Chinese America: History and Perspectives: Liberal Protestant Chinatown: Social Gospel Geographies in Chinese San Francisco

I am very pleased to announce the publication of one of my articles in the very interesting peer-reviewed academic-community-collaboration journal, Chinese America: History and Perspectives – The Journal of the Chinese Historical Society of America. I picked up my copy of the most recent issue at the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) directly after the field trip that I led for the American Association of Geographers in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Founded by the late Chinese American historian Him Mark Lai, this journal’s point of interest for me is that it speaks directly to how the academic work done at San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) College of Ethnic Studies – the founding site of critical ethnic studies – is immediately related to community organizations. With the recent academic controversy around the university budget cuts that immediately affect this College, the perseverance of this journal is quite moving, especially as it looks like the journal is growing with an editorial board that is starting to look like a who’s who of Chinese American studies.

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My contribution to this issue, which is backdated to 2015 (academic journals sometimes take time to produce!), is titled ‘Liberal Protestant Chinatown: Social Gospel Geographies in Chinese San Francisco.‘ Here’s the first paragraph as an abstract of sorts:

This paper is about the cultural geography of what I call “Liberal Protestant Chinatown” in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I show that, since the 1920s and 1930s, a younger generation of Chinese Americans coming of age in San Francisco espoused a “liberal” theology, which in American Protestantism refers to the interpretation of Christian conversion as the “social gospel,” the call to convert the structures of society to be more politically and economically equitable based on a rational, scientific view of just distribution in modern circumstances. While this liberalism is usually opposed to a “fundamentalist” position seeking to defend the scientific inerrancy of the biblical text and the primacy of individual subjective conversion in Christian experience, Liberal Protestant Chinatown rejected both the conservatism of Christians who placed their emphasis on personal subjectivity and a non-Christian Chinese establishment in Chinatown that sought to retain village kinship structures, clan associations, and ritual practices. In this way, liberal Protestants sought to build a new trans-Pacific cultural geography in Chinatown, one marked neither by missionary activity to westernize China nor by an economy linking the United States with Chinese villages, which they alleged at the time to be fraught with the criminal underworld trafficking of persons and narcotics (although this is difficult to fully substantiate and led during this period also to the unfair stereotyping of Chinese American young men as gangsters and “gooks,” which the liberal Protestants also sought to mitigate). My central argument is that the social gospel of Liberal Protestant Chinatown thus configured the cultural geography of Chinatown into a network of non-profit organizations seeking legitimate economic advancement for Chinese Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, reframing “Chineseness” as the local heritage of the Chinatown community for which they sought material improvement.

Consider this my first published try at attempting a theological re-reading of the discipline of Asian American studies. Certainly, there have been many other attempts at this – look no further than the work of Rudy Busto, David Kyuman Kim, Russell Jeung, and Timothy Tseng, especially at their essays in the formidable Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America –  but I suppose what I’m trying to contribute to this enterprise in this essay is to show that a site like San Francisco’s Chinatown is a place ripe for studying the material manifestations of Asian America as a theology. Moreover, my paper deals explicitly with the rift within Chinese American studies (which has spilled out across Asian American studies) between Frank Chin’s anti-Christian advocacy within Asian American literature and feminist novelists who have some connection to San Francisco’s Chinatown (especially Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan). For these ideas, I am also very grateful to Dean Adachi for organizing a session at the Association of Asian American Studies in 2014 on San Francisco as the ‘Asian American Holy City,’ where I presented the first iteration of this paper. I also cite one of my students from my trans-Pacific Christianities class, Mariam Mathew, who wrote a very helpful paper probing why Frank Chin hates Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club so much. In some ways, then, this is also a contribution to understanding that academic-community nexus in Asian American studies as constituted by ‘grounded theologies.’ You could say that I think that the grounded theologies in Chinese American studies are worth much more interrogation, and I plan to do just that in future articles, hopefully to be published in other Asian American studies journals.

Some have asked about which churches I covered in this essay. The answer is that my research is awkwardly situated in relation to the norms of sociological congregational studies, which means that I often engage churches as institutions when they are part of the story I am telling about Cantonese Protestant engagements with civil society. While readers will find references, say, to First Chinese Baptist Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Chinese Church, and the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, this paper is really about San Francisco’s Chinatown more generally as a civil society – that Chinatown itself should be read theologically.

