Liberal protestant Chinatown: social gospel geographies in Chinese San Francisco.

Author:Tse, Justin K.H.


This article is about the cultural geography of what I call "Liberal Protestant Chinatown" in San Francisco's Chinatown. (1) 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. (2) 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. (3) 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 to the unfair stereotyping of Chinese American young men as gangsters and "gooks," which the liberal Protestants also sought to mitigate). (4) My central argument is that the social gospel of Liberal Protestant Chinatown thus configured the cultural geography of Chinatown into a network of nonprofit 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.

Liberal Protestant Chinatown is thus positioned against two other cultural geographies: conservative Christianity and the non-Christian Chinese establishment. These rival spatial ideologies in San Francisco's Chinatown have been discussed at some length in Chinese American scholarship, though seldom explicitly. (5) The geography formed by conservative Christianity can be called "Christian Chinatown," a space inhabited by white missionaries and their Chinese American converts who espoused a "conservative" view of the interior subjective conversion that is central to "Protestant" Christian theology, claiming that one cannot both be Christian and adhere to traditional Chinese ritual practices. (6) This conversionary ideology led to the westernization of Chinese Protestant converts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, orienting their trans-Pacific agency toward intervening in China's nation-state formation. The second geography is the opposite of Christian Chinatown: the non-Christian Chinese establishment of the clan associations (the tong) and the merchant companies (the huiguan, especially the Six Companies, or the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association [CCBA]), with their requisite Chinese ritual practices and traditions that Asian American author Frank Chin has termed the "martial tradition," which is marked (he contends) by the "ethic of private revenge" and the "ethic of popular revenge against the corrupt state, or the Confucian mandate of heaven." (7) In this non-Christian Chinese geography, the tongs and the huiguans have often facilitated the circulation of persons, goods, and cultural production across the Pacific and all over the world. (8) Christian Chinatown's insistence on conversion has of course made relations with those adhering to this non-Christian geography rather tense over the years, although Chinese American literature and scholarship have demonstrated that both the Christian and non-Christian worlds have usually intersected in everyday Chinatown lives. (9)

Because the extant Chinese American scholarship has covered both Christian Chinatown and the non-Christian Chinese establishment to some extent, I focus on the ways that "liberal Protestantism" has come to dominate the historic Chinatown landscape, pushing back against what its architects see as the conservatism of both Christian Chinatown and the non-Christian Chinese establishment. First, I establish that San Francisco's Chinatown can be read among competing spatial visions as a Christian landscape and that the existing literature has usually opposed Christian Chinatown with the non-Christian Chinese establishment without taking seriously the specific rise of liberal Protestantism among the 1920s and 1930s Chinese American second generation. (10) Second, I trace the development of the liberal Protestant social gospel in Christian Chinatown, tracking its emergence in the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in the 1920s, its penchant for generating deliberation in the Lake Tahoe Christian Conference in the 1930s and the 1940s, and its canonization in the National Conference of Chinese American Churches, Inc. (CONFAB) in the 1950s. Third, I follow the implementation of the social gospel in the 1960s through the federal War on Poverty and the Asian American Movement (AAM), showing also that the construction of Liberal Protestant Chinatown did not come without contestation from among the people its organizations were meant to serve, including trans-Pacific conservative Protestants and members of a criminal underworld who arrived in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to rereading the Chinese American historiography, my methods for understanding these geographies include key informant interviews with 47 Cantonese-speaking Protestant Americans engaged with the San Francisco Bay Area's civil society, as well as the reading of documents given to me by these informants. (11) In this way, I advance Chinese American scholarship by suggesting that the ideological and theological praxis of liberal Protestantism is central to Chinese American history, non-Chinese and Eurocentric as its origins may be.


San Francisco's Chinatown is rich ideological territory, constituted by multiple political factions of both transnational and domestic ilk as well as a variety of interpretive vantage points. While these cultural geographies have generated much conversation since the inception of Chinese American studies, (13) much of the overt focus of this literature has been on nonreligious, albeit trans-Pacific, topics: the draconian immigration policies under which Chinese migrants came to the United States (usually through the de facto detention center of Angel Island), (14) the Chinese establishments through which migrants maintained links with home villages and created new American communities, (15) the anti-Chinese racism that construed Chinatown as an imagined segregated space contagious with vice and disease, (16) the Chinese economic geographies of menial service and agricultural labor in California, (17) the homosocial bachelor societies and the emergence of second-generation Chinese American feminists, (18) the trans-Pacific ideological debates about national reform in China that pit pro-imperial reformers against the nationalist revolutionaries of Sun Yat-sen against the nascent Marxist-Leninist-Maoists, (19) the quarrels between the leftist Red Guard Party's imitation of Black Panther programs in Chinatown versus the cultural nationalists' daring reinterpretation of American history through a Chinese martial literary tradition, (20) and the ruminations about criminal violence inflicted by international underworld syndicates like the Wah Ching and Joe Boys and the unfair stereotypes casting all Chinese American young men as such "gook" gangsters. (21)

Notwithstanding these serious contestations over ideology in Chinatown, the existence of a space that we might call "Christian Chinatown" in San Francisco is virtually uncontestable. Its most compelling account has perhaps been offered by the writer who hates it the most: Frank Chin. (22) Contrary to the misperception that Chin opposes much of contemporary Asian American literature because of plain and simple misogyny, (23) what galls Chin the most is the spatial construction of what he terms "the Chinatown of the Chinese American autobiographies." (24) For Chin, the dominant literary rendition of Chinatown--San Francisco's in particular--is tied to a genre of writing he claims to be a "Christian form, descended from confession and from testimony" that tells a story like St. Augustine's Confessions (which Chin cites) designed to convert the reader (as he claims). (25) For Chin, the Christian conversion of Chinatown systematically eradicates the Chinese martial heroism that (as he argues) is supposed to circulate in such spaces through Cantonese opera and popular poetry, resulting (Chin contends) in the development of a racial self-hatred complex. (26)

Indeed, for Chin, all Christians adhere to the "conservative" view of conversion, which means that even writers who do not actively profess Christianity can be complicit in the spatial conversion of Christian Chinatown. Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club, set around events connected to San Francisco's First Chinese Baptist Church (FCBC), is a case in point, depicting Chinatown as a place where Chinese women must heal from the "unspeakable tragedies they had left behind in China" and realize the "hopes they couldn't begin to express in their fragile English." (27) Though Tan speaks elsewhere of her father's "Christian faith" and her mother's belief in "Chinese fate" as "the goalposts of a soccer field. and me running between them trying to duck whatever dangerous missile had been launched in...

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