South China Morning Post Hongcouver Blog: Ian Young, ‘Crime drama Blood and Water hones in on Vancouver’s Chinese identity’

It’s very funny that I’ve been featured in a post by journalist colleague Ian Young on his Hongcouver blog for the South China Morning Post on November 19, 2015. The post is about a television show about which I have expressed a great deal of enthusiasm: Blood and Water.

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Here’s the quote from the post that I find hilarious:

Justin Tse, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington who spends more time thinking seriously about ethnicity than anyone I know, jokes that the show’s portrayal of white people is particularly authentic.

Tse is a big fan of Blood and Water but has taken issue with the idea that because there are so many Chinese characters, it must be about multiculturalism.

It’s really a great show, and it does open up quite a few questions about multiculturalism, whiteness, and Asian Canada in Vancouver. If you haven’t watched it, you are missing out. I’m thankful to Ian Young for picking up on my comment; as he says, ‘Sharing is caring.’

Radio Columnist: Grounded Theologies Segment, Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani on Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM

As of November 5, 2015, I became a regular columnist on geographies of religion for a local radio station in Vancouver, BC called Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM. The show on which I make my comments most Thursdays at 10:30 AM is called Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani.

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What is interesting about this show is that Minelle Mahtani is an accomplished cultural geographer in her own right at the University of Toronto-Scarborough. Working on geographies of mixed-race identities, one of the unique hallmarks of Minelle’s work is her attentiveness to the public sphere, maintaining her interest in journalism in theory and practice from her days with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Her show Sense of Place is a brilliant exploration of the ‘sense of place’ that people in Vancouver have, with interviews with local Vancouverites to tease out their understanding of placemaking, emotions, affect, and identity.

You could say that the ‘Grounded Theologies’ segment is where we get to nerd out as geography colleagues on air about the particular field of geographies of religion. Minelle usually comes at the questions from within the discipline, aiming it for a lay listening audience, and I have to take theory and practice from within the discipline to address current events. I’ve had quite a bit of fun talking about a wide variety of topics, including the #PrayforParis hashtag after the Paris attacks, religion and migration, Christmas Eve and ‘Christian privilege,’ Christmas Eve itself, religion and private property in Vancouver, and Pope Francis and the Year of Mercy.

Minelle and I have heard that there has been interest in using her show for educational purposes. To that end, our last show was on me as a geographer of religion, with the hope of kicking off a new set of topics aimed at experimenting with bringing a high level of theoretical rigour into a show for a lay audience. We’re still tinkering around with this, so updates on how we progress should be expected. As academics, I think we may well write a paper on our experiences on air talking about cultural geographies of religion as well.

But the best part is that the cornerstone of my work, the concept of ‘grounded theologies,’ is now the name of a radio segment on which I’m the commentator. There’s nothing to complain about there.

Church for Vancouver: Missions Fest: Learning to listen to non-Western voices

I’m writing this to thank Flyn Ritchie for his coverage of my work on Church for Vancouver even though I’m not one of the speakers at the 2015 Missions Fest Conference. Missions Fest is an annual conference in January started by evangelicals in Metro Vancouver to raise awareness for missionary agencies and Christian non-profit organizations, as well as to promote interactions between churches through large plenary sessions. Putting me alongside actual Missions Fest speakers like North Park Theological Seminary’s Soong-Chan Rah and Operation Mobilisation’s Lawrence Tong, Ritchie says that my work at Regent College this last week (as covered by Ian Young in his South China Morning Post blog) is consonant with an emerging theme at this upcoming MIssions Fest, even though I won’t be there.

This is a very interesting point to me, as I’ve never really thought of my work as having much in common with Rah and Tong. But Ritchie is making me think about how close the academy really can be to the ground. Just as the Regent College talk drew a standing-room only audience that was primarily constituted by members of the Chinese Christian community (both first- and second-generation), my sense is that there is a thriving interest in communities as to what members of the academy are thinking.