I am very thankful to Chinese America: History and Perspectives‘s editor-in-chief Jonathan X. Lee (SFSU) for encouraging me to submit to this journal. Because of him, I am a big fan of this journal now; indeed, the authors in the past issues read like a who’s who in Chinese American studies. I am also grateful to the two anonymous peer reviewers whose comments strengthened this essay significantly and for the CHSA’s Johnson Zheng for seeing through all the logistics for this essay’s publication; I especially appreciated personally connecting with him when I picked up my complimentary issue from the CHSA museum last week.

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

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

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

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

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

Association of Asian American Studies, 2015: Evanston, IL

I was glad to be able to attend the Association of Asian American Studies in Evanston, IL in April 2015, which was taking place concurrently with the American Association of Geographers in Chicago. I presented a paper in a session organized by Russell Jeung (San Francisco State) that mostly consisted of research projects that Jeung himself had organized to reorient the study of Asian American ‘secularity.’ My co-panelists included Seanan Fong (Harvard), Helen J. Kim (Harvard), and Alice Liu (Ohio State).

My presentation focused on ‘The passion of Hak-Shing William Tam: California’s Proposition 8 and the Secular Ironies of Asian American Privilege.’ The abstract is as follows:

Dr. Hak-Shing William “Bill” Tam has not been a sympathetic figure in Asian American studies. Castigated for being one of the official proponents of California’s Proposition 8, the legal and journalistic wranglings around Tam’s socially conservative stances on sexuality have been discussed as attempts to impose his private religious morality onto secular public space. This paper argues precisely the opposite. A closer examination of Tam’s rationale for vehemently opposing same-sex marriage suggests that his social conservatism is rooted in the secular trope of the model minority. Indeed, Tam’s central contention, I will show, is that same-sex marriage is the vanguard of an attempt to undermine heteronormative Asian American families that he conceptualizes as vehicles for social mobility through education in the hard sciences. This conception of the private sphere is a secular one, relying much less on a theological tradition than on the defense of a perceived socio-economic ideology of upward assimilation. This call for even the conventionally religious to be understood as secular opens up the conversation about how Asian American secularities might include the studies that have been criticized as privileging Christianity in Asian American religious studies.

I’m very thankful to Russell Jeung for pulling this panel together. It is always good to be among friends and colleagues doing compelling scholarly work. I’m also very thankful for session attendees like Brett Esaki (Georgia State) and Jonathan Lee (SF State) for their comments and for their personal support of my scholarly endeavours.

CLASS: JSIS C 490C: Special Topics in Comparative Religion: Trans-Pacific Christianities

I am teaching a course next Winter Quarter 2015 at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. It’s a fourth-year special topics class in comparative religion, and it will focus on what I call ‘trans-Pacific Christianities.’

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Here’s the syllabus. We will have quite the variety of literary, historical, sociological, and even theological readings. We will read both the Open Letter to the Evangelical Church and Killjoy Prophets’ critique of it à la Suey Park and Andy Smith. We will read both Reinhold Niebuhr’s Irony of American History and the irreverent/bombastic/Asian American nationalist anthology Aiiieeeee! We will watch both Wong Fu Productions’ Just a Nice Guy and Julia Kwan’s Eve and the Firehorse. We will read both the histories of sex in Chinatown and spirits in Korea. We will plough through both Catholic and Protestant sociologies of Asian American Christianities and explore the callings of Asian and Asian American liberation theologies. We will read the Proposition 8 trial transcript featuring Dr. Hak-Shing William Tam, and we will examine both ‘silent exodus‘ and Sa-I-Gu. Our assignments are blog comments and a paper on a topic of your choice. We will criticize all of these people and ideas to no end, and we will let ourselves be criticized by them to no end.

If you are at the UW and want to come have some fun making trouble with us, please consider taking this course. If you have friends at the UW who want to make some trouble, please consider telling them to take this course. The trouble we will make will magnify as we come closer to both discovering and deconstructing what this term ‘trans-Pacific Christianities’ means.

This is going to be fun. I’m excited. I am also heavily indebted to the philosophers of education (especially Sam Rocha) that I met in Chicago last week at the Society for the Philosophical Study of Education for the crafting of this syllabus and for helping me think through how to teach – I’m experimenting with this society being my annual teaching workshop, and I’m anticipating good things coming out from these critical pedagogical conversations.

UPDATE: A previous version of this course was listed as JSIS C 490B. The administration, however, saw fit at the last moment to change it to JSIS C 490C. The poster describes the previous course number, but the content in the transfer from ‘B’ to ‘C’ stayed very much the same.

