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.

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.

American Academy of Religion 2015 | Atlanta, GA

I was very happy to be given the opportunity to present two papers at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) from November 21-24, 2015. I also serve as a steering committee member for the Asian North American Religions, Culture, and Society group, so it is always good to see friends there as well. We were particularly proud to host a panel session on the new edited volume Asian American Christian Ethics, which my partner-in-crime in Asian American religious ethics Grace Kao (Claremont) had a hand in co-edited (along with ethicist Ilsup Ahn).

I’m also a steering committee member for the newly formed Chinese Christianities Seminar, and my peers – through no coercion of mine and with my abstained vote – generously allowed me to present some work on Chinese Anglicanism in Vancouver in the new session. Moderated by Jonathan Tan (Case Western Reserve University), my colleagues in the session included Christopher Sneller (King’s College London), Stephanie M. Wong (Georgetown), Mu-tien Chiou (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), and Di Kang. My paper, entitled ‘A Tale of Three Bishops: Chineseness and the Global City in Vancouver’s Anglican Realignment‘ has the following abstract:

This paper theorizes the ‘Chineseness’ of Anglicans in Vancouver engaging with the global Anglican realignment as ideological, especially through their competing visions of Vancouver as a global city, an urban economic center of political and cultural influence. Focusing on the split between Vancouver’s local bishop Michael Ingham and two Cantonese-speaking realignment bishops in Vancouver (Silas Ng and Stephen Leung), my central argument is that Anglicans on all sides of the realignment deployed their self-defined ideological constructs of Chineseness in a contest over how to theologize Vancouver as a global city. The three Vancouver episcopal visions under debate concerned whether Vancouver should be conceptualized as a site for interreligious pluralism, spiritual purification, or civil multicultural discourse. Based on key informant interviews in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, this contention advances the study of Chinese Christianity by suggesting that the cross-regional engagements of Chinese Christians may in fact motivated by civic concerns to globalize their own cities.

We were guided as a seminar by the very able Alexander Chow (Edinburgh), who is establishing himself as quite the authority on Chinese Christianities worldwide. I’m very thankful for his collegial support and am always pleased to hear his feedback on my work. I’m also very thankful to have met Ting Guo, a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue, at this seminar.

In addition, I was part of a quad session entitled ‘Enter the State: Revisiting the Making of Post-1965 Asian American Religion,’ with co-presenters Ren Ito (Emmanuel College, Toronto), Melissa Borja (CUNY Staten Island), Paul Chang (UC Riverside), and Philip Deslippe (UCSB); our respondent was Carolyn Chen (UC Berkeley), and the session was moderated by Isaac Weiner (Ohio State). My paper, entitled ‘Restructuring the Church: Cantonese Protestant organizations and economistic states,’ had the following abstract:

This paper examines the transformation of Chinese American evangelical congregations and faith-based organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area into corporate business models in the 1990s and 2000s. Based on ethnographic interviews with 47 key informants, the central argument is that these business models facilitated Chinese evangelical transactions with both the American and Chinese governments in the hope of shaping public policy on both sides of the Pacific. While these dreams of public engagement date back to the 1970s and 1980s, this paper also shows that the 1989 Tiananmen Beijing Spring’s aftermath intensified these efforts, leading to the restructuring of several key churches and parachurch organizations. These efforts demonstrate that fantasies of state ideologies as well as encounters with governments revamped the landscape of Chinese churches in the Bay Area, advancing the view that states are central to the formation of Asian American religious communities.

I am very excited about the comments that I received on thsi paper, especially the push from Carolyn Chen to think harder about the church in relation to neoliberal states.

I enjoyed my time in Atlanta. This was an AAR where I had some real intellectual engagements and came away feeling like a stronger scholar. I am thankful for those with whom I had conversations and am excited for next year’s iteration of this conference to see them again.

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2015: Newport Beach, CA

I was happy to be able to attend the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in Newport Beach, CA from October 23-25, 2015. Aside from the session at which I presented, there was so much fine work on religion in China and the Chinese diaspora because of Fenggang Yang’s presidential influence over this year’s SSSR, including a special presidential session on the Umbrella Movement where two of the three leaders of Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), Drs Benny Tai (University of Hong Kong) and Chan Kin-man (Chinese University of Hong Kong), attended.

