Claire Dwyer, in memoriam

Claire Dwyer, on No. 5 Road

I wanted to share the words by which I opened my presentation on No. 5 Road while at the recent Se faire une place dans la cité conference in Montreal. My collaborator on the project, Claire Dwyer, passed away in the summer, just as I was moving to my new post across the Pacific from where we had done our project in Richmond, British Columbia. When the illness that took her was in its advanced stages, a few colleagues of hers at University College London had contacted me to be part of a small project honouring her for her promotion to Professor. I was not able to come through for that venture. I also thought we’d have more time with her; she even emailed me from the hospital about our project and had the joy to discover that the last letter that she had written last year while I was on the job market was the one that got me my position at Singapore Management University.

And then, she was gone. I did have the words to grieve, and as I told my colleagues at the time, I did not know how I would find them. But Frédéric Dejean and Annick Germaine invited me to Montreal to talk about our project and said that they would say a few words about Claire. It was this conference that thus forced me to stop avoiding my grief and stare it in the face.

These, then, are the words by which I began my talk. Having said them at the conference, I feel it is only right to make them public here:

I want to begin by thanking the conference organizers Frédéric Dejean and Annick Germain for this kind invitation to speak here in Montreal. I have been on an academic job market journey of sorts over the last few years, so it has been difficult to pin down exactly where I have been: Vancouver, Seattle, Chicago, and now, of all places, Singapore. It is an honour to be brought in from so far, to a place that is almost entirely run en français. I have not spoken French with any semblance of competence since I learned it in a high school in California fifteen years ago. Apologetically, I will have to speak in English today. I do, however, know what people are saying, not just words, but almost full arguments. The problem is that my incompetence lies in retaining what you say. If you ask me what it was you said, I will have forgotten by the time you have uttered it. This means that I can probably participate in some discussion in French. But I will not dare to speak it myself, unless we have another cocktail tonight.

In this morning’s presentation, I come in the memory of my colleague and dear friend, Professor Claire Dwyer. I understand, when Frédéric first invited me, that Claire was supposed to give the talk that I am now about to give. With some shock, we probably learned around the same time that Claire was too sick by late last year to work, much less travel. It is poetic that the final job reference letter that she wrote for me was for my current position at Singapore Management University. I had the opportunity to tell her this news when she emailed me to discuss — from the hospice, no less — our collaborative project on what is known as ‘the Highway to Heaven,’ the stretch of road in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, British Columbia where there are over twenty religious institutions within three kilometers.

She was also well-loved in Singapore, especially at my university — Singapore Management University — where we are informally forming a small hub of cultural geographers of religion, with our president Lily Kong and my colleague Orlando Woods also there. Lily and I especially have tried to work through our grief together. I recently told her that I did not know how to grieve Claire. How do I even begin to grapple with the person who came all the way from London to Vancouver to mentor this kid in qualitative research methods because our department did not have such a course and then proceeded to work tirelessly to make sure I grew up and got a job that I could hold? I learned how to do research through this project on No. 5 Road. In fact, I even met the woman I married on the Highway to Heaven while doing this project. I do not know how to grieve Claire, and I hesitate from saying that this presentation in her memory is my public expression of grief because I do not know if that would cheapen it. But I am spending all of this time at the front of my presentation commemorating her because it was she who was supposed to give this talk. I hope her spirit is here. It would give me some confidence. In comfort, Lily told me that this is why we must hold our loved ones closer to us now, always.

Still, three months after the news, I am now here, on our behalf. In fact, the last time I gave this presentation, it was also in Montreal, in St Joseph’s Oratory. I find that it is poetic that I get to revisit Montreal with this work, holding Claire in my heart. I certainly hope that my performance will not be as disappointing as the last time.

Memory eternal, Claire. With the saints, grant her rest, O Christ. Memory eternal.