Association of Asian American Studies, 16-19 April 2014, San Francisco, CA

Hooray! I’m really happy to say that the Association of Asian American Studies’s Annual Meeting is taking place 16-19 April 2014 in the metropolis that I called home for 18 years: the San Francisco Bay Area. We’re right at Union Square in San Francisco at the Grand Hyatt.

My contribution to this conference will be at a panel organized by Dean Adachi titled San Francisco: The Asian American Holy City? It will be meeting in the Larkspur room at 8 AM. My paper is titled ‘The War on Poverty and the Emergence of Evangelism: the Chinese American mainline and the new evangelicals in San Francisco’s Chinatown.’
Here’s the abstract:

This paper fills a necessary gap in contemporary discourses about Chinese American Protestant churches. Expected both to be progressive because of their immigrant commitments and conservative because of their Protestant practice, the stories of how Chinese American Protestant congregations became so politically contradictory is seldom told. This paper examines San Francisco’s Chinatown as a site of contestation that produced these contradictions. In the 1960s and 1970s, mainline Protestants in Chinatown joined the War on Poverty as part of a commitment to social justice and the development of an antiracist Asian American theology that was committed to the betterment of Chinatown as a Chinese American community. These efforts were simultaneously contested by newer Chinese evangelical migrants from Hong Kong who re-oriented some congregations and built new ones in reaction to what they perceived as ‘liberal’ social justice orientations, launching ‘conservative’ congregations that preserved the distinction between the secular public sphere and the church’s evangelistic, worshipping, and biblical teaching activities. The co-existence of these two kinds of congregations and their challenges to each other suggests that Chinatown itself needs to be conceptualized as a space of theological contestation, producing perceptions of Asian American religion as politically contradictory that require further examination in Asian American studies.

The other panelists are Dean Adachi (Claremont) and Helen Kim (Harvard). We are very excited to have Russell Jeung (SFSU) as our discussant. [For some reason, my name does not appear on the program. This is likely because on a draft program, I saw that my name had been misspelled as ‘Justin K.H. Hse.’ I registered under my real name. Dean also asked them to correct this, but the error was probably caught too late.]

I’m excited to be in my home metropolis to learn and to meet with colleagues in Asian American studies. It’s a bit unfortunate that this conference is taking place during Holy Week, but I’m making the best of all worlds. If San Francisco is the Asian American holy city, I’m going to spend Holy Week right here.

Converge Magazine: Subverting the Culture War: why I am a Christian in the secular university and not a culture warrior

I am pleased to announce the publication of a short piece in Converge Magazine, a periodical for young evangelicals based in Vancouver.

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The article is concerned with what sociologist James Davison Hunter has called ‘culture wars,’ especially the notion that evangelicals in secular universities have a responsibility to take back academic space for Christ in a battle for the mind. After reviewing some of the prevailing evangelical approaches since the 1970s, I explain that these practices are not only naïve about the place of young people in universities, but that they may be distortions of Christian theological praxis. I base this article on a re-reading of what evangelicals call ‘the Great Commission,’ a quotation from Jesus at the end of the Gospel according to St. Matthew (28.18-20) where he tells his followers to go make disciples of all nations, baptize them into Triune life, and teach them to obey everything he has commanded. I propose that readings of the Great Commission have become distorted because they fail to read it in the context of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s texts. In Matthew, Jesus’ call to repentance is to a kingdom founded on humility, charity, and forgiveness, with a mission that is based less on organized strategy as it is on living out this new mode of existence. Reflecting at the end on the notion of the ‘secular,’ I also make reference to the last chapter of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age as an alternative way through which the Great Commission can be practiced in secular universities.

The argument, of course, is nothing completely original and is part of a much larger discussion both among evangelicals and about evangelicals. Younger evangelicals have reportedly become disenchanted with the notion of culture wars, and books and blogs such as Rachel Held Evans‘s Evolving in Monkey Town, Jonathan Merritt’s A Faith of Our Own, and Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God are all good examples. These cases have also been highlighted in the flagship evangelical publication Christianity Today as a sign of a generational shift. Moreover, academic studies such as Martha Pally’s The New Evangelicals (see The Immament Frame’s blog series), Omri Elisha’s Moral Ambition, and Christian Smith’s Christian America have observed these changes, and even William Connolly–a political scientist who has not been known to be sympathetic to evangelicals–gives a positive appraisal of these re-formulated paradgims in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style. As for how Christians should participate in secular universities, there has been an ongoing discussion among theologians and social scientists in books like John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular, Stanley Hauerwas’s State of the University, and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. In other words, what I am saying here isn’t completely new, but it is my own reflective theological reading of Christian praxis and positionality in secular universities.

