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.

12919234_10154179080765962_789527176_n

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.

Association of Asian American Studies, 17-20 April 2013

Over the next few days, I will be in Seattle for the Association of Asian American Studies‘ annual conference. This is the annual gathering for scholars in Asian American studies.

I organized a panel that was featured as one of the events relating to the Asian Pacific American and Religion Research Initiative (APARRI). The session is titled Empire and the Study of Asian American Religions, partly inspired by Kwok Pui Lan’s 2011 presidential address at the American Academy of Religion, ‘Empire and the Study of Religion.’ Our panel will be held on Saturday, 20 April, from 8:15 AM to 9:45 AM at the Westin-St. Helen’s. We will be chaired by Carolyn Chen (Northwestern University), and our discussant is Christopher Lee (UBC Vancouver). The presenters are as follows:

Christopher Chua, University of California, Berkeley
Imperial Intentions on American Soil: Missionary Work at San Francisco’s Chinese Presbyterian Church in the Late 19th Century

Helen Jin Kim, Harvard University
Constructing Yellow Empire: A History of the Neo-Evangelical, Anti-Communist Matrix in the Korean Diaspora (1951-1982)

Justin K. H. Tse, University of British Columbia
America, Return to God: Chinese American Evangelical Social Conservatives as Ironic Perpetual Foreigners

Timothy Tseng, Canaan Taiwanese Christian Church
Color-blinded By the Light: The American Evangelical Empire and the Deconstruction of Asian American Racial Identity in the San Francisco Bay Area

After some conversation with our discussant Chris Lee and further progress on my doctoral dissertation, I’ve changed the title of my presentation slightly to: ‘America, Return to God? Chinese American evangelicals and ideological antagonisms in Asian American studies.’ Focusing on my San Francisco field work, the paper will demonstrate that Asian American studies should be reconceptualized as a field of political ideological antagonisms between conservatives and progressives, and it will do so by examining Cantonese evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage.

We look forward to seeing you at the Association of Asian American Studies. Please visit the APARRI events for exciting developments in Asian American religious studies. These include:

Friday, April 19, 2013
4:30-6:00pm           APARRI Scholars Analyze and Discuss the Pew Research

PARTICIPANTS:

  • Janelle Wong, University of Maryland, College Park
  • Jane Iwamura, University of the West
  • David K. Kim, Connecticut College
  • Chair & Facilitator: Sharon Suh, Seattle University

7:00-9:00 pm         APARRI Reception and Roundtable Discussion at Seattle University:
“Challenges to Global Christianity in an Era of Secularism and Pluralism”

PARTICIPANTS:

  • Peter Phan, Georgetown University
  • David K. Kim, Connecticut College

**** The APARRI Roundtable and Reception will take place off site at:****
Seattle University
Admissions and Alumni Building
824 12th Ave. (corner of 12th & Marion)
Seattle, WA 98122

——————————————————————————————————————————————–

Saturday April 20, 2013
8:15-9:30              
Empire and Asian American Religions

PRESENTERS:

  • Christopher Chua, University of California, Berkeley
  • Helen Jin Kim, Harvard University
  • Justin K. H. Tse, University of British Columbia
  • Timothy Tseng, Canaan Taiwanese Christian Church
  • Chair: Carolyn Chen, Northwestern University
  • Discussant: Christopher Lee, University of British Columbia

1:00 -2:30 pm        Author Meets Critic:
Joseph Cheah’s:
Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White   Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptations

PARTICIPANTS:

  • Jane Iwamura, University of the West
  • Joseph Cheah, University of St. Joseph, Connecticut
  • Duncan Williams, University of Southern California
  • Tamara Ho, University of California, Riverside

2:45-4:15pm  Violence against Asian American Religious Communities

PARTICIPANTS:

  • Jaideep Singh, California State University, East Bay
  • Janelle Wong, University of Maryland, College Park
  • Chandan Reddy, University of Washington
  • David Kim, Connecticut College
  • Sylvia Chan-Malik, Rutgers University
  • Sharon Suh, Seattle University

——————————————

If you are in Seattle for the AAAS, we’d love to see you at all of these events.