Association of Critical Heritage Studies – what does heritage change?: Montreal 2016

I’m so happy to have been invited to Montréal to give a presentation on behalf of the collaborative project that Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), David Ley (UBC, Geography), and I have been working on since 2010. Our joint project revolves around No. 5 Road, a 3-kilometre stretch of road in Richmond, British Columbia, known as the ‘Highway to Heaven’ because it is home to over twenty religious institutions. So far, our project has yielded a working paper for Metropolis British Columbia (our funders) and a peer-reviewed article in Social and Cultural Geography. This is heads-up that there is more coming down the pipeline.

The conference at which I am representing our team is called the Association of Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS); their theme for this year’s 2016 (from June 3 to 8) meeting in Montréal is ‘what does heritage change?’ David was contacted by Luc Noppen, one of the organizers for this conference who put together a very interesting session titled ‘Heritage and the New Fate of Sacred Places/La patrimoine et le destin des leux sacrés.‘ Luc said that he had heard about our project from various places; we have indeed been presenting snippets of it at various conferences, such as the American Association of Geographers in 2011 and 2012 as well as Metropolis Canada at a policy symposium and their national conference. I was also once on the radio about it. Luc offered to fly one of our team over to Montreal, and after some discussion, the more junior member of the team (me!) got to go.

It will be interesting to be at a conference on critical heritage. I usually associate critical heritage with my friend and colleague Lachlan Barber, who is Assistant Professor of Geography at Hong Kong Baptist University, and when I think of critical heritage, I think of Lachlan’s dissertation on Hong Kong heritage politics, something that I have been thinking a great deal about in light of the origins of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Lachlan is in fact here at this conference talking about Hong Kong. But I won’t be talking about Hong Kong. I’m going to be talking about Richmond. Oh, all of my favourite things…

As I peruse the program, I’m finding that there are a good many sessions on religion at this conference. There is a session on Saturday, for example, on ‘Religion as Heritage – Heritage as Religion?‘ On Monday, there will be an all-day session at the historic church of Saint-Michel de Vaudreuil titled ‘Beyond Re-uses: The Future of Church Monuments in a Secular Society/Au-delà de la conversion: l’avenir des églises monumentales dans une société sécularisée.’ On Tuesday morning just before the session in which I am presenting, there is yet another round on religion as heritage at Concordia University. I’ll try to be at most of these sessions and will be definitely be brushing up on my high-school French when the Francophone presentations happen. Maybe I’ll try to sneak into my schedule a few Asia-Pacific sessions too, especially Lachlan’s paper.

It turns out that the session in which I am presenting on the fate of sacred places is being hosted in a site that has some special meaning for me. On Tuesday afternoon, we’ll be in a conference room at St Joseph’s Oratory. This parish – really, a minor basilica in its final form – was founded by the first canonized saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross (CSC), St André Bessette. CSC tends to be known in secular circles for the University of Notre Dame (which I have not attended) and in Roman Catholic circles for Family Theater (which I do not watch). However, CSC does many other things as well in Catholic education, including running the high school that I attended in the San Francisco Bay Area, Moreau Catholic High School (MCHS), which is named for the order’s founder, Blessed Basil Moreau. Moreau was an educator, and he imparted to his order a philosophy of education with which I continue to resonate: ‘We shall always place education side by side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart’ (Circular Letter 36). If there was anyone who embodied what that kind of education looked like in practice, it was St André, the illiterate doorkeeper who had St Joseph’s Oratory built in the first place. Widely known as a healer who lovingly embraced everyone who came to meet him at the door, St André shows us what the cultivation of the heart in education is: we are educated so that we can come to understand ourselves in relation to others as persons who can look each other in the face with love. One of my closest mentors at MCHS, Fr Harry Cronin CSC (we cofounded a literary magazine there in 2003 called Sea Changes), in fact wrote a play recently about St André called ‘The Lesson of Wood‘ that compares the simple carpentry of Jesus’ earthly father, St Joseph, to St André’s building of St Joseph’s Oratory. St André’s body is still at the Oratory, which means that not only will I get to visit this man who embodies everything I know education to be, but he will be within earshot of what I have to say at this critical heritage conference.

And what will I be talking about in the presence of St André’s relics? SHIT.

Yes, you read that right. Shit. As my students in cultural geography will know well – as well as those who have attended my more recent guest lectures – shit is becoming a bit of a technical term for me. I’d like to say that my new fecal interests were developed by reading the new materialist turns in critical theory, but if I were to be honest, it was because of a previous incarnation of the talk that I’m giving at this conference. I developed the thesis of this talk for a policy symposium with Metropolis BC and Embrace BC – that dialogue on No. 5 Road was really more about infrastructure than interfaith topics – and one item that seemed to make an impression on the audience was my discussion of sewage on No. 5 Road. Because of that, I was promptly invited to Comox for a panel the next month by the Community Justice Centre’s Bruce Curtis. As Curtis introduced me, he declared to a crowd of mostly older, respectable Vancouver Island folks, ‘Justin is going to tell you about SHIT!’ That is the scene that sticks with me now as I make my way through the new materialists, their more-than-human geography disciples, and their theoretical foes who, like Slavoj Žižek (my personal favourite), are equally scatological.