AAR 2018: ‘Orthodoxy in solidarity with the Umbrella Movement: the backdrop of Chinese politics for evangelical and Eastern Catholic cooperation in Vancouver’

The American Academy of Religion is meeting in Denver this year. It is shaping up to be a productive time for me, with meetings dotting my schedule across committees and other professional chats. I find that these discussions are a big part of the joy of going to a conference like this, especially because everybody is here. I started coming to this conference when I was still in graduate school as a geographer. I think I still am one of the fewer geographers here, but I feel like I’ve gotten over the initial hangup of not knowing how to engage religious studies from my disciplinary background. Perhaps it is a sign of integration.

Apart from being on the steering committee of the Chinese Christianities Seminar, I also presented a paper in its Saturday session on ‘Crossing Ecclesial Boundaries’ in the Convention Center, Room 204, in the 1 pm session. Here was the abstract:

Eastern Catholic Church Richmond, a small temple in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in British Columbia, has an outsized reputation in both the global Ukrainian public and local Chinese Protestant networks as a ‘Chinese mission’ worshipping in a Byzantine tradition in communion with the See of Rome. Empirically, this church’s multiculturalism, and its smallness of numbers, reveals such claims to be exaggerated. In this paper, I explore how the temple gained this reputation by tracing the participation of its pastor Fr Richard Soo SJ in solidarity events with the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, during which Chinese Protestants in Vancouver came into contact with the church. My central argument is that what enables that theological boundary-crossing is the imaginative backdrop of Chinese politics, a transnational imaginary through which conversations about social justice in Vancouver can be discussed with some distance. In this sense, the ‘Chineseness’ of the temple is not about its ethnic identification, but its political practices. This paper contributes to the study of Chinese Christianities by proposing that ‘Chineseness’ is not about ethnicity, but about the political locus of China as a material and imagined site in which Christians across ecclesial boundaries collaborate to stage civic interventions.

It was an interesting experience presenting a paper where I myself am the key informant, and we had an intriguing discussion across all the papers about the phenomenon of ‘conversion’ in Chinese Christianities. I feel that the field is growing fruitfully. It has been an honour to be part of it.

Radio Columnist: Grounded Theologies Segment, Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani on Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM

As of November 5, 2015, I became a regular columnist on geographies of religion for a local radio station in Vancouver, BC called Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM. The show on which I make my comments most Thursdays at 10:30 AM is called Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani.

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What is interesting about this show is that Minelle Mahtani is an accomplished cultural geographer in her own right at the University of Toronto-Scarborough. Working on geographies of mixed-race identities, one of the unique hallmarks of Minelle’s work is her attentiveness to the public sphere, maintaining her interest in journalism in theory and practice from her days with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Her show Sense of Place is a brilliant exploration of the ‘sense of place’ that people in Vancouver have, with interviews with local Vancouverites to tease out their understanding of placemaking, emotions, affect, and identity.

You could say that the ‘Grounded Theologies’ segment is where we get to nerd out as geography colleagues on air about the particular field of geographies of religion. Minelle usually comes at the questions from within the discipline, aiming it for a lay listening audience, and I have to take theory and practice from within the discipline to address current events. I’ve had quite a bit of fun talking about a wide variety of topics, including the #PrayforParis hashtag after the Paris attacks, religion and migration, Christmas Eve and ‘Christian privilege,’ Christmas Eve itself, religion and private property in Vancouver, and Pope Francis and the Year of Mercy.

Minelle and I have heard that there has been interest in using her show for educational purposes. To that end, our last show was on me as a geographer of religion, with the hope of kicking off a new set of topics aimed at experimenting with bringing a high level of theoretical rigour into a show for a lay audience. We’re still tinkering around with this, so updates on how we progress should be expected. As academics, I think we may well write a paper on our experiences on air talking about cultural geographies of religion as well.

But the best part is that the cornerstone of my work, the concept of ‘grounded theologies,’ is now the name of a radio segment on which I’m the commentator. There’s nothing to complain about there.

