbitrarily based on birth. It also means that I’m interested in talking to people who do work in Asian languages, not just English-speaking.

But ‘Asian’ is so diverse!
I know! The thing is, there’s this theory that I’m trying to suss out called pan-ethnicity. People who work on second-generation stuff (especially my colleague Russell Jeung in his book Faithful Generations) have noted how Asian Americans — and to some degree, Asian Canadians — cooperate across ethnic lines (i.e. Chinese, Korean, Filipina/o, Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indonesian, Malay, etc.) and talk about themselves as ‘Asian.’ I want to see if that works when Asian Americans and Asian Canadians do stuff in the public sphere.

But I don’t live in Seattle or Vancouver.
That’s OK. For one thing, I need your information to contextualize what I’m finding here in the Pacific Northwest. For another, the data here might lead to sites outside of the Pacific Northwest because this public work might not be regionally bound.

Do you have ethics clearance for this research?
Yes. The University of Washington’s Human Subjects Division in fact determined that my research was exempt from review under Category 2 of their Exempt Determination. This means that — given adherence to common-sense ethical research procedures — my work has been approved by the university.

I’ll be working on the initial phase of collecting data for this project in Seattle and Vancouver throughout Summer 2014. This initial phase means that I am very interested in talking to key informants. This usually means setting up an interview that is usually audio-recorded, lasts for about one hour, and is transcribed for accuracy. I have a formal letter of invitation, consent form, and interview questionnaire available, if you want to see that before talking to me.

Contact me at jkhtse (at) uw (dot) edu, and let’s talk!

PhD Defence and Program Completion

With the successful completion and defence of my doctoral dissertation, I am pleased to announce that the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies has sent me a note to tell me that I have completed all of the program requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Geography.  This means that I officially have a PhD in hand.  The degree will in turn be formally conferred at the next Spring Convocation in 2014.

I am happy to share the link for my dissertation, Religious Politics in Pacific Space: Grounding Cantonese Protestant Theologies in Secular Civil Societies, from cIRcle, UBC’s online repository of theses and dissertations. I am in the process of finalizing the details as I start a postdoctoral fellowship externally funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada. This will take place at the University of Washington in Seattle under the direction of Professor James Wellman, Jr. I will be starting on a new postdoctoral project there (details forthcoming), and I will also be trying to turn this dissertation into a book while generating academic journal articles from it.

I defended the dissertation on 3 December 2013. My supervisory committee consisted of Professor David Ley (UBC Geography; my advisor), Professor Henry Yu (UBC History and Principal, St. John’s College), Dr. Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), and Professor Rudy Busto (UC Santa Barbara, Religious Studies). Of this committee, David Ley and Henry Yu were present. The departmental examiner was Professor Dan Hiebert (UBC Geography). The university examiner was Professor Don Lewis (Regent College, Church History). The external examiner was Professor Paul Cloke (University of Exeter, Geography). Chairing the proceedings was Professor Leanne Bablitz (UBC, Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies).

The defence took place at 9 AM on 3 December. After the chair read the rules (including the very ironic statement that ‘latecomers will not be admitted’), I gave a 25-minute presentation on my dissertation. This was followed by almost two hours of questions from each of the examiners; David Ley voiced the questions from the external, Paul Cloke. I passed the entire ordeal with minor revisions, which were completed in one day and then submitted to the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies with the approval of the committee. The dissertation was archived today.

The defence covered many of the fundamental points of the thesis’s overall argument. The dissertation set out to answer the question, What are the imaginations and practices that constitute the engagements of Cantonese Protestants with the civil societies of Metro Vancouver, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region? The argument was that most Cantonese Protestants unintentionally but inadvertently reinforced the secularization thesis as a theological practice when they engaged in such public activities because they tended to reinforce the privacy of religion while leveraging an essentialized ethnicity to maximize their impact on secular public spheres. Accordingly, most of the questions addressed this central question. Many asked me to defend my view that secularization and ‘religion’ are not binary opposites but fall under the rubric of ‘grounded theologies.’ Others poked into whether my assertion that transnational linkages between Hong Kong and the North American sites were sparse could be generated from the empirical material (it can, if one takes a grounded public/private split seriously, which forms the basis of my argument about secularization). Still others interrogated my spatial re-orientation of terms like ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ to signify how congregations relate spatially to their civil societies.

I am very grateful to each of the committee members for reading the thesis with such care. I am also extremely thankful for my friends who attended the defence and critically engaged me during the public discussion. I am told that few candidates have so many friends who attend, let alone ask such pointed–yet supportive–questions. These were from members of the community, one of which asked me to point hopeful ways forward for Cantonese Protestant theologies (revealing my very open positionality as a confessing and practicing Christian) and another of which asked me to relate my findings to parallels and contrasts with the black church (speaking into very interesting emerging conversations in theology about race and theology). For more about my personal theological practice, including my strange connection with the black church, see here.