In any case, here’s the abstract for my talk next Tuesday:

Interfaith and intercultural dialogues frequently have an air of immateriality about them, focusing usually on abstract concepts in an effort to reach an idealistic overlapping consensus. The coexistence of over twenty religious institutions on No. 5 Road in Richmond, British Columbia, known as ‘Highway to Heaven,’ provides a remarkably grounded contrast. While this spectacular landscape appears on the surface to be fertile ground for abstract interreligious conversation, our findings from interviews conducted with the City of Richmond and the religious institutions suggest that the religious institutions often conceptualize their property as private, working together only to solve infrastructure problems related to parking, sewage, agricultural land, and the city’s proposals to rework the roads surrounding the area. Advancing an approach to the study of interreligious dialogue in contemporary sacred landscapes that focuses on the material and the mundane, we argue that there has been a shift in the conception of faith communities in relation to their property that has centralized private ownership as a practice of faith for these institutions. We therefore advance the critical study of religious institutions in Canada by showing that religion is not so much a matter of ideological identity as it is related to practices related to land that may have more in common with the secular than previously thought.

That looks tamer than what I think I am going to deliver. What has given me more courage is that I have discovered that I will have thirty minutes instead of my usual twenty. I am sure I could use that to (if I may) talk more shit, especially to sketch out some shitty theory – now that I indeed have a stake in this debate about shit between the so-called ‘new materialists’ and their theoretical foes (as all cultural geographers do, I would argue).

St André Bessette, pray for us indeed. Or as Moreau writes in the same Circular Letter I quoted above, ‘Even though we base our philosophy course on the data of faith, no one need fear that we shall confine our teaching within narrow and unscientific boundaries. No; we wish to accept science without prejudice, and in a manner adapted to the needs of our times. We do not want our students to be ignorant of anything they should know.’ I can only pray that my excremental presentation will be true to this sacramental spirit, which imbues the place where I will deliver it.

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MONTREAL MATERIALIST MADNESS!!

I am thankful to the Highway to Heaven team for tolerating this scatological turn in my scholarly endeavours. I am also thankful to Luc Noppen for so kindly inviting me to this conference. As always, we thank our funders Metropolis BC, who also enabled us to hire the best transcriber who exceeded our hopes and dreams, Airra Custodio. I am looking forward to the hilarity that will inevitably ensue as we discuss heritage this week.

Social and Cultural Geography: ‘Highway to Heaven’: the creation of a multicultural, religious landscape in suburban Richmond, British Columbia (co-authored with Claire Dwyer and David Ley)

I am pleased to announce that a paper from the collaborative project that I conducted with Claire Dwyer (University College London) and David Ley (UBC) on the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Richmond, British Columbia has been published by Social and Cultural Geography. It has been quite a journey getting this one published from its earlier incarnation as a conference paper and now into a peer-reviewed journal. I’m glad that it’s out, and I hope to take a crack at another one soon enough.

The abstract is as follows:

We analyse the emergence of the ‘Highway to Heaven’, a distinctive landscape of more than 20 diverse religious buildings, in the suburban municipality of Richmond, outside Vancouver, to explore the intersections of immigration, planning, multiculturalism, religion and suburban space. In the context of wider contested planning disputes for new places of worship for immigrant communities, the creation of a designated ‘Assembly District’ in Richmond emerged as a creative response to multicultural planning. However, it is also a contradictory policy, co-opting religious communities to municipal requirements to safeguard agricultural land and prevent suburban sprawl, but with limited success. The unanticipated outcomes of a designated planning zone for religious buildings include production of an agglomeration of increasingly spectacular religious facilities that exceed municipal planning regulations. Such developments are accommodated through a celebratory narrative of municipal multiculturalism, but one that fails to engage with the communal narratives of the faith communities themselves and may exoticize or commodify religious identity.

Our main intervention is directed toward the celebration of multicultural planning in contemporary cities and suburbs. What we found was that the multiculturalism that is apparent on our celebrated road in Richmond wasn’t planned to be that way at first. It was Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and still is, and whatever multiculturalism one might see there is accidental.

In its early stages, Claire took the lead in writing this paper up for conferences, with me as a second author and David as a third. After presenting it at the American Association of Geographers 2012, Claire again led the effort to transform this paper into the published article that is here. In turn, David added many of the insights concerning Canadian multiculturalism. As always, it has been very educational working alongside Claire in this process – I often joke that what I know of qualitative methodologies was learned from her in the field during this project – and I am very thankful to her for leading on this effort. My plan is to build off this paper to craft some pieces, perhaps, on the materiality of the interfaith landscape and the odd points of spiritual contact among the sites. I’ve especially enjoyed getting to know a place that has long been a ‘wonder’ in the suburb where I lived during my undergraduate and graduate studies, especially now that we’re demystifying it.

We are also thankful for Metropolis Canada for funding this project; our report for them on the Highway to Heaven can be accessed from their website.

CLASS: Geography 420, Cultural Geography (Simon Fraser University)

From January to April 2016, I’m teaching a course at Simon Fraser University (SFU) called Geography 420: Cultural Geography. It’s a four-hour class that happens on Thursdays from 2:30 PM – 6:30 PM at SFU’s downtown campus at Harbour Centre. I have 21 exceptionally smart students who regularly challenge me, which is brilliant as a form of intellectual engagement as they give me many ideas for my own research and thinking about the discipline of cultural geography more generally.

You are free to view the syllabus. Here’s the course description:

In this course, we will attempt to practice cultural geography in a Vancouver setting. To do that, we will first have to figure out what we mean by ‘practice’ and who or what gets to ‘practice’ the making of spaces and places. Though we might end up having a productive disagreement as a class (unless we reach some consensus, which, given the state of human geography as a discipline, is not likely), I will propose in the second half of the class that we channel our possible tension into projects in cultural geography in Vancouver. Students will have an opportunity to choose case studies from Vancouver, including (but not limited to) geographies of affordable housing, the international property market, ethnic and migrant communities, intercultural initiatives, mediated publics, spaces of consumption, gendered spaces, simulacra, etc., and the final assignment will be a project to be submitted in some material form, either as a paper or in a creative medium discussed with the instructor.