American Academy of Religion 2015 | Atlanta, GA

I was very happy to be given the opportunity to present two papers at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) from November 21-24, 2015. I also serve as a steering committee member for the Asian North American Religions, Culture, and Society group, so it is always good to see friends there as well. We were particularly proud to host a panel session on the new edited volume Asian American Christian Ethics, which my partner-in-crime in Asian American religious ethics Grace Kao (Claremont) had a hand in co-edited (along with ethicist Ilsup Ahn).

I’m also a steering committee member for the newly formed Chinese Christianities Seminar, and my peers – through no coercion of mine and with my abstained vote – generously allowed me to present some work on Chinese Anglicanism in Vancouver in the new session. Moderated by Jonathan Tan (Case Western Reserve University), my colleagues in the session included Christopher Sneller (King’s College London), Stephanie M. Wong (Georgetown), Mu-tien Chiou (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), and Di Kang. My paper, entitled ‘A Tale of Three Bishops: Chineseness and the Global City in Vancouver’s Anglican Realignment‘ has the following abstract:

This paper theorizes the ‘Chineseness’ of Anglicans in Vancouver engaging with the global Anglican realignment as ideological, especially through their competing visions of Vancouver as a global city, an urban economic center of political and cultural influence. Focusing on the split between Vancouver’s local bishop Michael Ingham and two Cantonese-speaking realignment bishops in Vancouver (Silas Ng and Stephen Leung), my central argument is that Anglicans on all sides of the realignment deployed their self-defined ideological constructs of Chineseness in a contest over how to theologize Vancouver as a global city. The three Vancouver episcopal visions under debate concerned whether Vancouver should be conceptualized as a site for interreligious pluralism, spiritual purification, or civil multicultural discourse. Based on key informant interviews in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, this contention advances the study of Chinese Christianity by suggesting that the cross-regional engagements of Chinese Christians may in fact motivated by civic concerns to globalize their own cities.

We were guided as a seminar by the very able Alexander Chow (Edinburgh), who is establishing himself as quite the authority on Chinese Christianities worldwide. I’m very thankful for his collegial support and am always pleased to hear his feedback on my work. I’m also very thankful to have met Ting Guo, a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue, at this seminar.

In addition, I was part of a quad session entitled ‘Enter the State: Revisiting the Making of Post-1965 Asian American Religion,’ with co-presenters Ren Ito (Emmanuel College, Toronto), Melissa Borja (CUNY Staten Island), Paul Chang (UC Riverside), and Philip Deslippe (UCSB); our respondent was Carolyn Chen (UC Berkeley), and the session was moderated by Isaac Weiner (Ohio State). My paper, entitled ‘Restructuring the Church: Cantonese Protestant organizations and economistic states,’ had the following abstract:

This paper examines the transformation of Chinese American evangelical congregations and faith-based organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area into corporate business models in the 1990s and 2000s. Based on ethnographic interviews with 47 key informants, the central argument is that these business models facilitated Chinese evangelical transactions with both the American and Chinese governments in the hope of shaping public policy on both sides of the Pacific. While these dreams of public engagement date back to the 1970s and 1980s, this paper also shows that the 1989 Tiananmen Beijing Spring’s aftermath intensified these efforts, leading to the restructuring of several key churches and parachurch organizations. These efforts demonstrate that fantasies of state ideologies as well as encounters with governments revamped the landscape of Chinese churches in the Bay Area, advancing the view that states are central to the formation of Asian American religious communities.

I am very excited about the comments that I received on thsi paper, especially the push from Carolyn Chen to think harder about the church in relation to neoliberal states.

I enjoyed my time in Atlanta. This was an AAR where I had some real intellectual engagements and came away feeling like a stronger scholar. I am thankful for those with whom I had conversations and am excited for next year’s iteration of this conference to see them again.

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.

