American Association of Geographers, 2016: San Francisco

I’m writing from the Hilton in San Francisco’s Union Square on this second day of the American Association of Geographers’ (AAG) Annual Meeting 2016, which this year takes place from March 28 to April 2. I’m happy to report that we had some very successful sessions yesterday for the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group, and the events this week seem to be gathering momentum for geographies of religion to become increasingly mainstream within the discipline.

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The paper I presented at this year’s AAG was titled ‘”Under a Vast Sky”: Religious Protest Art and Hong Kong Localism’s Demystification of Urban Ideologies.‘ Along with some brilliant graduate students Natalie Hyacinth (Royal Holloway, London) and Laura Cuch (University College London), I co-organized a series of incredibly well-attended sessions titled Creative Approaches to Researching Religion in the City (March 28). The sessions were titled: 1) Embodied Practices and Narratives of Everyday Religion, 2) Exploring Faith Through Participatory Public-Engagement Art, and 3) Negotiating Difference and Urban Space; I chaired the first session and presented my paper in the third session. My abstract was as follows:

The 2014 Umbrella Movement democracy protests in Hong Kong have been noticed for their production of protest art featuring religious themes in makeshift street shrines and sanctuaries. I claim that such religious protest art, which has been a staple of Hong Kong urban heritage preservation (or ‘localist’) politics since the mid-2000s, offers geographers an opportunity to theorize the ontological nature of religion in global cities. While both religious and artistic production are often seen as belonging to the realm of the purely subjective (sometimes to the point of mystifying material processes), Hong Kong localists – usually describing themselves as a ‘post-80s’ and ‘post-90s’ younger generation – have attempted to use religious protest art since the mid-2000s to exegete the Hong Kong government’s urban vision of the Special Administrative Region as an international financial centre as itself a religious artistic vision, one that demolishes local Cantonese cultural geographies to make way for urban spectacles of conspicuous consumption. Based on ethnographic interviews conducted among 45 Hong Kong Christians in 2012 and an audiovisual archive collected from 2013-5, I argue that Hong Kong localist religious art demystifies the seemingly secular state vision of Hong Kong as a global capitalist city by exposing its theological logics. Localist religious protest art thus works against superstition by recasting the symbolism of the urban landscape in Hong Kong. This paper thus contributes to the creative study of religious cultural geographies by showing that reversing the conventional theoretical wisdom on ideology, as religious art reveals the secular as superstitious.

I am happy to have received some very good feedback and supportive comments, including from colleagues from Hong Kong, on this paper. But more as a point of pride, I’m ecstatic to say that this was among the most well-attended and diverse sessions in the history of GORABS. We had a series of excellent papers, as well as the honour of having Harriet Hawkins (Royal Holloway, London) and David Gilbert (Royal Holloway, London) as discussants to our second and third sessions.

This year, as the Chair of GORABS, I also organized a few more sessions, two of which have a time change for today. They are as follows:

GORABS ANNUAL LECTURE *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
Our Annual Lecture (Session 2684) this year will be given by Dr Katharyne Mitchell (University of Washington) on Sanctuary and Refugees in Europe. The *REVISION* is as follows: while the original program has this lecture in a Thursday slot, it has been CHANGED to Wednesday, March 30, 5:20 PM – 7 PM in Metropolitan B, JW Marriott Hotel, 2nd Floor.

GORABS BUSINESS MEETING *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
We have also revised the time for our Business Meeting (which was originally also on Thursday) to immediately follow the Annual Lecture in the same room. All are welcome to stay; our meeting will last no longer than one hour.

JOINT KEYNOTE:
On Thursday, March 31, there is a Joint Keynote Session held by the China Geography Specialty Group and GORABS that will be delivered by Dr Fenggang Yang (Purdue) on Mapping Chinese Spiritual Capital and Religious Markets. This will be held from 11:50 AM – 1:10 PM in Imperial B, Hilton Hotel, Ballroom Level.

CHINATOWN WALKING FIELD TRIP:
This walking tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown covers the largest Chinatown in the United States. It will be of interest to geographers studying ethnicity, race, religion, and China. Food is available throughout, and much street shopping will be involved. The walking trip is sponsored jointly by the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems and China Geography Specialty Group. We will depart at 2 PM on Thursday, March 31, from the Taylor Street Entrance of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square and will return to the same building at 4 PM.