Our key texts are Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and David Ley’s Millionaire Migrants: Trans-Pacific Life Lines,  among other short articles I’ve selected to supplement these readings.

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The way that I’ve imagined the class is as an exercise in actually having students get experience in the practice of cultural geography. Instead of having traditional exams, the course is (like the course on ‘Trans-Pacific Christianities‘ I taught at the University of Washington) oriented toward a final project. The ground rules for the project are that it has to be in Vancouver and the methodology must be ethical. I’ve broken down the project in several stages: a proposal due early in the course, a literature review, a class conference from which students get feedback, and a final material form (usually a paper, but there is some variety, such as GIS mapping, a choose-your-own adventure book, video documentaries, and photo essays). The weekly reading reflections are also geared toward reflecting on the project, which allows me to give students constant feedback about the direction they are taking on this project.

With such a structure, I’m finding that most of my teaching tends to wax on the theoretical side, instructing students in the theories that have been used in the discipline so that they can make use of them in their practice of cultural geography. This is a novel form of teaching for me, and I am having fun with this experimentation and learning a lot. The students seem to be very invested in making their projects theoretically and practically sound, and this makes me a very happy instructor. In this sense, I feel that I am developing as a teacher and crystallizing a philosophy of education for my own purposes as an educator in geography, religious studies, and Asian and Asian American studies, hopefully empowering students to discover their own agency as they engage the world around them as active practitioners of thought and mapping.

NOTE: At present, I am teaching as a Sessional Lecturer at Simon Fraser University, while also simultaneously retaining my affiliation as an Affiliate Faculty Member at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Syndicate: ‘If capital is a god,’ forum post on David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

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On April 8, 2015, Syndicate published my review essay on David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradiction and the End of Capitalism. Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology has been among the best outlets for my academic creativity over the last year, as they constantly push me to think thoroughly about the theory that undergirds my work on grounded theologies.

In this essay, they pushed me on my own discipline: human geography. And they did so by having me engage my PhD supervisor David Ley‘s nemesis, David Harvey.

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Harvey (left), Ley (right)

Finding the presence of theology inhabiting both Ley and Harvey’s work, I wrote my engagement with Harvey’s newest book by examining how both Ley and Harvey do theology – and how that theology can possibly bring them together under the acknowledgement that capital has become a personal god in the modern order. As you’ll see in the response, Harvey was intrigued by these thoughts, but he doesn’t buy it completely.

I had planned to write a reply to Harvey on the site, but I never got around to it as April was a very busy conference month for me. I did get to meet Harvey at the American Association of Geographers meeting later that month in Chicago – an encounter that Ley tells me he witnessed but did not want to disturb as he was descending an elevator into the hotel lobby. This essay will probably turn into something bigger (and hopefully better) as I play around some more with these ideas, and hopefully then, I’ll have an even more serious engagement with Harvey.

I’m very thankful to Syndicate’s managing editor Christian Amondson for publishing this piece and the editor/founder of Syndicate, Silas Morgan, for his very able organizational powers in making this forum happen. Read his forum introduction here.

PhD Defence and Program Completion

With the successful completion and defence of my doctoral dissertation, I am pleased to announce that the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies has sent me a note to tell me that I have completed all of the program requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Geography.  This means that I officially have a PhD in hand.  The degree will in turn be formally conferred at the next Spring Convocation in 2014.

I am happy to share the link for my dissertation, Religious Politics in Pacific Space: Grounding Cantonese Protestant Theologies in Secular Civil Societies, from cIRcle, UBC’s online repository of theses and dissertations. I am in the process of finalizing the details as I start a postdoctoral fellowship externally funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada. This will take place at the University of Washington in Seattle under the direction of Professor James Wellman, Jr. I will be starting on a new postdoctoral project there (details forthcoming), and I will also be trying to turn this dissertation into a book while generating academic journal articles from it.

I defended the dissertation on 3 December 2013. My supervisory committee consisted of Professor David Ley (UBC Geography; my advisor), Professor Henry Yu (UBC History and Principal, St. John’s College), Dr. Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), and Professor Rudy Busto (UC Santa Barbara, Religious Studies). Of this committee, David Ley and Henry Yu were present. The departmental examiner was Professor Dan Hiebert (UBC Geography). The university examiner was Professor Don Lewis (Regent College, Church History). The external examiner was Professor Paul Cloke (University of Exeter, Geography). Chairing the proceedings was Professor Leanne Bablitz (UBC, Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies).

The defence took place at 9 AM on 3 December. After the chair read the rules (including the very ironic statement that ‘latecomers will not be admitted’), I gave a 25-minute presentation on my dissertation. This was followed by almost two hours of questions from each of the examiners; David Ley voiced the questions from the external, Paul Cloke. I passed the entire ordeal with minor revisions, which were completed in one day and then submitted to the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies with the approval of the committee. The dissertation was archived today.

The defence covered many of the fundamental points of the thesis’s overall argument. The dissertation set out to answer the question, What are the imaginations and practices that constitute the engagements of Cantonese Protestants with the civil societies of Metro Vancouver, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region? The argument was that most Cantonese Protestants unintentionally but inadvertently reinforced the secularization thesis as a theological practice when they engaged in such public activities because they tended to reinforce the privacy of religion while leveraging an essentialized ethnicity to maximize their impact on secular public spheres. Accordingly, most of the questions addressed this central question. Many asked me to defend my view that secularization and ‘religion’ are not binary opposites but fall under the rubric of ‘grounded theologies.’ Others poked into whether my assertion that transnational linkages between Hong Kong and the North American sites were sparse could be generated from the empirical material (it can, if one takes a grounded public/private split seriously, which forms the basis of my argument about secularization). Still others interrogated my spatial re-orientation of terms like ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ to signify how congregations relate spatially to their civil societies.