The legal implications of ‘internal doctrinal disputes’: Chong v. Lee, Asian Canadian congregational fractures, and new religious publics in Vancouver, BC | Society for the Scientific Study of Religion | Indianapolis 2014

Congregation in front of the Christ Church of China, Vancouver, B.C., 1955 | Creator: Leong Ding Bong | Source: UBC Library Digital Archives

I am pleased to be presenting a paper at this current Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Indianapolis during this weekend of 31 October to 2 November.

My paper is titled ‘The legal implications of ‘internal doctrinal disputes’: Chong v. Lee, Asian Canadian congregational fractures, and new religious publics in Vancouver, BC.’ It will be given at 1 PM on 31 October, in White River Ballroom B of the JW Marriott Indianapolis in a session titled ‘Religion, Policy, Doctrine.’ Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores the legal implications of immigrant congregational fractures. Examining British Columbia’s 1981 precedent case Chong v. Lee, I explore how internal congregational disputes regarding both the meaning of Chineseness and the practice of baptism at Vancouver’s Christ Church of China produced the Canadian legal doctrine that religious property cannot be diverted for theological purposes that differ from the community’s founding teaching. Drawing 50 key informants interviews, I argue that the private congregational tensions often explored in ethnographies of immigrant religious communities must be re-examined for their legal implications. Not only have other Asian Canadian communities drawn on the Chong case to take their internal theological disputes to court, but Anglican parishes (including three Chinese Canadian ones) departing from the Vancouver diocese over sexuality issues engaged the precedent to insist on keeping their buildings. This paper intervenes in the sociology of religion by insisting that putatively private congregational dynamics in immigrant religious communities inevitably engage the state’s legal apparatus.

I will focus mostly on Chong as a legal precedent and will attempt once again to engage the social scientists of religion here with an argument on the constitution of congregational space. All are welcome. I look forward to a great conversation.

Christ and Cascadia, Seattle, WA, September 26-27, 2014

I am delighted to announce that I will be presenting in two sessions at an exciting new conference in Seattle. Organized by Fuller Seminary Northwest, the conference, Christ and Cascadia, aims to start a conversation about how Christianity is practiced in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a conference aimed at both practitioners and academics. The venue is First Church at 180 Denny Way, and the dates are September 26-27, 2014.

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Registration details can be found here. The schedule can be found here.

I will be speaking at two sessions, both on September 26. The first session, Solidarity and Empowerment, is from 11 AM – 12 PM in Room 3. The organizers tell me that I have 20 minutes to deliver a talk entitled ‘Faith Communities Committed to Solidarity with the Poor: Religious Freedom, Interfaith Initiative, and Poverty Ministry at Tenth Avenue Alliance Church in Vancouver.‘ Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores how repositioning religious freedom arguments in a Cascadian context may rearticulate their political emphases. From 2007 to 2008, an interfaith coalition of religious congregations and organizations formed Faith Communities Committed to Solidarity with the Poor (FCCSP). Its objective was to lobby the City of Vancouver for Tenth Avenue Alliance Church’s religious freedom to run a homeless food and shelter program without a social services permit. Arguing that a new mandate to obtain a permit dictated to the church what religious practice was and was not, the campaign successfully deployed a religious freedom argument to contend that faith communities of a variety of religious traditions should be able to serve the poor as a core part of their theological practice. Although more conventional religious liberty cases around socially conservative issues have been filed in Cascadia on both the Canadian and American sides, I argue that religious freedom has been rearticulated by FCCSP as a progressive cause that gained wide social acclaim in a liberal Cascadian political climate. This argument is based on key informant interviews with core participants in this activism. This paper thus advances conversations in Christ and Cascadian culture by demonstrating that the oft-celebrated politically progressive politics of the region offers opportunities for faith communities to reframe their public engagements away from a set of narrow ideological issues in order to display the complex totality of their theological commitments.

