South China Morning Post Hongcouver Blog: How Hong Kong’s history helps explain the Umbrella Movement and Vancouver’s activist evangelicals

I’m grateful that Ian Young has taken the time to post thoughts from my lecture at Regent College on his blog at the South China Morning Post, The Hongcouver. The argument in my lecture was fairly big, so I appreciate how Young has digested the work and tailored it to a Hong Kong-Vancouver public sphere.

Photo: Yu Chung-yin/SCMP

The main point I was trying to make in this lecture was that Hong Kong can be theorized as having what public sphere theorist Michael Warner calls an ‘evangelical public sphere.’ This term is based on recent developments as social theorists, sociologists, and historians have begun thinking about how the Anglo-American public sphere came about. It turns out that in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the structures of the public sphere had a lot to do with evangelical Protestants circulating their materials for moral reform. As it turns out, events like the Golden Jubilee Incident in 1978 – far into the twentieth century – set the tone for much of the protest culture that is to come. Moreover, this protest culture bifurcated into two understandings of democracy – one very much based on this sort of protest culture that may not even be dominated by evangelicals anymore, and one that seems to get a lot more evangelical attention which focuses on maintaining the rule of law for economic stability. The Umbrella Movement, as I suggest, is the climax of these two protest cultures going head to head, and while the Umbrella Movement is most certainly not dominated by evangelicals, what I am saying is that the structures of the evangelical public sphere put in place a sort of anti-corruption strategy through ‘genuine universal suffrage.’

These suggests raise several points of clarification that I need to make to this Hong Kong-Vancouver public sphere. As an academic, most of my arguments are targeted toward intervening into what we still need to know more about. What we don’t know much about in the academy is the role of evangelicals in Hong Kong’s public sphere – there has been much more substantial talk about mainline Protestants (historic and official Protestant denominations) and the Roman Catholic Church in Hong Kong, and this is arguably the same in the Vancouver and San Francisco Asian Canadian and Asian American studies contexts as well. With this massive gap in the academic literature about the role that evangelicals have played in shaping these trans-Pacific public spheres, it makes sense to understand their centrality in pushing back against some of the more dominant social, political, and religious forces in this region’s cities. These knowledge gaps are important for the public to know about because they inevitably affect public discourse later down the road, especially when the public comes calling for academics to weigh in.

However, I still need to make some clarifications. First, to the Vancouver public sphere. My work in this lecture suggested that the Umbrella Movement demands a recalibration of how Chinese Christians in Vancouver are understood, including in the ways that they have protested, including for socially conservative causes like traditional family values politics. Indeed, the larger point that I made was that Vancouver’s public sphere itself needs to be reconceptualized as perhaps more theological than we think, for the conversations on racialization, indigenous sovereignty politics, environmental issues, sexuality politics, and property values have a lot more theological lacing than perhaps the participants in this public sphere have realized. However, I did not flesh it out more fully, so do hold your breath for how that will come about – I have stuff coming through my own academic pipeline, so to speak (with apologies to the actual pipeline debates). There is some talk, for example, about how many of the more recent traditional family values politics in schools have been populated by more recent Putonghua-speaking migrants from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). That is only a surface observation. Stay tuned for more work from me.

As for the Hong Kong public sphere, I recognize that in an era of post-1980s and post-1990s local identity politics, observations made in a Hong Kong-Vancouver transnational public sphere can be received as ‘not local.’ I agree that Hong Kong issues should be framed in Hong Kong terms – and I hope that the lecture does indeed just that – but I disagree that Hong Kong issues should only be spoken to Hong Kong people.

And thus, a few clarifications.

In terms of traditional family values politics, I fully recognize that Hong Kong has had its fair share of evangelical Protestants working this vein of the public sphere, including the Hong Kong Sex-Culture Society, the Society for Truth and Light, and the Alliance for Family Values. I have kept up with the debates about the Hong Kong Cathedral protest in 2003, the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance and its effect on the 2005 1 July Demonstration, the Gay Lovers documentary fiasco and the subsequent Cho Man Kit v. Broadcasting Authority, the Family Domestic Violence Ordinance, 113, and etc. This will require a separate paper to flesh out, and indeed, I’ve begun revising a conference presentation from a few years back to do just that.