I am very grateful to each of the committee members for reading the thesis with such care. I am also extremely thankful for my friends who attended the defence and critically engaged me during the public discussion. I am told that few candidates have so many friends who attend, let alone ask such pointed–yet supportive–questions. These were from members of the community, one of which asked me to point hopeful ways forward for Cantonese Protestant theologies (revealing my very open positionality as a confessing and practicing Christian) and another of which asked me to relate my findings to parallels and contrasts with the black church (speaking into very interesting emerging conversations in theology about race and theology). For more about my personal theological practice, including my strange connection with the black church, see here.

I will emphasize that what it means that I have a PhD in hand is that now I am recognized by the academic community as someone who has demonstrated that I can do research and teach in my field. In other words, I am now officially qualified to learn more. This does not signify the end of things; it means that I’m at the very beginning of a very long journey. I have a lot more to learn, a lot more to think about, and a lot more to stay in conversation about. That I am revising the thesis into publications suggests that I will do much more thinking about the topic in addition and connection to my postdoctoral project, and for that, I will appreciate the chance to remain in conversation with those who are interested. The program is completed, but the conversation is just starting. I am grateful and excited.

POSTSCRIPT: for those who want to read the periodic updates I had on my program, they can be found here:

South China Morning Post: Children of rich Chinese home alone in Canada face challenges

I am grateful to the South China Morning Post‘s Ian Young for writing an article last Monday on the publication that Jo Waters and I coauthored in Global Networks on transnational youth transitions between Hong Kong and Vancouver. More on the actual article can be found here.

Illustration: Sarene Chan

After the piece published by Douglas Todd in the Vancouver Sun came out, Ian Young contacted Jo and me for a follow-up article in the South China Morning Post. While Doug went mostly with what our academic publication said, Ian wanted to learn more for himself about the phenomenon in a sort of boots-on-the-ground way. In addition to interviewing Jo and me (and props to him for noting that Jo is a fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford), he also interviewed a Taiwanese young man in order to round out the picture. This asymmetry between the Taiwanese and Hongkonger examples is only slightly problematic because Ian was cognizant of the difference and because he was suggesting that this phenomenon had more to do with a sort of Greater China geography than Hong Kong. The jury is still out on that, though the original theorists like Aihwa Ong and Donald Nonini in fact presume it, and I would like to see more research on different Chinese transnationalisms (pace Weiqiang Lin) to provide even more differentiated portraits.

I am grateful to Ian for writing up this piece as a work of long-form journalism, which (as he tells me) is often hard to come by these days. I’m fairly happy with the way it turned out. My comments were based mostly on the literature and our findings, and references to the economic calculations of transnational migrants from Hong Kong can be found throughout the work of David Ley, Jo Waters, Katharyne Mitchell, and Kris Olds. I am also glad that Ian was fairly careful about not having Jo and me give definitive advice for those contemplating transnational family arrangements; far be it from us to tell any family what to do! Instead, both Jo and I were quoted as emphasizing the possible emotional consequences of split families as factors for consideration. Finally, my only regret with my comments has nothing to do with Ian, but rather in my forgetfulness to mention that this emphasis on material familial bonds has long been a subject of discussion in Chinese American and Chinese Canadian history, and the go-to work on that is Madeline Hsu’s Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home.

Again, I am very glad that Ian Young contacted us about this story. To reiterate my previous posts, I am finding that these connections between academia and journalism are proving very educational for me, helping me learn about issues that are both similar and different between academic conversations and what is happening in public discourse. What is fascinating about Ian’s work is that as he is based in Vancouver, he is interested in chronicling events in the transnational social field between Vancouver and Hong Kong as a public sphere of sorts, and I will be reading with interest how he will implicitly theorize this public. These public connections are never about private publicity; they are about understanding why academia is a public good that can collaborate with other sectors, such as journalism, to inform a larger public conversation. To that end, I look forward to working with Ian Young in the future as we keep the conversation going.

Vancouver Sun: The struggles of affluent East Asian youth in Canada

In this post, I’ll discuss the Vancouver Sun‘s publication of some of the findings in a paper that Johanna Waters and I co-authored in Global Networks. I’ve written about the actual article here, and that’s where I discuss our experimental methodology and some of our key findings.

I like the article that Douglas Todd has written about our piece. This wasn’t something that I set him up to do; in fact, I didn’t even know that he was working on it until he emailed me telling me that it was in that very day’s paper and that he had already gotten feedback on it. As I said, I have been on vacation, so I hadn’t seen a Vancouver Sun where I was vacationing and am relying on the online copy.

The article rightly situates our piece in a longer literature that includes pioneering work done by my supervisor, David Ley, as well as Audrey Kobayashi and Elaine Ho (who incidentally edited the first article I ever published). As those who have read this literature will know, our piece takes seriously this recent literature’s attention to the ’emotional turn’ in cultural geography, an approach to studying space and place that takes seriously how perceptions and constructions of geographies are constituted by emotions. In particular, our piece focuses on the emotional geographies of young people transitioning to adulthood between Hong Kong and Vancouver. Todd reads our two empirical sections fairly and carefully. First, the young people we interviewed described their experience of their family’s supervisory practices as ‘sporadic’ and ‘fragmented’ because while they were grounded in Vancouver, their families often lived at a geographical distance. Second, the young people said that they felt attached to Vancouver, whereas Hong Kong often felt like a ‘hostile’ environment where they didn’t have friends and where they could imagine work hours being unbearable. I am happy with the way that Todd has read our article.