The second session is on the same day from 4:15 – 5:30 called Mega Churches and Gender: What’s Sex Got to Do With it? in Room 3. Organized by my colleague Elizabeth Chapin, the panel will address gender at a prominent megachurch in Seattle. Because this is a panel session that is meant to be more conversational, I am compiling my thoughts into a paper for publication right now, but tentatively, my talk will focus on Mars Hill Church in Seattle and private property ownership.

If you are interested in Christianity in the Pacific Northwest, we really hope to see you there!

South China Morning Post: School Transgender Policy Row

I have received quite a warm welcome back to Vancouver for my doctoral graduation today. Ian Young has done a masterful job of quoting me in today’s edition of the South China Morning Post.

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The article is about how Chinese Christians — in particular, Cantonese-speaking evangelicals — in Vancouver are contesting the Vancouver School Board’s proposed policy for transgender faculty, students, and staff. There is both a main article and a side column based mostly on a reading of chapter 5 of my dissertation.

The controversy centers on those who have opposed the policy because they feel that their ‘parental rights’ to educate their children primarily in the private sphere have been violated. As I explained to Young:

This is not really a debate about homophobia. It’s a debate about parental rights … and this has been the long-standing theme in these debates in Vancouver…Chinese Christians have this vision for a rational orderly society. A particular reading of the Bible may inform this, a particular reading of the Chinese classics may inform this. But at the heart of it, it’s about a rational orderly society, where parents are the primary educators for their children. What they are seeing instead with this kind of stuff [the board’s proposals] is that this is irrational and disorderly. That’s why there is such a strong pushback.

In addition, I emphasized that these political activities ‘were not a “church effort” but involved churchgoers in a secular way, “through Chinese Christian e-mail chains, informal conversation and assorted Chinese Christian media”.’

I am very thankful to Ian Young for our collegial relationship. He first contacted me last year about an article on youth transitioning to adulthood between Hong Kong and Vancouver, a topic that Jo Waters and I had written on in Global Networks. I found Young’s questions very perceptive and incisive, always pushing me to draw out my points, to illustrate with examples, and to pose counter-illustrations. I suppose I should expect no less from the former International Editor of the SCMP, but I must say that it is always a pleasure to work with someone at the height of his craft.

I also appreciate how Young engages multiple sources in his account in order to draw out the multi-sided complexity of this debate. His interview with Cheryl Chang is revelatory both because of how Chang insists on her secularity as a concerned parent activist and because she was the legal advisor for the Anglican Network in Canada, a realignment group that sued the diocese for their property because they insisted that it was they who were holding to historic Anglican orthodoxy on theological doctrine and sexual praxis. He not only quotes me about the non-church-based Chinese Christian networks, but goes right to the source, Truth Monthly, one of the two premier Chinese Christian newspapers in Vancouver (the other is Herald Monthly). He has done his research on Charter Lau, mostly through my dissertation, but instead of just quoting the thesis, he has used it to trace the precedents for this poobah in both Burnaby’s Policy 5.45 controversy in 2011 and the ongoing debate about Bill C-279 to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (my dissertation fieldwork took place during the C-389 controversy).
[UPDATE: May 23, 2014: These items have been corrected in the online edition.]

As this information develops, however, I do want to make two very minor clarifications to the record, none of which affect Young’s larger point. The ‘CSCF’ that Young mentions is the ‘Christian Social Concern Fellowship,’ not the ‘Christian Social Conservative Fellowship.’ While many of its members are politically conservative and some are card-carrying members of the federal Conservative Party of Canada, ‘social concern’ is a term derived from mainline Protestantism in Hong Kong to talk about the church getting involved in social action. The second is that the Truth Monthly post date is from the January 2014 issue. That this post predates the debate by four months instead of several weeks in fact strengthens Young’s point about this transgender issue being widely discussed in Chinese Christian media.

Again, many thanks to Ian Young for a very thorough article and sidebar for SCMP. I look forward to further collaboration in the future.

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.