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.

The legal implications of ‘internal doctrinal disputes’: Chong v. Lee, Asian Canadian congregational fractures, and new religious publics in Vancouver, BC | Society for the Scientific Study of Religion | Indianapolis 2014

Congregation in front of the Christ Church of China, Vancouver, B.C., 1955 | Creator: Leong Ding Bong | Source: UBC Library Digital Archives

I am pleased to be presenting a paper at this current Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Indianapolis during this weekend of 31 October to 2 November.

My paper is titled ‘The legal implications of ‘internal doctrinal disputes’: Chong v. Lee, Asian Canadian congregational fractures, and new religious publics in Vancouver, BC.’ It will be given at 1 PM on 31 October, in White River Ballroom B of the JW Marriott Indianapolis in a session titled ‘Religion, Policy, Doctrine.’ Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores the legal implications of immigrant congregational fractures. Examining British Columbia’s 1981 precedent case Chong v. Lee, I explore how internal congregational disputes regarding both the meaning of Chineseness and the practice of baptism at Vancouver’s Christ Church of China produced the Canadian legal doctrine that religious property cannot be diverted for theological purposes that differ from the community’s founding teaching. Drawing 50 key informants interviews, I argue that the private congregational tensions often explored in ethnographies of immigrant religious communities must be re-examined for their legal implications. Not only have other Asian Canadian communities drawn on the Chong case to take their internal theological disputes to court, but Anglican parishes (including three Chinese Canadian ones) departing from the Vancouver diocese over sexuality issues engaged the precedent to insist on keeping their buildings. This paper intervenes in the sociology of religion by insisting that putatively private congregational dynamics in immigrant religious communities inevitably engage the state’s legal apparatus.

I will focus mostly on Chong as a legal precedent and will attempt once again to engage the social scientists of religion here with an argument on the constitution of congregational space. All are welcome. I look forward to a great conversation.

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.

PhD Field Work: San Francisco Bay Area

I have been in the San Francisco Bay Area since 4 June 2011 and will be here until 19 July 2011.  I am continuing to conduct field work for my PhD project on Cantonese-speaking evangelicals, their conceptions of civil society, and their engagement in society and politics.

I am interested in the following things (although this list is by no means exhaustive):

  • Chinese Christian engagement in local neighborhood politics and social services, including advocacy for the marginalized, entrepreneurial work, and inter-Christian cooperation
  • Engagement with the perceived secularism of San Francisco
  • The issue of same-sex marriage and other family values politics (including anti-gambling activism)
  • Demographic shifts within Chinese Christian communities
  • Interactions between Chinese mainline Protestant groups and Chinese evangelical groups, including the similarities and differences of their engagement with society and politics
  • Chinatown Christian political and social activism
  • Activism around the 1989 Tiananmen incident
  • Comparisons among the City, the East Bay, and the South Bay
  • Engagement with American politics, especially self-identifications with Democrat and Republican
  • Engagement with the People’s Republic of China
If you’d like to be interviewed for this project or know of any leads related to these issues, please contact me at tse.justo@gmail.com or jkhtse@interchange.ubc.ca.