I will emphasize that what it means that I have a PhD in hand is that now I am recognized by the academic community as someone who has demonstrated that I can do research and teach in my field. In other words, I am now officially qualified to learn more. This does not signify the end of things; it means that I’m at the very beginning of a very long journey. I have a lot more to learn, a lot more to think about, and a lot more to stay in conversation about. That I am revising the thesis into publications suggests that I will do much more thinking about the topic in addition and connection to my postdoctoral project, and for that, I will appreciate the chance to remain in conversation with those who are interested. The program is completed, but the conversation is just starting. I am grateful and excited.

POSTSCRIPT: for those who want to read the periodic updates I had on my program, they can be found here:

Migrant Faith (Jeremia Chow and Sarah Crutchfield): helping out with a History 485 Final Project

I had the privilege of being a key informant and informal adviser to an exciting undergraduate class project for UBC’s History 485 course. Taught by Asian American historian Henry Yu (Thinking Orientals, 2001), the course focuses on Asian migrant communities in Vancouver, understanding them in the context of what Yu calls “Pacific Canada.”

Two students, Jeremia Chow and Sarah Crutchfield, approached me with an idea for their final project in that course, one that has successfully come to fruition through this website. They wanted to focus on Chinese churches, and fortuitously, they found my blog and contacted me (unaware, it seems, that Henry Yu is one of my committee members and ardent supporter of my various projects). Their research question focused on how Chinese churches integrated new immigrants, a concern that has run throughout my M.A. project on a transnational Hongkonger congregation in a Vancouver suburb, the collaborative Highway to Heaven project on new suburban religious landscapes and immigrant integration, and the PhD dissertation on how Cantonese Protestant theologies are grounded in Pacific Rim civil societies.

My modest contribution to this project was an interview I granted them on March 26. We met in Vancouver for coffee and Thai food. Their questions revolved around how to approach congregations with the question of immigrant integration. I gave a two-pronged answer.

Theoretically, I told them that they might need to disentangle the assumptions that congregations are de facto parts of civil society, that they provide institutionalized social services, and that their theologies support civil society engagement on the part of the church. Instead, I advised them to look from the ground up, inquiring about grounded theologies and being open to the reality that social services provided by churches might be informal. (This was a similar point I raised in my BBC Heart and Soul interview.)

Methodologically, I emphasized that positionality is important when conducting interviews. Because of the way that interviewees read interviewers for race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion, Jeri and Sarah had to be aware of their own positionalities and understand that their self-awareness could be important for the dynamics of data collection. Because they needed to disentangle their own assumptions about how churches contributed to immigrant integration, I suggested that if Sarah conducted the interviews, then interviewees would find themselves explaining more to her without presuming prior knowledge. In turn, this would enable their data collection to be more thorough so that they could see exactly where their assumptions are dissonant with the data.

I’m happy to report that I am overall very pleased with the end result. Not only was the data collection thorough enough to challenge their own prior assumptions, but they have stumbled upon the next frontier of Chinese church research in Vancouver: Mandarin-speaking charismatic churches. Because of the dominance of Cantonese churches, Mandarin churches have been understudied. Their data provides an important window into Mandarin-speaking churches, enabling comparisons with existing work on Cantonese Protestant congregations and engagements with civil society.

This is my second foray into helping undergraduates design a research project. My prior experience took place in another course taught by Henry Yu comparing transnational migration in Vancouver and Singapore in the summer of 2011. I led a group documentary project on religion and migration, from which we produced a short film Moving Faith (we are working to disseminate this project!). These experiences have been formative for my own pedagogical convictions, as these public presentations are an excellent venue for demonstrating the value of undergraduate public education. I will certainly use field work as a required component of courses I teach in the future, and these two projects have given me valuable insight into how field work can be presented to a public outside of the classroom.

Thanks, Jeri and Sarah, for including me in this very insightful project.

BBC Heart and Soul: Chinese Christians in Vancouver

I am happy to announce the airing of a radio show episode in which I was honoured to participate. The show is the BBC’s Heart and Soul. The title of the episode is “Chinese Christians in Vancouver.

It is interesting that the episode is airing in the midst of Holy Week. The show host, Matt Wells, interviewed his participants over the Chinese New Year weekend in February. I am pleased to recognize friends, acquaintances, and even some research correspondents in the show, especially Stephen Cheung, the Rev. Simon Lee, Fr. Paul Chu, and Bill Chu.

