Known as the “Umbrella Movement,” the 2014 Hong Kong protests for democracy have captured the world’s attention, not least for the participation of Christians. This talk will trace this Christian democratic tradition to the rise of an evangelical tradition in Hong Kong, emphasizing the separation of churches and the colonial state, and the trans-Pacific dimensions of Hong Kong’s evangelical tradition. This lecture will be of interest to those who want to know why Christians in Vancouver should care about Hong Kong.
We had quite the turnout. Room 100, a standard lecture classroom, packed out. The motley crew appeared to include first-generation Chinese Christian leaders, second-generation pastors, and a diverse crowd of Regent College students. It was – for all intents and purposes – fun!
Regent College did make a recording, and the Cantonese-speaking Omni News also covered the event for that day. We will put a link to the recording here when it is available.
I want to thank everyone who came out on what could have been their lunch hour. Specific thanks go to Regent Bookstore’s Bill Reimer and Regent College VP Patti Towler and Dean Jeff Greenman, as well as Trish Pattenden for organizing and advertising, and Rick Smith and Joe Lee for helping with audiovisual equipment. My hope is that this talk was informative for all who attended and will be useful going forward for Regent College in engaging Asian Canadian and trans-Pacific communities in their endeavour to put an ecumenical flavour of evangelical graduate education to work on the Pacific Rim.
UPDATE: This lecture received full reporting from Ian Young at the South China Morning Post. I’m grateful to Ian for attending and for reporting so generously.
Today, I’m quoted on Christmas and Chinese communities. We had a wide-ranging conversation about Chinese cultural practices around Christmas, and Todd was quite insistent that we talk about both Chinese Christians (my area of research) and the secular – or at least, non-Christian – population. Most of my comments were framed around the global cities literature in urban studies. As John Friedman, Saskia Sassen, Michael Peter Smith, David Ley, and Karen Lai have all written in their own way, ‘global cities’ have been conceptualized as ‘command and control’ centres of the global economy that need in their own right to be studied as places, sites where people live and make meaning in their everyday lives, as well as hubs for transnational political networks. You’ll be able to tell very quickly that I’m drawing from this literature as I make my comments.
I’m quoted, for example, first on the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement, where protesters largely associated with Narrow Road Church have gone protest carolling in Causeway Bay; members of St. Francis’ Chapel on the Street from the Mong Kok occupation also went carolling in Kowloon. Here’s what Todd says:
Justin Tse, who has a PhD in cultural geography from the University of B.C., says Christmas and its colourful trappings — from lighthearted reindeer displays to solemn church services — are now embedded in Chinese culture in both Canada and East Asia.
Providing just one contemporary example, Tse noted Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators were harassed this week by police for singing Christmas carols. The protesters had adapted the carols’ Christian lyrics to their human rights ideals.
In other words, the protesters are taking a global cities phenomenon that is rooted in consumption practices – the commercial enterprise of Christmas – and turning it on its head for democratic protests.
Indeed, while my work is on Chinese Christians, my training in geography has also had me reading around the edges of political economy. In the work of Aihwa Ong and Katharyne Mitchell, for example, cultural geographies go hand in hand with material circulation. In this way, my comments about consumption are interspersed with observations about labour:
Tse, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington who was raised in Metro Vancouver, says, “I think most Chinese people in Canada would see Christmas as a time for family and enjoying the lights — and maybe shopping and getting a good deal in Bellingham.”
While tens of thousands of Chinese international students in B.C. fly home to East Asia for Christmas break, Tse says many other ethnic Chinese in the region end up working over the holidays.
What I was trying to do there was to give a sense that there are very material class differences that exist among Vancouver’s Chinese populations. Yes, there is a class of people whose worlds revolve around material consumption. But that venues of consumption are open indicates that there have to be people working, including in retail stores and restaurants.
Todd also had me commenting about Chinese festivities. He notes elsewhere that I am ‘BC-born,’ which positions me as a jook sing jai (竹升仔), a ‘hollow bamboo’ second-generation Chinese Canadian who is made fun of for being uncouth in the ways of ‘Chinese culture.’ The term jook sing jai was redeemed for me by reading some of the classics in Chinese American and Canadian literature, such as Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, Frank Chin’s Donald Duk, and Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony. Instead of using it as a derogatory term, I embrace it as part of my identity as I discover Chinese traditions. Here’s my jook sing comments on the Winter Solstice:
For the most part, however, Tse and other observers say Christmas has infiltrated the Chinese mindset. Tens of thousands in Metro Vancouver, for instance, will drive around neighbourhoods this week looking for the houses with the most elaborate Christmas displays.
In addition to celebrating Christmas, Tse adds that winter solstice, on Dec. 21, can be “kind of a big deal” for many Chinese people. Translated from the Chinese, the solstice festival is called “Doing the winter.”
