Asian Americans Documentary – initial thoughts

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I’ve eagerly anticipated the new Asian Americans documentary that aired on PBS the last two days. I viewed the previews and promoted it heavily among my friends. And I was not disappointed.

Asian Americans is a five hour patchwork of intriguing personal and family stories woven into a long, complex and rich history. Under the shadow of white supremacy in U.S. history, various Asian Americans have struggled to survive, fought for civil rights, and refused to be silenced. The documentary’s dominant meta-narrative is that of heroic Asian Americans who battled racial exclusion and marginalization to prove that they are Americans. Thus, resilient victims, vocal social activists, conscientious political leaders, achievers and celebrities who reflected on their Asian American identities were the given the most attention in this documentary.

One of the participants in a post-air watch party wondered who this documentary’s audience was. Many thought that it was primarily for Asian Americans and questioned whether non-Asians American would be much interested. I agreed that Asian Americans would be most interested in the documentary. It resonated with me and many of my friends who can identify with the experience of being marginalized and silenced. There were many cathartic moments in the documentary that left me in tears: the devastating impact of the World War II concentration camps on one Japanese American family, the trauma of the Southeast Asian refugee experience, or the all-too familiar images of Vincent Chin’s grieving mom. Indeed, the recent surge of anti-Asian racist incidents in the wake of COVID-19 is a visceral reminder that anti-Asian sentiment, despite recent Asian American progress, lie just beneath the surface, waiting to be sparked. So, yes, this documentary is an important reminder to Asian Americans that despite our “breakthrough” (the title of the final episode), the hard fought victories of the past can be easily snatched away.

But the documentary was also for a mainstream American audience. This is not just our story, but an American story. Rather, a revision of the American story that centers the narrative on a racialized people. Those who despise multiculturalism or bemoan the deletion of Western Civilization in the curriculum cannot escape the truth of the whole story of America. This is a truth that I’ve engaged in my scholarship. This is the truth of “The 1619 Project” that the New York Times featured last August to commemorate the 400 anniversary of slavery in the U.S. Namely, that the United States was build on the backs of people of color. Or more generously, America was built by people of color.

I spent much of my adult life trying to persuade Asian American Christians that this truth needed to be part of our theology and ministry. As long as American Christianity is complicit with perpetuating a narrative that centers on Euro-American heroism and leadership, we’ll never see how truly global Christianity has become. For example, Douglas Jacobsen notes that

When the twentieth century began, Christianity was still a predominantly European faith. Today, two-thirds of the world’s Christians live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. No other religion has ever experienced so much change in such a short period of time. Global Gospel (2015), p. xv

But, in the end, despite its efforts to speak a broader truth to mainstream Americans, Asian Americans is still quintessentially patriotic and doesn’t question the American dream all that much. I appreciate the nuanced and honest snippets that appear occasionally (e.g., the mystery of Buddy Uno, the Korean and Black conflict just prior to the 1991 Los Angeles uprising, the huge economic divide among Asian Americans in Silicon Valley, etc.). But the core values of equality, inclusivity, and opportunity drives the documentary. As one of the interviewees noted, “Asian American can become whatever they want to be.”

The one major shortcoming that I see in the documentary may be self-serving, but I think it is important. Religion is virtually no where to be found. Sure, Alex Koh talks about going to church in Koreatown before the 1991 L.A. uprising. Erika Lee nonchalantly equated being Christian with trying to quietly fit in to America during the 1950s. But the omission of religion, something that would be unthinkable in documentaries of African Americans and Latinx, continues despite more than twenty years of rich scholarship about Asian Americans and religion. The most obvious erasure, in my opinion, can be found in the discussion about Joseph and Mary Tape’s fight against the exclusion of their daughter from San Francisco’s public school in the 19th century. We are shown their protest letter that was published in a local newspaper. While the letter explicitly appeals to Christian values as a reason to include their daughter, that part was completely ignored.