What I’d like to reflect on here is the relationship between academia and journalism. In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this, especially because Douglas Todd’s work and my work are starting to have points of convergence and because Sarah Pulliam Bailey has been doing so well covering the Asian American evangelical activism of which I have been a part. As I said when Todd first interviewed me, I felt that the relationship that we were developing was collegial, and I continue to feel that way. To work with journalists is not to seek publicity. It is to be committed to an academia that engages the public sphere and that demonstrates that academic freedom is vital to our democratic discourse. Working with my colleagues in journalism, I’ve gained a greater appreciation of why the press needs to be free, why it’s important that private entities should not control the press’s discourse (this includes when they read my work), and how the academic conversation is enriched when more public voices are brought into the picture.

For this article, I’m glad that Todd decided to give the article his own read without consulting me. I got a sense of why this research was important to our public discourse. Jo Waters and I had our angle, of course, and that was that our public discourse should not simply assume that children growing up in transnational social fields necessarily desire to live transnational lifestyles. But with Todd bringing it to the public sphere, I’ve been impressed by how important it is that this message gets out, especially in our public conversations about migration and citizenship. I write with gratefulness for Todd’s journalistic craft (and for Bailey’s, for that matter). They are teaching me so much about their trade and how we can work together between our different guilds, and I am grateful for their patience and for their collegiality.

UPDATE: After writing this post, I had the opportunity to read some of the comments about our research. I’m thankful for the many people who resonated, and I’m also grateful for those who posted critical comments that might help us refine our future endeavours. Two comments stick out for me, and I’d like to address them here. First, there is the observation that we ‘forgot’ to interview migrants from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as the ‘astronaut’ phenomenon encompasses more than Hongkongers and there are Hongkongers who work in major cities on the mainland. Second, some noted that this research describes a long phenomenon that can be observed since 1990 (and perhaps before).

Allow me to respond to both, as both can serve as a teaching moment for what we do in academia.

Both Jo Waters and I focused on Hongkongers in our respective projects. This was a practical consideration, as we wanted to limit ourselves to one segment of the Chinese diaspora, and as Weiqiang Lin notes, there are many other Chinese cosmopolitanisms to explore (such as, for Lin, Singapore’s ‘global schoolhouse’). Moreover, we have colleagues who do work on PRC migrants to Vancouver, such as Elaine Ho and Sin Yih Teo. Our study is thus not a comprehensive one that looks at every facet of Chinese transnationalism; instead, academics work with literatures–whole bodies of work–and our contribution is partly to the literature on Chinese transnationalism (as well as literatures on unconventional youth transitions to adulthood, emotional geographies, and cross-border movements more generally). In addition, studying Hongkongers allows for interesting comparative work with the PRC migrants, as well as the ability to unpack how Hongkongers perceive PRC migrants, a theme that was very much part of my master’s work (see this article also) and that has made it obliquely into my PhD work.

We are also aware of how dated the phenomenon that we are studying is. However, it’s partly because we’ve had such a long time to reflect, including the time elapsed between our two projects, that we’ve been able to make some of the claims we make. Again, this provides good comparative material for the new research emerging from our colleagues as well as a call to our fellow researchers to pay attention to the voices of young people in these transnational social fields.

Vancouver Sun: Metro Vancouver’s Chinese Christians wrestle with morality of homosexuality

I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by the Vancouver Sun‘s religion and diversity journalist Douglas Todd. His column piece on me was posted online on Friday; the print version should be out in the next few days. As usual, I’ll say a bit here about how the whole interview process went, what I think of the piece, and how this feeds into academic work. For my part, it certainly was an interesting experience being in the interviewee’s seat after talking to some 140 Chinese Christians in the Pacific Rim region and conducting 13 focus groups there as well, and it’s certainly very stimulating to read how my work is being interpreted in the press. The interpreter is being interpreted; how fun!

Douglas Todd contacted me back in May when the Statistics Canada release came out on ethnicity, language, visible minority status, and religion. We had a brief conversation about the statistics, and my hint to him at the time was to make sure that whatever he did with the large Chinese population that identifies as ‘not religiously affiliated’ (about 61%), don’t write them off as ‘non-religious,’ as many engage in popular familial religions, may hold various views of the supernatural, and may even be influenced by Christian environments, such as schools in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and various parts of Southeast Asia. Although he did not incorporate my comments at the time, we developed a professional and collegial relationship through the process, and I’m fairly pleased with the series of articles generated from the statistics, although I had the occasional question about differences of opinion that I had about how to interpret the data. I suppose that’s how we academics are trained–to be critical, but always in a spirit of collegiality.

In any case, Todd said even at that time that he wanted to do a longer piece on my work, which, after a conversation with my supervisor David Ley, we decided would be good practice for these late stages in my doctoral studies. Indeed, I reviewed some of my comments to Todd during our conversation about statistics and found that I had given him a fairly technical academic answer to his questions. Yet as we spoke, Todd reassured me that my academic comments were exactly what he wanted (which, as I’m told, is unusual for a journalist) and that we would bridge academia and journalism in our piece, as he had himself been awarded an honorary doctorate from the Vancouver School of Theology (congratulations, Doug!), and thank you for being able to pull quotes from what I imagine must be a very difficult interview from which to pull, as I like to qualify many of the things that I say.

His call came last Friday. We set up a time for this Monday, and we spoke at length for about two hours about my thesis work, as well as my various theoretical and popular interests. I also sent him various academic articles I had written, emphasizing my interest in both ‘grounded theologies’ and in the empirical work of Cantonese migrations in the Pacific region with a religious spin. There were also popular articles in the batch as well, such as the Schema autobiographical piece and the Ricepaper pieces on Ken Shigematsu and on ‘how Asian religions aren’t that exotic.’ I suppose this may be why he calls me a ‘scholarly dynamo,’ although I certainly do not feel that way most days.