Looking forward to seeing everyone in attendance this year – it’s been fun so far!

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2015: Newport Beach, CA

I was happy to be able to attend the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in Newport Beach, CA from October 23-25, 2015. Aside from the session at which I presented, there was so much fine work on religion in China and the Chinese diaspora because of Fenggang Yang’s presidential influence over this year’s SSSR, including a special presidential session on the Umbrella Movement where two of the three leaders of Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), Drs Benny Tai (University of Hong Kong) and Chan Kin-man (Chinese University of Hong Kong), attended.

The session at which I presented was organized by my postdoctoral supervisor James K. Wellman, Jr., and focused on Megachurch Fantasies, with a special emphasis on affect theory and evangelical studies. Our co-panelists were all from the University of Washington: Jessica Johnson and Elizabeth Chapin. My paper, entitled ‘Global Cities of God: the ideological fantasies of Chinese American megachurches,’ had the following abstract:

In the 1990s and 2000s, Chinese American evangelicals started a series of congregations that aspired to megachurch stature in California’s Silicon Valley. While only one of them has over 2000 congregants (River of Life Christian Center in Santa Clara, CA), this paper examines what Slavoj Žižek calls the ideological “fantasies” – the imagined objects of desire – that underwrite their implementation of church growth theory. Employing a qualitative methodology comprising 47 key informant interviews with Chinese Christian leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area, I argue that these Chinese American churches seek to establish themselves as sites of influence in the global political economy, precisely the same ideology that drives the neoliberal restructuring of global cities in the Asia-Pacific. This paper advances the affective study of congregations by merging the global cities literature with the social science of religion.

My reflection after this session was that, unbeknownst to us at the same institution, each of us had a different take on affect and emotion. To be quite honest, Jessica Johnson’s work on the pornographic affect in Mark Driscoll’s understanding of Christian teaching and his governance of Mars Hill Church probably followed the line of thought on affect more closely as the field intends, pace Deleuze and Guattari as well as Sara Ahmed. My orientation tracks much closer with Slavoj Žižek, whose psychoanalytic tendencies the Deleuze/Guattari crowd would likely find distasteful.

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Tim Buechsel, myself, and Benny Tai

But the most insightful parts of the conference came through interactions with the Chinese scholars as well as with Tai and Chan (OCLP). These engagements also helped me as I prepared to speak that very weekend at San Diego’s Ethnos Community Church on ‘Global Jesus’ in the Umbrella Movement (the ‘Greater China’ moniker can be read almost as a Barthian move, in which ‘Global Jesus’ subverts the ideology of ‘Greater China’ as an integrated economic regional zone), which I took to mean an exposition of the fields of Global Christianity and World Christianity as they applied to the Hong Kong democracy movement – an intellectual opportunity that I had not yet pursued until this point. I am thankful to Tim and Isabel Buechsel, as well as Reyn and Joy Nishii, for their very kind hospitality as I stayed with them, and to congregants at Ethnos for their very warm welcome to me and the traditions of critical theory and ecumenical theology – different from their evangelical practice in many senses, yet genuinely complementary in surprising ways – that I brought with me. Careful listeners to the podcast will note some factual errors in my extemporaneous delivery (at one point I call the third member of OCLP, the Rev. Chu Yiuming, a ‘professor’ by mistake); my hope is that especially those in Hong Kong will both forgive me for these inaccuracies and see my engagement with the democracy movement as a small contribution to a genuinely democratic society, as they are an example of what Pope Francis means to ‘care for our common home.’