Also, it’s fairly important to notice that I’ve titled the paper ‘the Hong Kong protests and evangelical theology.’ While the impetus for this paper is certainly the Umbrella Movement, the paper was not about the Umbrella Movement, per se, but about the emergence of a Hong Kong protest culture that may have roots in the participation of evangelicals in the nascent democratic activism of the 1970s and its effects on contemporary democratic geographies in Hong Kong, including the Umbrella Movement. A deeper analysis of the Umbrella Movement’s protest landscapes and religious participation in creating them is still necessary, and indeed, is coming out of more than one academic’s pipeline, including mine. Stay tuned.

Many thanks to Ian Young for reporting on the talk, and I hope that this will generate a lot of conversation in this trans-Pacific public sphere.

Asia-Pacific Worlds in Motion V: Migration Beyond Borders (St. John’s College, UBC)

I am currently at a graduate student conference called Asia-Pacific Worlds in Motion V: Migration Beyond Borders at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) St. John’s College. This is a conference co-organized by graduate students at UBC and the National University of Singapore started by my friend and colleague Mark Lawrence Santiago in 2008.  I was a co-organizer of its third iteration (Mobile Identities) in 2010, also at St. John’s College, and I play a marginal alumnus role on this year’s committee, though I’ve been appointed the point person on site for the conference (although the credit for organizing really goes to largely to the co-chairs, Lachlan Barber and Kara Shin).

I presented in a panel this afternoon on Migrant Families and Youth, along with my fellow co-panelists from UBC’s Educational Studies program, Yao Xiao and Ee-Seul Yoon, as well as our discussant, education and family scholar Dr. Mona Gleason. Yao presented on ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: educational narratives of migrant families in urban China,’ and Ee-Seul spoke on ‘Border anxiety in migrant youths’ phenomenology of secondary school choice in Vancouver.’ My presentation was titled Re-working Family Values: ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ approaches to family and religion in Hong Kong. Here’s the abstract:

In its contemporary usage, the term ‘family values’ has come to evoke strong feelings, usually along the lines of sexuality.  The term has usually been employed by religious groups, and those who dub themselves ‘pro-family values’ might argue that the term encompasses more than sexuality and should translate more broadly into public policies that encourage more healthy family psychology, thus discouraging gambling, drug abuse, and pornography while encouraging best parental practices.  In this paper, I will explore a neglected dimension of ‘family values’ by examining Protestant and Catholic approaches to the ‘right of abode’ in Hong Kong.  A key policy issue under contestation in Hong Kong is the rights of those entering Hong Kong to reside there, especially with regards to temporary foreign domestic workers and pregnant women from the People’s Republic of China entering Hong Kong to give birth.  The Protestant and Catholic approaches to this migration issue are strikingly different.  While evangelical Protestant leaders have concentrated on the sexual and psychological dimensions of family values, they view these migrations as undocumented, and thus illegal.  However, a coalition of Catholics and progressive Protestants who are said to be more liberal on sexual issues approach the issue precisely as one of family values, for to deny the right of abode would divide families.  I draw on 43 key informant interviews with both Protestant and Catholic leaders, in Hong Kong, 5 focus groups with Protestant Christians, and documentary evidence to triangulate the oral data.  This paper thus introduces the term ‘family values’ into a discussion of transnational families and migration policy and argues that ideologies of family must be more carefully examined in Asia-Pacific migration studies, as they have direct relevance to migration policy.

As a panel, we are very grateful to Mona for responding about the ways each of our papers explored how families constitute the nation-state by making the personal political, with the state and families themselves constructing all sorts of borders to conceptualize the family.

We also had a fantastic keynote talk this morning from my friend and co-author Dr. Johanna Waters on ‘Education Beyond Borders? some implications of contemporary educational migrations,’ in which she examined the stories of failure emerging from international education as well as its domestication through extension campuses in post-colonial sites. Tomorrow morning, Dr. Eric Thompson will speak on ‘Singapore perspectives on migration research: a review.

This conference is always an excellent space for conversation because of the interdisciplinarity of the participants, and what I have experienced so far has been very productive. I’m very excited about the next two days.