Because the conversation revolved around my thesis’s interest in how Cantonese-speaking Protestants engage the public spheres and civil societies of Metro Vancouver, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Hong Kong SAR, the discussion naturally veered toward the sexuality issues without us even attempting to get there. As you will see in the piece, we spoke at length about some of the pressing issues in Vancouver around parental rights activism, the drama between Liberal and Conservative Chinese Christian politicians vying for the vote in Richmond, and the Anglican crisis in the Diocese of New Westminster.  What I did was to try to shed light on the internal conversations that I have been hearing in relation to what I have read in more popular and academic portrayals. Todd is right to say that the press has been interested in this story for quite some time, himself being one of this literature’s main contributors. There are also other journalists like Marci McDonald (in The Armageddon Factor), John Ibbitson and Joe Friesen at the Globe and Mail, and Chad Skelton at the Vancouver Sun, who have all written about Chinese Christians engaging the Canadian public sphere, and sexuality has often come up as an item of interest. Indeed, one might say that their work lies somewhere close to the genesis of my doctoral project, for if they were examining the conversation as outsiders, I thought that it might be interesting to tackle the question of what imaginations and practices constitute Cantonese Protestant public engagements from within the community itself.

I should note that this body of journalistic work has often been met with mixed reviews by both conservative and progressive Asian Canadians for different reasons, yet both because of the work’s philosophically (and arguably, politically) liberal framework. By ‘liberal,’ I don’t mean the archetypal open-minded opposition to ‘conservatism,’ but the philosophical bent that attempts to seek an ‘overlapping consensus’ from various groups that have bracketed their communities of identity to seek some sort of abstract common ground for political life together. On the right, this work has been seen as ‘liberal’–as in too far to the left–because it is viewed as generally unsympathetic to a case against gay rights; some Chinese Christians have often decried how they have been portrayed as a propaganda-spreading community that is generally top down and unwilling to integrate into Canadian civil society, while many others protest the ‘overlapping consensus’ approach as not paying attention to how their views might be part of a majority Canadian view that is being contested by a vocal minority.  A relevant situation was in 2011, when Todd’s Chinese New Year piece was read as saying that Chinese Christian communities were unwilling to integrate into a liberal society, sparking outrage within Chinese Christian churches and a fairly assertive rebuttal from the Vancouver Chinese Evangelical Ministerial Fellowship that Chinese Christians were Canadian too. On the left, however, this body of literature has also been criticized as overly ‘liberal’–as in too far to the right–in their critique of Asian Canadian identity politics and their recent assertions that the racializing wrongs of the past can be attributed purely to economic reasons. In either case, this body of work has often been done by those who are not themselves Asian Canadian, writing often as outsiders attempting to write about a complex community. With that view in mind, I also regard this work critically while valuing it precisely for its outsider perspectives, views that can come into very interesting conversation with insider accounts, for at a methodological level, there is no monopoly on knowledge by either insiders or outsiders to a community.

All that is to say that it was pleasantly interesting to be interpreted by someone with likely a different philosophical, political, and theoretical bent from mine. As he notes, I do thank ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ in my MA thesis (and my B.A. [Hons.] as well, and it will probably make it into my PhD), and I have a whole chapter there detailing my theological orientation at the time. (I also have a positionality chapter in my PhD.) As those who have read the grounded theologies piece will know, my theological leanings are heavily shaped by the new critical re-assessments of the secularization thesis at the nexus of theology and religious studies, a reformulation of concepts like ‘theology,’ ‘religion,’ and the ‘secular’ in ways that on the one hand promise to transcend the culture wars of our time and on the other have potential to demonstrate that ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ are veiled theological concepts themselves. I’m not saying that my views would be diametrically opposed to Todd’s, but I am saying that our theoretical and philosophical approaches are probably fairly divergent. That said, with the exception of the blow-up around Todd’s 2011 piece, he has followed the Chinese Christian story very closely since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, covering stories such as the Chinese New Year celebrations at Oak Ridge Mall in the early 1990s, Bill Chu’s work with First Nations since the late 1990s, shifting immigrant voting patterns in the 2000s, Chinese Christian involvement in the Anglican Communion’s woes since synods in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the activism around Tenth Avenue Alliance Church’s challenge to the city’s requirement for them to obtain a social services permit to feed the homeless from 2007 to 2008. In other words, I’m a bit flattered that my PhD work is the latest episode in Douglas Todd’s long career of covering Chinese Christians, and I was delighted and honoured to converse with him, especially because I knew that we would have a fun conversation given our theoretical differences. (It is hard to have conversations with those who are exactly the same as oneself.)

Now for the piece itself: I am generally pleased by how the article panned out (if you must know, ‘generally pleased’ in academic-speak is generally high praise). The headline of the piece is ‘Metro Vancouver’s Chinese Christians wrestle with morality of homosexuality,’ and the new tagline just posted reads, ‘Community has been in the forefront of opposition to gay rights, but it’s not a unanimous stand.’ As I’d point out to the editors, while the title is catchy and will certainly lead to the article being more read to my dully titled blog posts, the article is not only about homosexuality, nor is my thesis work, and Todd understands that and tries to signal that as well. After all, my thesis work is about ‘the public sphere,’ not only about sexuality issues, although it is true that sexuality issues are fascinating theoretical cases for studies of the public sphere as they challenge public-private boundaries. To that end, I hope that the small, yet necessarily incomplete, picture we painted in the article of the Chinese Christians does not make it sound like they are only concerned about sexuality issues, but about a broad range of topics that generally surround how they negotiate the boundaries between public and private spheres.