Review of Religion in Chinese Society 2(2): ‘Under the Umbrella: Grounded Christian Theologies and Democratic Working Alliances in Hong Kong’

In 2015, the Review of Religion in Chinese Society published a peer-reviewed paper that I wrote trying to unpack the Umbrella Movement’s cultural geographical background. In this paper, I especially advance the approach of the new cultural geography in understanding the many layers of history behind democratic movements in Hong Kong and their engagement with Christian theological sources. Here’s the abstract in both English and Chinese:

Taking the geographies of the 2014 Umbrella Movement as the point of departure, this paper provides a geographical reading of democratic landscapes in Hong Kong. Using a new cultural geography approach, this study unpacks the grounded theologies that undergird the participation of Christians in democratic movements in Hong Kong. The central argument is that two Christian grounded theologies in Hong Kong – collaborative and critical – have been generated by how Christians acting within two different working alliances have positioned themselves vis-à-vis the Hong Kong government. Drawing from both ethnographic and public archival research, I trace the origins of a democratic working alliance to the 1978 Golden Jubilee Incident, after which a democratic consensus was developed in Hong Kong. Following this thread through the 1997 handover, I demonstrate that this consensus bifurcated among Christians who disagreed theologically as to whether collaborating or critiquing the government was the ideal way to implement democratic reform. This paper contributes to the study of religion in Chinese societies by providing a geographical approach that can be used for comparative work in the social scientific study of religion and democracy.

本文是以二零一四雨傘運動的地理為起點, 用地理學的角度去看香港的民主景觀。此硏究乃以一個新文化地理途徑去分析多種的接地神學如何從下鞏固了香港的基督徒參與民主運動。其論點中心是兩個不同的香港基督教多種的接地神學 —— 合作性及評論性 —— 已經從基督徒如何在兩個不同的合作聯盟之內把自己與香港政府的關係定位而產生。由於一九七八年金禧事件之後香港發展了民主共識,本人便從人種學及公共檔案硏究去追溯金禧事件為民主合作聯盟之起源。隨著這線索一直至一九九七回歸,本人演示了此共識使在神學上意見分歧的基督徒分义成兩派,一派認為與政府合作乃執行民主改革的理想途徑,另一派則認為評論政府才是執行民主改革的理想途徑。本文提供了用地理途徑去作宗教和民主的社會科學硏究比較,因此對華人社會的宗教硏究頗有助益。

I’m deeply thankful to the editor, Fenggang Yang (Purdue), for graciously accepting this manuscript and seeing to its speedy publication. I hope this paper is useful for understanding democracy movements in Hong Kong,their many complex histories, and their relation to theory in social science.

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.

Regent College: ‘What Can I Do For This City?’ The Hong Kong Protests and Evangelical Theology

On January 22, I gave a talk at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia titled ‘”What Can I Do For This City” The Hong Kong Protests and Evangelical Theology.‘ It was a noon hour talk. Here was the description:

Known as the “Umbrella Movement,” the 2014 Hong Kong protests for democracy have captured the world’s attention, not least for the participation of Christians. This talk will trace this Christian democratic tradition to the rise of an evangelical tradition in Hong Kong, emphasizing the separation of churches and the colonial state, and the trans-Pacific dimensions of Hong Kong’s evangelical tradition. This lecture will be of interest to those who want to know why Christians in Vancouver should care about Hong Kong.

We had quite the turnout. Room 100, a standard lecture classroom, packed out. The motley crew appeared to include first-generation Chinese Christian leaders, second-generation pastors, and a diverse crowd of Regent College students. It was – for all intents and purposes – fun!

Regent College did make a recording, and the Cantonese-speaking Omni News also covered the event for that day. We will put a link to the recording here when it is available.

I want to thank everyone who came out on what could have been their lunch hour. Specific thanks go to Regent Bookstore’s Bill Reimer and Regent College VP Patti Towler and Dean Jeff Greenman, as well as Trish Pattenden for organizing and advertising, and Rick Smith and Joe Lee for helping with audiovisual equipment. My hope is that this talk was informative for all who attended and will be useful going forward for Regent College in engaging Asian Canadian and trans-Pacific communities in their endeavour to put an ecumenical flavour of evangelical graduate education to work on the Pacific Rim.

UPDATE: This lecture received full reporting from Ian Young at the South China Morning Post. I’m grateful to Ian for attending and for reporting so generously.

Syndicate: The Umbrella Movement and Theology

I’m happy to announce that I’ve become a section editor for Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology. Syndicate is a new publication with both online and print fora for new titles and issues in contemporary theology. I’m responsible for topics relating to what theologian John Milbank has called ‘theology and social theory,’ which as a geographer I include to encompass geographies of religion, secularization, and social theory.