In particular, Ritchie’s post raises the stakes for debates in Global and World Christianity. Rebecca Kim, a sociologist at Pepperdine University, has just written a book called The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America, where she details the emergence of three schools of thought in this area – Global Christianity, World Christianity, and American Global Christianity. As Kim sees it, academics with a ‘Global Christianity’ vein examine how Christians participate in processes of political, economic, and cultural globalization and may be complicit even with neocolonial processes in the global economy. By contrast, scholars of ‘World Christianity’ analyze how Christians in non-European and non-American contexts contextualize Christian practices within their own symbolic framework. ‘American Global Christianity,’ which is Kim’s work, looks at how non-Western Christians come to America having been educated in the context of the global political economy and attempt to change Christianity here in America. What’s interesting is that if you read Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism, most people will see his ‘cultural captivity of the Western church’ as a critique of people who participate in American Global Christianity, but he uses work in World Christianity (e.g. Lamin Sanneh, Andrew Walls, Phil Jenkins, and Dana Robert) to get the job done. To all this, I’ll also add a thriving field in the anthropology of Christianity, which is a field of study that Christian communities probably should be grappling with at some point, as it goes beyond contextualization to examining how Christians actually participate in the making of modern cultural practices; examples are Webb Keane, Omri Elisha, Pamela Klassen, Susan Harding, etc. I teach all the views in my trans-Pacific Christianities course, if you’re wondering.

I say all of this because Ritchie is making us think about why these debates matter. Does it matter to communities that there are schools of thought that differ on the question of colonization and Christianity? Does it matter to communities that academic need more funding to do ethnographic field work and quantitative data collection among ‘American Global Christian’ communities? How does it matter? Why does it matter?

Ritchie’s answer is probably that it does matter, which is why he interestingly lumps me, someone who is not speaking at Missions Fest, in with the Missions Fest speakers. In his words:

This has nothing to do with Missions Fest, but it is consistent with the messages of Soong-Chan Rah and Lawrence Tong, and is a good example of a situation in which Asian-influenced Christianity is affecting culture, both in Hong Kong and here in Vancouver.

This statement raises all sorts of questions about how what Ritchie calls an ‘Asian-influenced Christianity’ and ‘culture’ should be conceptualized. It makes me think about what would happen if Rah, Tong, and I ended up on a panel together. Would we really agree? What would be the lines of convergence? Where would we diverge? And, best of all, if this really happens, could we get Rebecca Kim to moderate?

A final thought: if Ritchie is wanting to get a sense of ‘non-Western voices,’ perhaps the Asian Americans on the panel aren’t the only people he should be looking at. Hidden in the program is the presence of my friend and colleague, University of British Columbia philosopher of education Sam Rocha. He is playing music at 1:30 PM before the 2 PM plenary session, and his set will be drawn from his recent soul/jazz album Late to Love, which is his cryptic ‘folk phenomenology’ reading of St. Augustine’s Confessions. For what ‘folk phenomenology’ means, see my review of the album. But folk phenomenology is not read about. It’s experienced – better, it’s encountered. If Ritchie wants to get a sense of what ‘non-Western voices’ feel like, here’s where he’s going to get it.

In short, even though I won’t be there, I’m making an argument about Missions Fest. If you’re going, perhaps the most important thing to see this year won’t be a plenary session or an evangelical charity. Perhaps it will be a little opening ‘Prelude of Praise’ by this Catholic among the evangelicals who will orientate you in precisely the ways that Ritchie wants to describe the ‘non-Western voices’ as doing.

1:30 PM, January 31, Saturday, right before the 2 PM plenary session. Be there.

Vancouver Sun: Douglas Todd, ‘How has Christmas infused the Chinese culture? Let’s count the ways’

Photo: Handout, Vancouver Sun

I’m happy to be quoted in Douglas Todd’s Saturday article in the Vancouver Sun: ‘How has Christmas infused the Chinese culture? Let’s count the ways.’ As I’ve said in the past, Todd and I come from fairly different philosophical perspectives, but we often meet each other halfway.

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.

Photo: Apple Daily

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.

Ethika Politika: Hong Kong Catholicism interviews with Artur Rosman

It has occurred to me after I posted on the Missio entry that I have not yet put on this blog my work on the Catholic moral theology venue, Ethika Politika, courtesy of Artur Rosman. I’ve spoken to evangelicals, but I should say that I spend an equal amount of time with Catholics. Rosman interviewed me for a three-part series on the role of Catholicism in the Hong Kong protests. It seems to have also gotten the attention of UCA News, which bills itself as ‘Asia’s most trusted independent Catholic news source.’