As for the content of the comments, here is a brief word for the methodologically curious. The Vancouver research is based on 50 key informant semi-structured interviews with either Cantonese-speaking Christians or those who have worked closely with them, and they are supplemented by three focus groups among Cantonese-speaking Protestants whom I met in Burnaby, Coquitlam, and Richmond. As my project is limited to ‘Cantonese,’ I did not expound on the Mandarin-speaking Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) in Vancouver, although my MA project touched on how Cantonese-speaking congregations deal with their Mandarin-speaking newcomers and neighbours (and a comment from that work made its way into the article). As this is a qualitative project, my approach was to ask key informants to share their stories and to put together the picture of their public engagements from their responses; I think of them as people who can shed insider knowledge on various churches, organizations, and networks from whose information a general portrait of their public activities can be extracted. Each of the statements in the article is defensible from the data; in fact, reading through the piece, I think immediately of key quotes from the data that come to mind. I am especially happy that Todd went to the nuance of talking about the balance of ‘rights,’ as this was one of the core issues in the Vancouver site.

The tagline ‘Community has been in the forefront of opposition to gay rights, but it’s not a unanimous stand,’ is admittedly a bit cheeky, but I see how the editors might get that impression from the piece itself. For my part, my reading of the situation is that there is no one ‘Chinese community’ as a monolithic body. Instead, respondents often spoke of the Chinese population in Vancouver as a ‘pot of scattered sand’ (一盆散沙) and of their frustrations that it was difficult to mobilize people for any sort of political action, even when it came to the sexuality issues. Moreover, some were upset that their second generation did not hold to their strong views on sexual normativity, be it for biblical reasons or for essentialized cultural reasons. Breaking down this conversation, what I found was that the fissures among Chinese Christians became extremely important for telling the story, especially to counteract the narrative in the press that a unified ‘Chinese community’ with well-defined ‘Chinese community leaders’ were able to mobilize effective ethnic political action. Quite the contrary: I found that there were debates about what was religious and what was secular, what was public and what was private, how children should be educated and what parents should do about it, who their leaders were and why they should be (or should not be) acknowledged, etc. While some also complained to me that this disunity lacked a sort of harmony, my sense was that these internal deliberations were themselves the stuff of democracy. In other words, bringing out these internal complexities and conversations is a way of demonstrating that Chinese Canadians are actively grappling with how to be democratic citizens, hardly the picture of a community that is uninterested in ‘integration.’

In other words, I’m fairly happy about the level of complexity with which Todd is willing to grapple. As I said, I’m often told that journalists do not have the patience for academic ramblings (that is to say, our closely argued theses), and I’m grateful that Todd was willing to take the time to wrestle with the nuances.

And that brings me finally to a word about public academia. My sense is that journalists and academics both perform a remarkable service to democratic deliberations because they seek to inform the public forum. My hope is that this piece can be taken as a sort of model for how the two sectors can engage each other (or perhaps, how journalists can ask pointed questions to academics to get the quotes they need!), as journalists and academics are not the same, but we can certainly complement each other. In fact, we need each other. Where we academics perform the service of close argument and teaching students and readers to do the same, journalists have a sort of immediacy in their dissemination that is also a profound public service; they are fast and direct, where we are slow and cautious, and I think that’s where we strike an excellent balance when we work together. This experience has been a good first lesson for me in interacting with a very patient journalist who is actually willing to hear my complex thoughts and to represent them with careful nuance and skill; I suspect that some in the future will be less patient with me. I also appreciate how Todd demonstrates in this article how one can represent someone from a different philosophical bent studying people who are very different from himself and come out with this level of insight.

So thank you, Doug, and I certainly hope that this piece will feed nuance and complexity into an ongoing public conversation that seriously needs that level of depth to be able to grapple with the difficult issues so skillfully articulated in this article.

Metropolis BC Working Paper 13-06: Immigrant Integration and Religious Transnationalism: the case of the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Richmond, BC

I am very pleased to announce the publication of a working paper for Metropolis British Columbia on our collaborative project on the ‘Highway to Heaven,’ No. 5 Road in Richmond, BC, on which over 20 religious institutions are arrayed on a stretch of 3 kilometres. Titled ‘Immigrant Integration and Religious Transnationalism: the case of the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Richmond, BC,’ this co-authored report among Claire Dwyer (University College London), David Ley (UBC), and myself explores the question of what ‘immigrant integration’ means on the Highway to Heaven.

The paper can be accessed here. A policy briefing note is also available. For the complete list of published reports in 2013, please click here.

Here is the abstract:

This paper draws on a case study of religious institutions on No. 5 Road in Richmond, British Columbia to explore the role of religious institutions in the process of immigrant integration. Colloquially known as the ‘Highway to Heaven’, No. 5 Road includes over twenty religious communities on a three-kilometre stretch of road, their location the result of a planning policy for an ‘Assembly District’ in the Agricultural Land Reserve. Drawing on interviews conducted with twenty-two out of twenty-four of the religious institutions as well as with policymakers and staff at Richmond City Hall from 2010 to 2012, we argue that integration is a complex term, which can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. We identify a range of different ways in which the religious institutions along No. 5 Road might defi ne their activities as contributing to the integration of immigrants, and we discuss a range of practices that support integration. However, we argue that immigrant integration was not the primary planning objective, nor was it the main theological purpose for religious congregations. Nonetheless, we conclude that policy makers could draw on the range of activities we explore to use the road as an educational resource to promote public conversation about the intricate relationships between faith, migration, and the contested meanings of ‘integration.’