My purpose in writing this article is to clarify my own positionality in my academic work for a popular evangelical audience. I began this project of public dissemination in a post I wrote for Schema Magazine, in which I detailed why being a Chinese Christian myself should not paste over my own personal intersectional complexities and thus continues to allow for what geographer Paul Cloke calls a simultaneous ‘critical distance’ and ‘critical proximity’ in ethnographic work. That piece was directed to a popular secular audience as an exercise in public academia, explaining my own social location in relation to my academic project to people who don’t do academic work for their day job. In this post, I speak more directly to evangelicals who may assume that my project is to take back the secular university for Christ, clarifying my own theological praxis while calling my brothers and sisters to reflect deeper on Matthew’s Gospel account. To address this audience more directly, I chose to publish popularly in an evangelical magazine, but I will reflect on my positionality to academic readers in a scholarly journal in the future. There is, of course, a great deal of precedent for academics in religious studies studying evangelicals to publish in evangelical magazines, including reflective pieces and regardless of their own theological orientations, such as those written by Christian Smith, Tanya Luhrmann, and Russell Jeung. Indeed, these are publics that academics studying evangelicals must engage both as a way of giving back to communities we have researched and by way of meeting our duties to contribute to public discourse.

I am pleased overall by the editors’ discretion in preparing the piece for publication, especially by clarifying my meaning in several places where my language was more convoluted. One slight modification, however, that is a bit more significant is the final sentence in which it reads that we ‘show this world another way of thinking and being, one based around His ways, rather than our own.’ My original draft was a more direct quotation from St. John’s Gospel (17.22-23) where Jesus prays for Christian unity that the world may know that the Father has sent the Son. As it is printed, it sounds like I am calling for Christians to be examples to others through their character. Yet as I read Jesus’ prayer in John and Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, he doesn’t call Christians, including evangelicals, to lead from any moral high ground. Instead, the command is to simply be the church and live humbly in a sacramental ontology where justice is done precisely out of a humble spirituality and solidarity with the poor. This all said, though, the editorial choice is still sound if the reference to ‘His ways, not ours’ is taken from the words of the prophet Isaiah (55.8) where he discusses divine grace in calling out from exile a people that is marked by their new-found humility and charity. If that is so, the Isaianic passage’s meaning converges with both John’s and Matthew’s Gospel accounts about practicing a radically humble ontology, and the sentence is not only clarified, but enhanced.

I want to thank Converge Magazine for printing this piece and especially to Shara Lee for encouraging this publication. As I wrote in the byline, my friends Sam, Diana, Anna, Karl, and Aaron were valuable advisors who sharpened the piece significantly. I am thankful to be able to publish to an evangelical audience, and I hope that the piece will provoke thought and stimulate further discussion on Christian praxis.

Converge Magazine, 7: Out of Order

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I recently wrote a piece on my wedding manager and his wife, Chris and Annie Fong, as a reflection on Chinese evangelicals and marriage. It is available in the current issue (#7) of Converge Magazine, a Canadian evangelical publication targeted to young people. This sort of popular article stands in the tradition of religion scholars such as Christian Smith, Tanya Luhrmann, and Russell Jeung writing in confessional magazines as a way of disseminating their academic research.

This article wrestles with the looseness of terms like ‘Chineseness,’ ‘evangelicalism,’ and ‘biblical gender roles’ and asks readers to consider narrative as a way of Christian spirituality that is more grounded than ideal typologies. Those who are more academically inclined will understand that I am drawing heavily on literature from critical Chinese diaspora studies, Asian American studies, and post-liberal theologies to make my point. Those who are attuned to issues within evangelicalism will recognize the gender debates around hierarchicalism, complementarianism, and egalitarianism as I review some of the existing popular evangelical literature on gender, sexuality, and marriage. It’s not written with a very academic tone; it’s meant for a wide, popular audience; and it’s absolutely meant to muddy the waters of simplistic, orientalist notions of East v. West for evangelical readers.

My hope is that this article is helpful to evangelical communities while serving as a source document for people interested in Asian North American religious studies. I want to thank Chris and Annie for letting me write about them, Shara Lee for being a fantastic editor, Casey Phaisalakani for taking great photos, and Carmen Bright for designing this so well.