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My first foray into this editorial role has been to collate a forum on Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and Theology. Modelled after the forum on Ferguson and Theology, this conversation brings together three theologians to talk about the theological significance of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests that erupted into international attention on September 28, 2014 and that are expecting to be cleared on December 11. Because a fourth contributor was unable to submit his essay, I contributed the final piece in this forum.

The four essays are:

Here’s a bit from the blurb that I wrote to introduce the forum:

While all this has been novel for Anglo-American audiences, the protests have been long in coming for those who have watched and participated in shaping the ground in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover. If theology has percolated to the surface of the Umbrella Movement, one can be sure that theologians have also been watching and participating. The Umbrella Movement may be far from over. But if its themes of democracy, church-state relations, and grounded theologies have been simmering under the surface for quite some time, it is still worth asking some theologians how the movement’s theological significance might be articulated.

With a liberation theologian (Kung), a feminist theologian (Wu), a New Testament scholar (Tsang), and a social scientist interloper (yours truly), we’ve only scratched the surface of what theologies need further exploration in Hong Kong, but we hope that we have raised enough issues for good conversation for some time to come.

WHAT TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Some of the forthcoming titles that I’ll be working on include Gil Anidjar’s Blood, Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, and John Milbank’s Beyond Secular Order. I’ll also be contributing to a forum on geographer David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Stay tuned.

Missio: Can American Christians Support Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement?

Photo: Antonio J. Alonso

This morning, a post that I wrote for Missio, the online publication of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture, went live. It’s titled ‘Can American Christians Support Hong’s Umbrella Movement‘?

Here’s a sample:

It’s a delicate task to write about how American Christians, especially evangelicals, can care about Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. “I shan’t get into details,” the embattled Chief Executive C.Y. Leung told a local journalist, “but this is not entirely a domestic movement.”

Leung’s sentiments echoed the insinuations being passed through the Chinese press. The details, as it was said, were that foreign (read: American) forces had allegedly funded pro-democracy groups like Occupy Central with Love and Peace, Scholarism, and Apple Daily. As the story goes, the Umbrella Movement would end just like the Maidan and Color Revolutions: the supposedly American-funded leaders would lose control of the movement, and the ensuing chaos would destroy it from within.

This is an incredibly popular narrative: when the South China Morning Post interviewed Beijing tourists visiting Hong Kong, they replied confidently that they “of course” did not support the movement: “We know that it’s because university students are stirred up by the American government to take such actions,” they said. One might think that they were channeling Ivan Illich’s 1968 excoriation of America-China relations: “In Asia, the U.S. is threatened by an established power -China. The U.S. opposes China with three weapons: the tiny Asian elites who could not have it any better than in an alliance with the United States; a huge war machine to stop the Chinese from “taking over” as it is usually put in this country, and; forcible re-education of the so-called “Pacified” peoples. All three of these efforts seem to be failing.” Who counts as an “American Christian” is quite loose: if you are “American” and “Christian,” the allegation is that you just might be an interventionist, especially if you don’t actually physically live in America right now. Don’t try to follow up with me to say that you’re actually part of the British Commonwealth; let’s admit that the American empire is really quite the leviathan.

The problem, though, is that this America-in-Hong-Kong narrative’s details don’t add up. Sure, calls for democracy sound awfully American, but the society for which the protesters call looks nothing like America. The students are calling for civil nomination – the election of candidates chosen by the people themselves – which doesn’t really resemble the primary process in the United States, not to mention that the American president is actually indirectly elected by an electoral college.

Read the rest on the Washington Institute’s blog.

As with much of the Washington Institute’s audience, the readership are mostly Anglo-American evangelicals who have a global sensibility. It’s really a pleasure to address this audience as part of my attempt to reach multiple publics with my academic work, including the academy proper, the public media in both Anglo-American-Australian contexts and in Hong KongCatholics, and evangelicals. I’d also be happy to explore other publics as well.

Many thanks to Laura Fabrycky for making this post happen, and to my colleague Sam Tsang for making the connection. I’m as excited about speaking to this evangelical public as I am about my academic and Catholic audiences, and my hope is that this is the beginning of many conversations to come.