The first post is titled ‘Hong Kong’s Moment of Zen‘ and deals with the protesters’ aims and whether religion has been deployed in protest. The ‘Zen,’ of course, refers to Joseph Cardinal Zen, the outspoken retired Bishop of Hong Kong who was with the student protesters from the beginning of their strike. As you will see in this first post, I tried to give a complicated view of the Umbrella Movement:

It depends on what you mean by the “protesters.” There are several different groups involved in this occupation, such as student groups like Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students and democracy groups from across the political spectrum like the more moderate Occupy Central for Love and Peace and the more radical Civic Passion, as well as individual citizens who aren’t associated with a group. There are also pan-democratic legislators who have joined in the protests. No one claims to be the single leader of this movement, and anyone who does is readily rebuffed.

The second post deals with the ‘Catholic Umbrella in Hong Kong‘ and examines how the Catholic Church has carefully engaged with the protests through the mode of ‘passive compliance‘:

My reading of passive compliance is that it’s taken straight out of the playbook of Zen’s predecessor, John Baptist Cardinal Wu. When Wu became bishop in the 1970s, the diocese was allied with the colonial British government in the provision of schools, hospitals, and charities. However, as the 1997 handover drew near, Wu penned a pastoral letter in 1989 called “March Into the Bright Decade.” The central contention of the letter was that even though the 1997 handover would divide Catholics ideologically between supporters of and protesters against the Chinese regime, the Church should focus on parish formation, developing grounded Catholic communities that could resist division. Passive compliance is taken straight out of Wu’s playbook because it’s the practice of balancing out the ideological divisions within the Church vis-à-vis the state regime.

The third post examines the ‘Theopolitical Chess Game in Hong Kong and China‘ and advances political scientist Beatrice Leung’s framework of Sino-Vatican relations as a geopoltical concern:

Here we see the heart of what passive compliance is about. Cardinal Zen developed ‘passive compliance’ ostensibly because he did not want to officially endorse or oppose the Hong Kong Government’s Election Committee. But what precluded active compliance was that fact that the Hong Kong Government, despite being in a ‘one country, two systems’ framework, was effectively under Chinese sovereignty, a state that persecuted unregistered religious minorities like the Falun Gong and the underground Catholic Church.

I’m thankful to Artur Rosman for these excellent interview questions, through which I got a sense of the kinds of questions a Catholic public would have for this, especially Catholics who think about political theology. I’m also very grateful to the Catholics with whom I got to engage through my field work in 2012, including Joseph Cardinal Zen. As with my engagements with academia proper, the public news, and evangelicals, Catholics are an audience with whom I have enjoyed engaging in conversation (see here and here). I’m glad that I’ve been on the record on this issue – indeed, ABC News and Ethics Report has also picked up on this conversation – and I’m thankful that this public discourse around Catholicism and Hong Kong is shaping publications that I hope to submit soon. In short, I’m thankful to be engaged with this audience, and I hope that this too is a conversation that is only beginning.

Video: Open Letter Meets Killjoy Prophets

I have had the privilege recently of meeting Suey Park, an activist whose online work is just the tip of the iceberg for a much deeper theological politics. Park’s new group, Killjoy Prophets, has been quite critical of the Open Letter to the Evangelical Church, an effort in which I was deeply involved last year.

Park and I decided to make a video to talk about how we came at the Open Letter differently. We also explored avenues for further collaboration. A blogpost is due to come out from the both of us in due course reflecting on this conversation, but I just wanted to post the video here for your convenience.

Thanks so much, Suey, for these great thoughts and for this conversation. I look forward to further critical convergences between our work.

Columbia Journalism Review: Beware labeling Pope Francis a liberal

Columbia Journalism Review‘s Chris Ip has done a major service for the American public sphere with his report on Pope Francis. Interviewing John Allen, Jr., Inés San Martin, and yours truly, he has put together an article that criticizes the way that American journalists have been reporting on the Vatican, while also remaining sympathetic to the particular tendencies of the American public.

Here’s what I told him:

The media’s tendency to make all religious statements political comes from the heart of American political culture. The US media interprets the pope according to an “American protestant narrative,” where religion is read in terms of what it means for politics, said Justin Tse, a University of Washington scholar on religion and public life. “The question people are asking is, ‘Is the Catholic Church promoting or inhibiting democracy?’” said Tse. “It’s a good question, but when that’s the only question on the table, then you start to twist narratives to fit the agenda.”

You’ll see that I’ve drawn from figures like Tocqueville, Bellah, Marty, Wuthnow, Warner, and Wellman to construct that answer.

I’m very thankful to Chris for taking the time to write such a fine report. I’m hoping that this is the beginning of a much longer and very fruitful conversation.