A friend once told me that before I am a geographer, I am a geometer. Writing, after all, is about meter, measuring out the words in syntax and semantics. Essays and stories in this sense are geometries, the measured ordering of words as verbal infrastructures for describing the world.
My parents named me ‘Justin’ because its meaning is justice. What they did not know at the time is that when I was baptized, it cemented the patronage of Holy Justin the Philosopher and Martyr over me as well. They did, however, name me 堅恆, taking the term established and steadfast (堅定) from the letter of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Church of Colossae (1.23) and making sure it would last forever, or in keeping with Paul’s cosmology, for ages of ages (永恆). From this combination of names – justice in relation to being steadfastly established for an eternal temporality – I understand that being just requires an integrity based on my personal integration with the world as it is actually and eternally constituted. Justice, in other words, is fundamentally ecological: it is about words spoken by lips, hands, and feet that order the world so that what is alive thrives for all eternity, at least in the realm of hope.
Certainly, the name also suggests that the expansive world of Chinese Christianities and their many permutations, as well as their perversions, is where I am from. Integrating it in my work grounds me. It reminds me that I started out in academia by writing about them, or more precisely, the world as they see it. Since that time, I have also written about their neighbours and how they understand the world. In an attempt to stay true to the name I was given — namely in a commitment to the practice of justice — I concentrate on their relation to the world as it actually exists. Moving from experience to ontology while being attendant to the messiness of this ultimately unbridgeable gap lies at the heart of my conception of scholarly work as the integration of praxis and theoria, of conscious practice and catholic knowledge. This, I argue, is the task of describing geographies, writing about how the earth is written.
Growing up on what some call the ‘Pacific Rim,’ I got my first taste of what I later called grounded theologies, the ways that approaches to the divine and the spiritual work themselves into how worlds are ordered. I was born in Vancouver in British Columbia and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in California when I was six weeks old. I was raised in Fremont, not far from where Charlie Chaplin made his first movies, and attended a Chinese Protestant church where Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English members attempted to co-exist. I also attended Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward. Both of these cities are on the East Bay, where my Chinese American father was ordained in the African American Progressive Baptist denomination at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland. By the time I left Fremont in 2004, the 2000 United States Census recorded that 37% of its residents were Asian American and that the nonwhite population was officially greater than a numerical white minority (47%). I returned to Vancouver in 2004 to attend UBC while living in Richmond, a Vancouver suburb that boasted a population of 43% Chinese by the 2006 Canadian census. From journeys through Asian American evangelicalism and the Anglican Communion, I encountered Eastern Catholicism. It is now in one of these churches, known as the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv, that I work out my politics of justice more fully, integrating my participation in its Byzantine liturgical life with its implications for service in the secular world, especially in the region that is said to be integrating markets, governance, and societies from Asia and the Americas, at least in the realm of ideology. The word to describe the Kyivan spirituality that is continuous with the theologies of my childhood is the Chinese term 感動 (Cantonese, gamdung), the stirring of feelings. It is from this spiritual praxis of the heart, one born from a Chinese Christianity that I have never left, that I do geography, building a common life with all who inhabit this earth.
It can be said that my scholarly interests in postsecular publics on the Pacific began early in high school and developed through my undergraduate studies and into graduate school. I came to see that the connected acts of reading, studying, and writing could be applied to the communities that circumscribed my own life. Developing an interest in writing stories, I founded a literary magazine called Sea Changes, named for the creative spirit in Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s Tempest, at Moreau Catholic High School. Inspired by the everyday practices transfigured in writing by James Joyce, the erotic meditations on race from James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, and an introduction to the history of the model minority myth by reading Asian American textbooks in the public library, I became interested in writing about Chinese churches themselves, though the larger geographical context of this exploration had not yet become apparent to me.
This interest in Asian American studies, practices of everyday life, and grounded theologies became the driving engine for much of my higher education. After a first-year introduction to histories of culture, epistemological spaces, and geographies of globalization called Arts Foundations at UBC, I declared a major in the History Honours Program, a seminar-based undergraduate education focusing on theories of historiography and topics in global history. In the process of thinking of a larger project on ‘astronaut families’ split between both shores of the Pacific, I wrote my graduating essay on the realist comedy films of Michael, Sam, and Ricky Hui in 1970s Hong Kong and what they had to say about being a man in that time and place. In graduate school, I studied with the urban geographer David Ley to fulfill my dreams of studying Chinese churches and ended up writing an M.A. thesis in human geography on transnational networks in a Hong Kong church in Richmond, British Columbia and how Hongkongers within the community perceived what it meant to make a home and how they interfaced with younger-generation Chinese Canadians as well as mainland Chinese migrants. Continuing my doctoral work in social and cultural geography under Ley’s supervision, I developed the basis for my current book project on how Cantonese-speaking Protestant Christians engage metropolitan civil societies outside of their church communities, involving themselves in issues related to sexuality, urban planning, and democratization. With Ley, the cultural geographer Claire Dwyer (University College London) and I also had a grant from Metropolis British Columbia to study immigrant integration and suburban politics on No. 5 Road in Richmond, a three-kilometer stretch with over twenty religious institutions known as the ‘Highway to Heaven.’
After my doctorate, I discovered that my scholarly work involved much more than issues of identity formation in Chinese churches, especially in Cantonese Protestant ones, and speaks more to how publics are constituted in the Pacific world, especially in unexpectedly theological ways that challenge secular normativities. While I was a postdoctoral fellow in Comparative Religion at the University of Washington, the 2014 Hong Kong Umbrella Movement happened, with tens of thousands of Hong Kong people occupying the streets to protect students who had been protesting for a radically democratic overhaul of the local political system. Developing the theoretical work I had begun in my doctorate on grounded theologies, I edited an online collection of essays at Syndicate titled The Umbrella Movement and Theology, which was then substantially revised in a collection on which I served as the lead editor, Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement (Palgrave, 2016). From this work, I learned that my research was not only an analysis of Chinese Christian communities, but also spoke to broader questions of postsecular publics on the Pacific Rim. I was also hired as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University. There, I taught courses on Asian American history, religion, social movements, contemporary issues, and urban geographies, as well as Chinese American studies, Global Chinatowns, and conservative ideologies in communities of color.
Following my trans-Pacific convictions by literally moving across the Pacific, I am now Assistant Professor in Humanities (Education) at Singapore Management University, where I am part of the Core Curriculum faculty in the School of Social Sciences. While continuing to teach and write about my interests on postsecular everyday lives in Pacific Rim civil societies, my major role is to teach the Big Questions courses that serve as themes for university-wide discussion on concepts that circumscribe the contemporary world, such as the antinomies of happiness and suffering, war and peace, global and local, and wealth and poverty. Drawing from this interdisciplinary core that feeds my thinking on the philosophical, the psychoanalytical, and the postsecular, I continue also to work on projects on postsecular publics on the Pacific Rim, especially as I finalize my book manuscript on Cantonese Protestants and the civil societies of San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong and move on to a second project on the postsecular ‘afterlives’ of occupy movements in Hong Kong, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Needless to say, the stories I tell are my scholarly interpretations, so all of my views published in any media form are my own, not my employers’. Indeed, the task of scholarship is to locate narratives — whether mine, or those of my respondents, or those of their neighbours, or simply those of all who live on this common earth — in relation to the larger formations of which they are a part. That task is a dialogical one, so I hope that anything that I write or say will continue to be up for discussion about why they matter to the diverse persons who inhabit this world that is ours together.