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.

South China Morning Post: Chinese parents clash with striking Canadian teachers as school year fails to start

Photo: CBC

Yesterday in The South China Morning Post, Ian Young did another spectacular job trying to suss out some of the intricacies of the trans-Pacific social field that we find in Vancouver. In this most recent article, he wrote on how some Chinese parents associated with the British Columbia Parents’ Federation (BCPF) protested the teacher’s union, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), for the strike that is finally starting to come to an end. Young reached out to me for a comment, and this is what I noted about the BCPF:

Dr Justin Tse, an academic who has studied activism within the British Columbia Chinese community, said that although the BCPF’s desire to get children back in class was shared with other opponents of the strike, there was also a strong undercurrent of anti-unionism in general that ran through the protests.

“My sense is that there is a view that unions disrupt business, and most Chinese migrants have this view that unions get in the way of the free market,” said Tse, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington. “For them, it’s not really just the educational stuff – it’s the union stuff.”

The BCPF has garnered supporters via Chinese-language social media, and the couple of dozen members at Sunday’s protests all appeared ethnically Chinese. The federation has attempted to widen its outreach to non-Chinese parents, but these efforts appear to have been aborted, for now. A Facebook page and an English-language website seeking new BCPF members were visible on Sunday, but were taken offline that night.

“A lot [of Chinese immigrants] are kind of scared of public protest,” said Tse. “They want the media to capture their numbers at a protest, but they don’t want to be singled out as individuals, so you get the face mask thing. You can’t really have it both ways, but that is the sentiment.”

Tse said conservative Chinese political activism in BC was informed by “a specific vision of democracy” that focused on majority rule alone, without emphasising some of its other aspects, such as deliberation, consensus and accountability.

“There is this sense that democracy means you get to say your private views in public, no matter how outrageous, because that’s free speech, and that it is all about getting numbers,” said Tse. “This view is that democracy just means majority wins, majority rules.”

My comments here need to be read in conversation with a piece that I wrote on my blog, Religion Ethnicity Wired, arguing that the constitutional issues swirling around the BCTF strike provide a remarkable mirror to the democratic movement in Hong Kong, Occupy Central with Love and Peace. This is because what I said there qualifies what Ian Young and I talked about in relation to Chinese immigrants.

The impression that I do not want the public to get is that there is something about this nebulous term Chinese culture that is against labour unions, public protest, and deliberative democracy. Such a statement would not only be irresponsible — it would be empirically unsubstantiated. After all, if that were the argument, then movements such as the May Fourth Movement, the Beijing Spring of 1989 in Tiananmen Square, and the recent democratic movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong would have to be marked as un-Chinese. As Craig Calhoun insists in Neither Gods Nor Emperors, it would be more accurate to say that these democratic movements constitute a strand of Chinese tradition. So too, Asian American author Frank Chin observes in his novel Donald Duk that even Confucian concepts like ‘the Mandate of Heaven’ are a de facto form of democratic consciousness because it is a term that can be deployed by the people to criticize unjust power.

However, it is true that many of those associated with the BCPF were ethnic Chinese — its spokespeople seem to be Putonghua-speaking, and as their name suggests, they represent parents. Here, I also rejected the discourse of the ‘tiger parent’: Amy Chua’s essentialist caricature of Asian American (and Asian Canadian) parenting has simply reinforced notions of the ‘model minority’ that should have been put to bed in the late 1960s right where it started. This is not to deny that Asian Americans and Asian Canadians themselves take on the discourse of the ‘model minority’ as an identity statement — indeed, my work explores that at an ethnographic level — but using the ‘model minority’ as an essentialist explanation for Chinese parental behaviour stops the conversation at several points. First, it conveniently isolates Chinese parents from the general population, blinding us to how Chinese parents are saying some of the similar things as even Anglo-Canadians. The second is that it doesn’t get at the specific undercurrents that make up the discourse of the ‘model minority.’

What I’ve done here is to try to listen to what these parents are actually saying. They agree with the general population that the BCTF strike has crippled education in BC. However, while public opinion has been turning against the BC Liberal Government for its flouting of the Canadian constitution and the bargaining rights of the teachers, these parents are placing the blame squarely on the teachers for striking and thus using collective bargaining as a bullying tactic that has put their kids out of school. This sounded a lot like my dissertation research, in which conversations about the BCTF in 2011 (well before this set of strikes) quickly led into discussions of how a variety of labour unions tended to obstruct the free market.

Moreover, it sounded a lot like how many of my interview subjects and focus group participants wanted to participate in public protests, but were shy about having their pictures taken or being interviewed by the press. When members of the public engaged them in debate, they tended to see this as an attack on their freedom of speech instead of an opportunity for public deliberation. Their goal, as they told me, was to build an awareness that the majority in fact supported their positions because that was the point of democracy.

While this could be called ‘Chinese’ in some senses of the word, I prefer to think of it as part of a debate about the relationship between Chineseness and democracy. After all, while such majoritarian and non-deliberative arguments about the nature of democracy certainly comprise one faction in Greater Chinese and trans-Pacific contentions about democracy, there are movements as old as the 1970s — and dare I say, even the May Fourth Movement in 1919 — that advocated for a more deliberative form of democracy that also pays attention to minority rights. In other words, there is a political spectrum among ethnic Chinese views on democracy, and the BCPF represents one strand in a larger conversation. I was asked about the BCPF, so I answered along the lines of what the BCPF represented. But you have to read my blog post on Religion Ethnicity Wired to get the catch on what I said.

In short, I am very happy that Ian Young got me on record about the BCPF. As always, I enjoy my collegial relationship with journalists like Ian who are at the top of their craft. This incident certainly was of public interest in Vancouver, as well as in the trans-Pacific social field, and I look forward to this conversation piece doing what it’s intended to do — engender more conversation!