The session at which I presented was organized by my postdoctoral supervisor James K. Wellman, Jr., and focused on Megachurch Fantasies, with a special emphasis on affect theory and evangelical studies. Our co-panelists were all from the University of Washington: Jessica Johnson and Elizabeth Chapin. My paper, entitled ‘Global Cities of God: the ideological fantasies of Chinese American megachurches,’ had the following abstract:

In the 1990s and 2000s, Chinese American evangelicals started a series of congregations that aspired to megachurch stature in California’s Silicon Valley. While only one of them has over 2000 congregants (River of Life Christian Center in Santa Clara, CA), this paper examines what Slavoj Žižek calls the ideological “fantasies” – the imagined objects of desire – that underwrite their implementation of church growth theory. Employing a qualitative methodology comprising 47 key informant interviews with Chinese Christian leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area, I argue that these Chinese American churches seek to establish themselves as sites of influence in the global political economy, precisely the same ideology that drives the neoliberal restructuring of global cities in the Asia-Pacific. This paper advances the affective study of congregations by merging the global cities literature with the social science of religion.

My reflection after this session was that, unbeknownst to us at the same institution, each of us had a different take on affect and emotion. To be quite honest, Jessica Johnson’s work on the pornographic affect in Mark Driscoll’s understanding of Christian teaching and his governance of Mars Hill Church probably followed the line of thought on affect more closely as the field intends, pace Deleuze and Guattari as well as Sara Ahmed. My orientation tracks much closer with Slavoj Žižek, whose psychoanalytic tendencies the Deleuze/Guattari crowd would likely find distasteful.

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Tim Buechsel, myself, and Benny Tai

But the most insightful parts of the conference came through interactions with the Chinese scholars as well as with Tai and Chan (OCLP). These engagements also helped me as I prepared to speak that very weekend at San Diego’s Ethnos Community Church on ‘Global Jesus’ in the Umbrella Movement (the ‘Greater China’ moniker can be read almost as a Barthian move, in which ‘Global Jesus’ subverts the ideology of ‘Greater China’ as an integrated economic regional zone), which I took to mean an exposition of the fields of Global Christianity and World Christianity as they applied to the Hong Kong democracy movement – an intellectual opportunity that I had not yet pursued until this point. I am thankful to Tim and Isabel Buechsel, as well as Reyn and Joy Nishii, for their very kind hospitality as I stayed with them, and to congregants at Ethnos for their very warm welcome to me and the traditions of critical theory and ecumenical theology – different from their evangelical practice in many senses, yet genuinely complementary in surprising ways – that I brought with me. Careful listeners to the podcast will note some factual errors in my extemporaneous delivery (at one point I call the third member of OCLP, the Rev. Chu Yiuming, a ‘professor’ by mistake); my hope is that especially those in Hong Kong will both forgive me for these inaccuracies and see my engagement with the democracy movement as a small contribution to a genuinely democratic society, as they are an example of what Pope Francis means to ‘care for our common home.’

Conference: Freedom of (and from) Religion | University of California, Santa Barbara

From April 30 to May 2, 2015, I attended the ‘Freedom of (and from) Religion’ Conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Hosted by the UCSB Religious Studies Department alongside their Virgil Cordano Catholic Studies Program, this conference was part of their conference series on religion and law. There was a stellar lineup of speakers, including Winnifred Sullivan (Indiana University), among other junior scholars as well. Ann Taves, who was our GORABS Annual Lecturer in 2013, played a representative faculty role for UCSB Religious Studies and Catholic Studies.