This report is important as an act of public academic engagement with questions in Metro Vancouver’s civil society. In the last few years, accusations and insinuations have circulated that new immigrant populations are not ‘integrating’ in Vancouver, a discourse that is made even more confusing because there are migrants who both support and challenge this claim. Our report shows that when the question of ‘integration’ is examined in a geographical site like No. 5 Road, there are a variety of ways in which migrants say that they are ‘integrating.’ As a result, our advocacy is not based on whether migrants should or should not integrate. We’re saying that sites like No. 5 Road are excellent sites for public education and discussion about what ‘integration’ actually means.

This is the first in a series of papers that we will be publishing on No. 5 Road’s ‘Highway to Heaven,’ and we will also actively be revising this report for publication in an academic journal. Please feel free to send comments and feedback. We look forward to the public conversation that can develop from this report.

Progress in Human Geography: Grounded Theologies: ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography

As I noted in the previous post, I am excited to announce the publication of two articles today.  This post deals with the second one.

Progress in Human Geography, a widely-read journal where geographers publish reviews of current geographical research that point to new agendas for study, has published a piece that I contributed to them. It is available on OnlineFirst. It is titled ‘Grounded theologies: ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography.‘ Again, I will post again when a print issue comes out.

This is a theoretical paper that deals with how ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ should be studied in human geography.  I’ve had a long interest in examining these concepts more deeply, and I’m still interested in going deeper.  In 2007, when I began my master’s degree in geography at the University of British Columbia, I had to take an introductory course called Geography 520: Theory and Practice in Human Geography (here’s a sample syllabus, taken from 2011).  One of our assignments for that seminar was to write a short, 3,000 word essay modeled on Progress in Human Geography‘s review style. As I recall, we were told to review some 30 recent articles and books. I told our seminar instructors that I wanted to do a review essay on geographies of religion. They replied with something to the effect of: ‘Oh, let us know if you can find anything.’

In many ways, this is my way of saying: ‘I found something.’  I began developing these ideas more fully after that introductory course, which then culminated into my master’s thesis on Chinese churches in Vancouver. As I began my doctoral work, I began to toy with the idea of ‘grounded theologies’ in my directed studies courses, and I finally wrote about it in my comprehensive examinations on geographies of religion, secularism, and social theory.  That was when my supervisor, David Ley, encouraged me to develop this piece and put it into Progress in Human Geography, even as I was writing up my doctoral thesis proposal.

The reviews came back as I was conducting field work for my doctoral project. To my pleasant surprise, the editors and the reviewers were not only supportive, but extremely thorough, profound, and constructive, advising me on how to maximize my arguments for the best possible impact on the field. I then revised the paper, foregrounding the notion of ‘grounded theologies’ in human geography.

The paper is basically about how geographers should study ‘religion’ and the ‘secular.’ I began by engaging the work of Lily Kong, a cultural geographer and the Vice President at the National University of Singapore, who had suggested that geographers need to define what ‘religion’ is and is not.  I am an admirer of Lily’s work, as she has recently opened up many possibilities for us to study religion in geography. I was also struck by her corollary call to engage theology and religious studies more deeply. Engaging this literature, I found that ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are very contested terms and that to define what religion is and is not would reinforce the binary idea that some spaces are religious and others aren’t.

The alternative path proposed in the piece is that of grounded theologies, ‘performative practices of place-making informed by understandings of the transcendent’ (p. 2).  While there has been a growing literature in geography on the possibilities of ‘post-secularism’ (in fact, Paul Cloke and Justin Beaumont have a piece on this in the most recent print issue of Progress), there have also been some complaints that this literature doesn’t take seriously what secularization actually means (especially by Justin Wilford, also in Progress). I propose that the way forward is to see ‘the secular’ as much as a grounded theology as ‘religion.’  After reviewing the relevant literature on ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in theology and religious studies, I demonstrate how this concept has already been put into practice by social, cultural, and political geographers.

In doing so, I had to engage with what is known as the ‘canon’ in religious studies (e.g. the foundational work of social scientists like Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, William James, and Clifford Geertz), formative debates among religion scholars about what ‘religion’ is (e.g. a critical juxtaposition of the work of Mircea Eliade and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, as well as more recent work by Jonathan Z. Smith), and the recent critical conversation on secularization that blurs the lines between theology and religious studies (e.g. the work of John Milbank, William T. Cavanaugh, Talal Asad, Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood, Brad Gregory, and Charles Taylor). I then put this literature to work by looking at how geographers have already been engaging to some degree with grounded theologies as they undertook studies of how different religious subjects understood their identities by intersecting their social spaces. I also looked at recent discussions in critical geopolitics surrounding religion, especially as geographers have been interested in the eschatological dimensions of religious engagements with the public sphere.

My hope for this paper is that it will open avenues for geographers to research ‘religion’ and the ‘secular,’ as well as engage with scholars in theology and religious studies. Moreover, my aim has been to critique the notion that ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are mutually exclusive.  By doing this, we might be able to show ironically how people conventionally labeled ‘religious’ sometimes employ ‘secular’ ways of making place while people who call themselves ‘secular’ are guided by implicit theological narratives in their geographical practices.

I’d really like to thank David Ley for guiding me through this process, as well as the editors of Progress in Human Geography who oversaw this publication, Noel Castree and Anssi Paasi. The five anonymous reviewers who critically turned over every part of this piece have greatly strengthened this paper; I also feel extremely humbled that they have taken my work so seriously and have engaged it with such profound insights. Claire Dwyer, with whom I am working concretely on a project dealing with grounded theologies in Richmond, British Columbia’s ‘Highway to Heaven,’ has also been very encouraging. My friends, Robert Edwards and Carl Hildebrand, also read the piece and offered very constructive thoughts. I am very thankful that this piece is out, and I look forward to engaging fellow students of ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ on how these concepts describe grounded theologies put to work in the making and contestation of real places in the world.