The episode presents a fairly comprehensive view of Chinese Christianity in Vancouver. It tracks the growth of Chinese evangelicalism in Vancouver, drawing from early Chinese Canadian history to the growth of wealthier Hongkonger migrants to the current influx of people from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It also compares Catholics and evangelicals, as well as generational and geopolitical divisions.

My contributions also ranged across these topics. The soundbite that Matt pulled from our fairly lengthy interview concentrated on the growth of second-generation English-speaking ministries within and without Chinese churches and their comparisons with the Southern Californian ‘silent exodus.’ I am happy to say that this serves as a preview into post-doctoral research I will be conducting next year.

It was also fascinating to see how Matt covered the other parts of my research through the other respondents’ voices. My master’s research into transnational Hongkonger evangelical churches was adequately covered by interviews with Cantonese communities and the comparisons between Protestant and Catholic voices. My PhD thesis on engagements with the public sphere, especially around sexuality issues and the provision of social services, was covered through interviews with Bill Chu, SUCCESS, and Vancouver Sun religion writer Douglas Todd. The work that I have been doing with Claire Dwyer and David Ley on the Highway to Heaven also made it into the program through the interview with Peace Evangelical Church.

As always, I need to provide a few caveats.

First, Matt always returns to China as the homeland for people in the Chinese diaspora. This needs to be more critically assessed. As Laurence Ma and Carolyn Cartier point out in their book The Chinese Diaspora, the issue of homeland is actually very complicated for people in the Chinese diaspora, as ideological claims that China is home don’t always match the material realities of multiple homelands.

Second, Matt seems to think that the church is the place where politics and social services emerge. I don’t blame him for assuming this, but the relationship between church and civil society for Chinese Christians in Vancouver is very complicated and needs to be more critically assessed. This is especially true for the sexuality issues, where it’s assumed that protests against sexual orientation discrimination bills, same-sex marriage, and anti-homophobic curricula emerge from congregations and are driven solely by a conservative theology. The reality is much more complicated, as religious values don’t always emanate from the church, but can be individually held and combined with secular factors.

Third, I worry about the near-portrayal of Chinese as homogeneously wealthy in Vancouver. While it is very true that wealthy Chinese migrants have transformed Vancouver’s urban landscape, the existence of organizations like SUCCESS that provide social services, employment help, and English-language and citizenship training indicates that there are economically disadvantaged Chinese people in Vancouver too. As a result, not all Chinese in Vancouver are of the same economic and political stripe, not even within church congregations.

However, overall, I am very pleased by the program.  I am especially happy to see that Matt has inferred with good insight the central issue here in Vancouver (though I am picky about the details): how does a multi-faceted Chinese evangelical population relate to Vancouver’s secular mainstream? To what extent is this about racialization vis-a-vis whiteness, and to what extent is it about religion? I am glad that Matt hasn’t provided definitive answers to these questions, but has framed them as starting points for further and deeper conversation and debate. In other words, Matt isn’t telling us what to think about Chinese Christians in Vancouver; he’s asking us to listen in and start a thoughtful conversation. Because of this, though I have caveats, I am happy to recommend this program as an introduction to the work that I have been doing in Vancouver. I would encourage listeners then to get in on the debate.

PhD Field Work: Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

Greetings from Hong Kong!  I have been here since 22 February and will be here until April 17 doing field work for my PhD on Cantonese-speaking Christians, their conceptions of civil society, and their concrete networks and political practices.

During this time, I will be interested in any leads on the following:

  • How various churches and denominational bodies see their role in civil society
  • Christian involvement (both Protestant and Catholic) in the Chief Executive elections
  • Christian activism around “moral” issues, such as homosexuality and gambling
  • Christian work in poverty, both in areas of charity and social justice
  • Christians in post-80s movements
  • Christian discourse around democracy
  • Christian activism for and against the right to abode for migrant workers and China mothers
  • Christian work in education

I am interested in speaking with pastors, Christian organization leaders, and politicians.  I am also interested in gathering focus groups from the Christian laity.  If you would like to speak with me, or know of any people with whom I should speak, please contact me at jkhtse@interchange.ubc.ca.

PhD Field Work: San Francisco Bay Area II

I am returning to the San Francisco Bay Area for field research from 16 November to 20 December.

During this time, I am hoping to do the following:

  • Finish key informant interviews at Chinese Christian organizations and churches that I didn’t get to in the first round this summer
  • Conduct focus groups with Cantonese-speaking evangelicals on their feedback on what’s going on in civil society and politics
  • Amass an archive of media(print and audio-visual) reports, city planning documents, and church records to help with my project
If you have any leads or would like to be involved, please contact me at jkhtse@interchange.ubc.ca.  I will be staying on the East Bay as a home base but will be able to commute throughout the Bay Area.