As Tse puts it, many Chinese people before Dec. 21st go around asking each other, “What are you doing for ‘Doing the Winter?’”
The solstice is seen by Chinese people as the first of a string of winter festivals — preceding Christmas and Lunar New Year.
‘Doing the winter’ – 做冬 – is really my jook sing translation. Then again, the act of going around Vancouver looking for Christmas displays can be a real jook sing experience too. I’m just glad that Todd and I got the date right for this year’s Winter Solstice.
Todd also mentions my academic research, combining my master’s work on Chinese Christian congregations with my PhD on Cantonese Protestant engagements with the public sphere. I provided Todd first with a humorous anecdote of many a Christmas potluck I’ve attended at Chinese churches, though I’m sure similar things could be said of Chinese New Year, Easter, Thanksgiving, and baptism and ordination services. He then picks up on my more controversial work on Chinese Christian politics:
Tse’s academic research has focused on the one in four ethnic Chinese in Metro Vancouver who are Christian, typically evangelical Protestant or Roman Catholic.
Their worship services are often conducted in Cantonese or Mandarin. Tse says another noticeable difference about a Chinese Christian Christmas is the food.
A Chinese church Christmas potluck, he says, typically involves stacks of Styrofoam containers full of chow mein and other Chinese dishes. “But there’s always the guy who brings something from KFC or Pizza Hut. And, of course, there’s sushi. It’s all on the table together.”
In his research, Tse has noted that many socially conservative Chinese Christians in Canada are “fraught” over issues like homosexuality.
While Chinese Christians normally oppose homosexual relationships, they’re torn about what to do because they also appreciate their ethnic minority rights are protected in Canada and they can worship in their own way, without state intervention.
While it’s remarkable how Todd makes the jump from Christmas potlucks to homosexuality, I think I see where he’s coming from. Todd is trying to frame this in terms of multiculturalism and the fraughtness of religious freedom in relation to sexual minorities. This liberal framework reminds me that I need to continue to address this ‘fraught’ dynamic as I produce my own academic work on Vancouver’s Chinese Christian communities over the next little while.
Todd ends with a humorous snippet from me on global cities and cosmopolitanism:
For his part, B.C.-raised Tse equates the rise of Christmas among Chinese people with the ascendance of influential “global cities,” whether Beijing, Hong Kong or Metro Vancouver (where the real estate market, at least, he says, is shaped by international forces.)
An imposing Christmas tree dominating a public square in one of China’s megalopolises, or a small one glowing inside a Chinese person’s home in Richmond, are “what you would expect in a global city,” Tse says.
“This is what it means to be open-minded. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, It’s OK to put up a Christmas tree: I’m cosmopolitan.’”
Read in the context of the whole article, I’m happy to have this global cities literature put into conversation with Todd’s other interlocutors. Throughout the article, Todd quotes from Chinese consumers he met at Aberdeen Mall, fellow academics in Vancouver like Pitman Potter, a nationalistic Chinese think-tank that argues that Christmas is a ‘Western invasion,’ and Chinese Christians from Vancouver Chinese Evangelical Free Church who participate in both the religious and secular dimensions of the holidays. In many ways, this is what studying global cities is about – it’s about the everyday practices of people who live in those cities and the contested ways in which they try to make their own worlds.
I’m quite pleased at this article, and I hope that it will demonstrate to the Vancouver public how complex the Chinese populations in Vancouver are. This will certainly open up conversation on what it means to be a ‘global city’ in terms of everyday lives. Especially in light of the dubious white supremacists whose ‘catfish’ activities of self-multiplication are being revealed in other quarters of the news, this article is refreshing for its complexity while providing enough room for discussion about global cities, the Chinese diaspora, and the interconnectedness of consumption, labour, and religion. I am very thankful to Douglas Todd for spurring the conversation forward.
Justin Tse, a social geographer and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, conducted extensive research on the relationship of Christians to civil disobedience in Hong Kong including the “Umbrella Movement”. He said Christian influence went beyond the initial participation of believers.
“This is not to say that official church institutions are deeply involved,” he wrote in an email. “Instead, what it means is that Hong Kong people have been so deeply influenced by Christianity through a variety of civil society channels – schools, media, social services – that they are able to practice and articulate their activism in Christian terms.”
Calls made by official church bodies may be modest, while individual clergy or parishes showed more support, he said.
On 21 October, I gave a talk at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies (full disclosure: my home department) entitled ‘In the Shadow of Tiananmen: Democracy, Christianity, Hong Kong.’
The talk was about how ‘the shadow of Tiananmen’ generates what I call ‘grounded theologies‘ in Hong Kong. My concerns were about Hong Kong, not China, in light of the Umbrella Movement. The talk was not about the Umbrella Movement per se, but was a deep 35-year history of local democratic movements in Hong Kong and Christian involvements in them.