Asian American studies is no longer as dogmatically anti-religion (though there continues to be a feeling that ethnic studies is hostile to Christianity, largely due to its association with Western colonialism. See Robert Chao Romero, “Towards a Perspective of the Christian-Ethnic Studies Borderlands and Critical Race Theory in Christianity,” Christianity Next (Winter 2017), pp. 45-66). Since the publication of the 1999 issue of AmerAsia Journal that was dedicated to religion, a generation of scholarship have highlighted the richness and nuances of AAPI religion. I wonder if any of the scholars who participate in Asian North American Religion and Cultural Studies group (ANARCS) at the American Academy of Religion or the Asian Pacific American Religious Research Initiative (APARRI) were consulted in the making of the documentary? If they were, the producers would have had to contend with Josh Padison’s important point:

religion was central to the formations of race and citizenship in the post-Civil War United States…Most studies emphasize economics in the development of race…Though the strength of such economic forces is undeniable, attention to the public and private discourses of the nineteenth century – the way in which Americans talked, wrote, and thought – shows the powerful ways religion shaped the day-to-day expression of those forces. — American Heathen: Religion, Race, and Reconstruction in California (2012), page 4

But, by erasing religion, intentionally or not, a very big part of the AAPI story is missing. Recent studies have revealed how religion (in particular, Christian faith) has provided inspiration, philosophical grounding, and the moral impetus for much of AAPI social activism. Religious institutions and facilities were often centers for assembling workers and gathering places for communities to organize. Religious leaders – Asian, white, Black, and Latino – joined, and in some instances, led campaigns for civil rights, Native Hawaiian resistance, immigration reform, and Japanese American internment camp redress.

Despite this critique, Asian Americans, is, to me, a remarkable achievement. We are witnessing a new generation of AAPI scholars, community leaders, artists, and workers who can build the United States of the future, a nation that will, hopefully, be more true its democratic vision. I especially pray for a new generation of AAPI Christians who will not only contribute to the common good, but, through their witness, also be the conscience of the nation.

Midwives Who Feared God, by Kosuke Koyama

01koyama.450“Midwives Who Feared God,” one of Kosuke Koyama’s biblical mediations speaks to me today. Professor Koyama (小山 晃佑) [1929–2009], one of the leading Japanese theologians of the twentieth century was known for his efforts to contextualize Christian faith in Asian. This, however, did not mean that he was uncritical of idolatry, as seen in this biblical reflection:

 

054214Midwives Who Feared God
From Kosuke Koyama, Three Miles an Hour God: Biblical Reflections (Orbis, 1979): 96-99

But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. — Exodus 1.17

‘Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. But the descendants of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly. They multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them’ (Exod. 1.6,7). The Egyptians felt threatened by the increasingly powerful presence of the Hebrews. The king of Egypt commanded: ‘when you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live’ (1.16). The midwives disobeyed the command.

They feared God. They feared the invisible God. They feared the God who does not have chariots and army, fortress and palace, and political structure and economic supremacy. Against the visible presence of the king of Egypt, the midwives feared the invisible God. I am sure the midwives were afraid of the king of Egypt. But courageously they acted according to the higher principle of morality they knew. They knew that murdering the male babies at their birth as commanded is against the mind of God. They feared the king. But they feared God more. ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).

The king of Egypt was ‘fearless’ when he issued such a destructive command. A ‘fearless’ world, in this sense, is a dangerous world. Fearlessless can be the expression of complete secularism. The king of Egypt did not fear God. He was a ‘secular’ person in spite of all the rich religious symbolisms which surrounds him. How strange. The title Pharaoh means ‘the great house’. It means the one who lives in the Great House. No house can be a great house without the touch of some kind of gods. At his coronation an Egyptian king received prenomen. The prenomen of Rameses II was User-maat-Re, ‘Strong in the right of Ra.’ It was believed that the kings came from the realm of the gods. They were god-kings. Ra was the solar god. It was the king, the god-king, who made the Great House great.

Yet the mid-wives feared God rather than this god-king. In every society we need ‘midwives who fear God’.

This does not mean that we need ‘religious people’ or more religious organizations and systems. We need all kinds of people who ‘fear God’. We need economists who fear God, politicians who fear God, educators who fear God, doctors who fear God. We need social midwives who fear God. They do not have to be ‘religious’. They fear God. They stand against the power of the occupants of the Great House when they misuse their power. They midwives are ready to disobey the command. They may not be Christians. Muslims, Buddhists, or Jewish. They may call themselves ’secular’ and ’non-religious’…. But they fear God.

Secular people, we think, do not fear God. ‘Religious’ people fear God. But is this really so? How do we draw the line between secular and religious people? If it is true that only religious people fear God why do we often see that religious people are more arrogant toward God than secular people? Arrogant? Yes, in trying to domesticate God to suit their own religious taste. Instead of fearing God, they use God to their self-enhancement. ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get’ (Luke 18.11, 12). God is adjusted to man’s religious taste. How often God is ‘theologically’ tamed! It often takes theology – what a tragedy – to adjust God to man’s liking.