My paper, which took a different spin (a more legal one) from the iteration I gave at the AAAS earlier in the month, was titled ‘The Passion of Hak-Shing William Tam: Perry v. Schwarzenegger and the Question of Religious Privacy.’ Here’s the abstract:

Some religious activists claim that their public actions against same-sex marriage should not only be publicly accommodated, but understood as fundamentally private. Instead of philosophizing on the actual legitimacy of this claim, I examine why its proponents argue that it is legitimate. My case study centers on Dr. Hak-Shing William Tam in the federal court case Perry v. Schwarzennegger, which ensued after the passage of California’s Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. Called as a hostile witness, Tam – an official grassroots proponent of Proposition 8 – argued that his privacy had been violated when his private emails were introduced as evidence that he had imposed his private religious animus against gays and lesbians onto the public sphere. That the court discredited the Proposition 8 proponents based on this evidence suggested to Tam and his colleagues that the judiciary was in the sway of the private interests of sexual minorities. A closer examination of the Perry transcript shows that this privacy emphasis framed the interests of sexual minorities as competing with those of religious communities. I argue that Tam’s privacy claim was part of an attempt to fashion a legal consensus where public action on either side of Proposition 8 was fundamentally about defending private communities. In this way, the Proposition 8 proponents defended actions such as Tam’s by claiming that he had not so much sought public accommodation for his views, but the victory of his private interests over against competing ones. Claims to religious freedom may not thus only be requests for public accommodation; they may well be political tools to refashion American society as solely composed of competing interests vested in private communities.

I enjoyed the chance to be at UCSB and to interact with the conference participants and the UCSB faculty. As this signals an interest that I have developed in geographies of religion and law from since my PhD, I hope this is the first of many encounters to come.

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.

American Association of Geographers, 2015: Chicago, IL

In April 2015, I attended the American Association of Geographers’ Annual Meeting, held in Chicago, IL. I presented a paper, took part in a panel, and presided over the Business Meeting of the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group (GORABS).

The paper I presented was titled ‘Sexualized unions: Cantonese evangelicals, educational politics, and labour politics in Vancouver, BC.’ This was in a session called Education, Faith, and Place 2 (3522) organized by Peter Hemming (Cardiff) and chaired by Betsy Olson (UNC-Chapel Hill). The abstract is as follows:

Since the late 1990s, Cantonese evangelicals in British Columbia have become known for their socially conservative politics against sexual liberalization, especially with regards to schools. Not only did they oppose the federal legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada, but they have organized against school boards introducing anti-homophobia curriculum and transgender policies while standing in solidarity with Trinity Western University in its struggle against the teachers’ union refusing to acknowledge its Teachers’ College because its community covenant proscribes homosexual practices. These socially conservative politics have seldom been interrogated in relation to the geographical literature on the transnational Hong Kong-Vancouver social field, where geographers have observed that Asia-Pacific migrants import a style of neoliberal privatization to Vancouver’s property market and educational institutions (Olds 1996; Mitchell 2004; Waters 2008; Ley 2010). Instead of presuming that religious sensibilities predispose Cantonese evangelicals toward social conservatism, my ethnographic findings reveal that economic subjectivities also shape ‘grounded theologies’ (Tse 2014). I argue that Cantonese evangelicals who oppose sexual liberalization in British Columbian schools do so because their practice of faith is shaped by their neoliberal opposition to labour unions. Cantonese evangelicals suggested that the teachers’ union used sexual liberalization as part of a larger public strategy to undermine their private economic and educational aspirations. This paper advances geographies of religion, education, and migration by examining how secular economic subjectivities can be deeply embedded in the practice of grounded theologies.

The panel in which I took part was: Geography and Asian-American Studies: Past Reflections and Future Collaborations. This was an intimate discussion organized by Sean Wang (Syracuse University), and featured some very good reflections from Wendy Cheng (Arizona State), Yui Hashimoto, Timothy Huynh (Pennsylvania State), Stevie Larson (UNC-Chapel Hill), and Ishan Ashutosh (Indiana University).

I was also privileged to preside as chair over this year’s Annual Lecture for GORABS given by Banu Gökariksel (UNC-Chapel Hill) and Anna Secor (University of Kentucky) on ‘the post-secular problematic.’

Our specialty group also had a field trip organized by Richard Dodge to Sacred Places in Chicago, in which participants visited the Seventeenth Church of Christ Science, the Chicago Temple (Methodist), the Frank Lloyd Wright Unity Temple in Oak Park, and the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette.

As I’m posting this super-late, I’m just going to end by saying that I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at AAG 2016 this year in San Francisco!