I’m thankful for James Wellman and Loryn Paxton, who organized the talk. I’m also grateful for all the constructive comments I received and for the UW Daily‘s fairly accurate coverage of my remarks.
The genesis of this paper is quite interesting. Jo Waters is a leading scholar in transnational geographies in the United Kingdom. Jo and I both received our graduate education in Geography at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver, and we shared a common supervisor, Professor David Ley. Jo wrote her master’s thesis on transnational Hong Kong family experiences in Vancouver (check out her pieces on astronaut women and transnational family settlement) and her doctoral thesis on how Hong Kong families strategized to send their children to Vancouver for education to gain cultural capital for future employment prospects in East Asia (it is now a book). Jo and I did not overlap in the department, but when I began to study Hongkonger migration as I wrote my master’s thesis on a transnational Hongkonger church, Jo’s work provided a very interesting launching point. I remember checking out both of her theses from the Geographic Information Centre in our department and reading them with rapid page-turning interest. At this point, I also contacted Jo, telling her how much I admired her work. She was very nice to me.
As I began my doctorate, Jo and I began talking about the common points between our data, especially as I had collected more recent data in Chinese churches in both Vancouver in 2008 and Hong Kong in 2010 that corroborated her earlier findings in 2002. Deciding to focus on what we found in common about young people’s experiences of transnational families between Hong Kong and Vancouver, we merged the data. We submitted the piece to Global Networks, from where we got very good feedback from the editors and the reviewers. Jo was then extremely generous in letting me take the lead on the revisions, as this gave me a chance to undergo some crucial professional development. We then revised the piece, and then sent it back to Global Networks with my name as the corresponding author.
The article sheds light on how young people become adults in families that straddle the distance between Hong Kong and Vancouver. It examines how these young people transition from youth to adulthood, combining the literature in social geography on youth and childhood (which is itself drawn from the new social studies of childhood) with the literature on transnational migration. We looked at how young people reacted to the ways that their parents and extended family attempted to supervise them and maintain contact with them at a distance, and we explored the young people’s own sense of place. One of our central contributions is that while many people predict that youth growing up in these families often return to Hong Kong for work, we have to be cautious about describing this as a norm, for young people were often critical of their own families’ transnational strategies.
We hope that this will be a helpful paper in transnational studies more broadly. We also hope that it will give back to the communities we have studied by accurately portraying them and by shaping conversations about them that are not overly determinative about their families’ patterns of migration. Moreover–and this is only implicit in the article–as I reflect on my own engagements with Asian American ethnic studies, my hope is that this paper will help empower Asian American and Asian Canadian families and young people by taking seriously their own sense of place instead of forcing them to constantly answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ We thank Ali Rogers, the previous editor of Global Networks, as well as our three anonymous reviewers and the copy editors, for their very constructive feedback on our paper. For my part, the experience of working with Jo Waters has been phenomenal and a part of my graduate education and professional development that I will always consider valuable.
Tonight I am giving a guest lecture on Asia-Pacific transnational migrations and urban geography in a course on urban geography (Geography 350) at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver taught by my friend, Nicholas Lynch. I’ll be discussing transnational urbanisms, the feminization of migrant labour, Chinese transnationalisms and alternate Asian modernities, and the desire for global cities in the Asia-Pacific. Of course, I have a plug on religion, migration, and the city toward the end as well.
I’m hoping to be able to do a few more guest lectures so as to have some talks prepared for when I get to teach a full-on course in topics such as urban geography, migration studies, and ethnic studies.
I should have posted this earlier. On 5 April, at the tail end of my field work period in Hong Kong, I was interviewed by a bunch of people I had interviewed for my PhD project. They had all finished theological training at Chung Chi Divinity School (崇基學院神學院) in Sha Tin, Hong Kong and were mostly associated with a progressive church movement known as Narrow Road Church (路小教會). I made most of my interviewees, including the theologically and socially conservative ones, aware that I had this interview in my schedule, and most were fine with it, which speaks to a good level of civil discourse among Christians who might disagree otherwise on various issues.
I went to their studio at HK Reporter in Wan Chai, where they interviewed me for about an hour on my PhD work. We talked about practicing cultural geography, social conservatism among Chinese Christians, and the idea that Chinese Christian activism might take place along multiple subjectivities.
The interview is in Cantonese. You can hear it here. (Note: there are two parts.)
The comments are fun to consider too. The most frequent comment was that my accent is Singaporean and that the hosts had mistaken me for a joksing (“flying bamboo”) North American Chinese. They need to read my post with Schema.
I am open to engaging people from a variety of perspectives about these interviews that I’ve done, and I am happy to be corrected or given alternative perspectives as I develop my thoughts and write them up.