Are secular people free from this danger No. They adjust God to their liking too. But they do not begin their adjustment program with the introduction; ‘God, I thank thee….’. Their programme is simpler than that of the religious people. The ‘God’ they adjust to their own liking is the God of their own making. The God they make is predictably quite subject to their adjustment.

In every society we need ‘midwives who fear God’.

Professor Tadao Yanaihara (1893-1961), economist, sociologist, educator and evangelist, was a disciple of Mr. Uchimura Kanzo, the founder of the no-church movement in Japan. Yanaihara was critical about the Japanese government’s colonial policy in Formosa, Korea and Manchuria. In 1937 he was forced to resign his professorship at Tokyo University. He never stopped his studied criticism of the Japanese government for its flagrant brutality and oppression of the fellow Asian peoples. In particular he was critical about Japan’s imperialistic policy in Manchuria. After he resigned from the university, he began to publish his own periodical Kashin or Good News. Kashin was only one of the Christian journals which was critical of the government, continued its criticism all through the war years and into the post-war period.

The January 1940 issue of Kashin sharply attacked the brutality in Nanking. The army general Matsui who was responsible for the atrocity in Nanking was received by a ‘so-called Christian meeting’ with a standing ovation in November 1939. Yanaihara referred to this incident in this issue and accused the ‘so-called Christians’ for not demanding words of apology from the general. In June 1940 issue of Kashin he speaks of General Itagaki, the Commander of the Japanese Army in China, who said that Japan was helping to make China independent and that Japan had no intention of imperial aggression against China. Yanaihara pointed out that this was not true.[23] Professor Yanaihara’s Kashin did not speak only about ‘spiritual and religious’ matters. It addressed itself clearly and loudly to the events that were taking place in his day. He feared God. He was fearless because he feared God. He was in the tradition of the prophets of the Old Testament. After the war he was reinstated at Tokyo University. He became the president of the university for two terms, succeeding Dr. Nambara Shigeru, also a disciple of Uchimura Kanzo.

On Easter Sunday, 26 March 1967, The United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan) issued its Confession on the Responsibility During World War II. Let me quote the last three paragraphs of the Confession:

     The Church, as ‘the light of the world’ and as ‘the salt of the earth’, should not have aligned itself with the militaristic purposes of the government. Rather, on the basis of our love for her and by the standard of our Christian conscience, we should have more correctly criticized the policies of our motherland. However, we made a statement at home and abroad in the name of the Kyodan that we approved of and supported the war, and we prayed for their victory.
     Indeed, as our nation committed errors we, as a Church, sinned with her. We neglected to perform our mission as a ‘watchman’. Now, with deep pain in our heart, we confess this sin, seeking the forgiveness of our Lord, and from the churches and our brothers and sisters of the world, and in particular of Asian countries, and from the people of our own country.
     More than 20 years have passed since the war, and we are filled with anxiety, for our motherland seems unable to decide the course that we should follow; we are concerned lest she move in an undesirable direction due to the many pressures of today’s turbulent problems. At this moment, so that the Kyondan can correctly accomplish its mission in Japan and the world, we seek God’s help and guidance. In this way we look forward to tomorrow with humble determination.

I am not going to document here how the Kyodan approved and supported the war. The tragic chapter of the Christian church becoming obedient to the Japanese religion of Ra is now documented in the important publication Jinja Mondai to Kiristo Kyo ‘Shinto Problems and Christianity’.[24]

In 1978 a small book was published by Japan’s most prestigious Iwanami Publishing House. The book is titled Shûkyô Dan Atsu O Kataru or War-time Repression of Religions. Four of its six chapters describe the brutal destruction carried out by the Japanese government against religious groups other than Christianity. The government decided to demolish them because they were openly critical of the state ideology. These four groups (Omoto, Hitono-Michi, Shinkô-Bukkyô and Hon-Michi) are quite different from the biblical faith. On the basis of their faith they criticized the behaviour and philosophy of the powerful government. One chapter of the book is devoted to the Holiness group of Christianity. Here is a report on the cross-examination of Rev. Sugar: [25]

According to the Old and New Testament, which I understand is the basis of the creed you believe, all people are sinners. Is that correct?
Yes. All men are sinful.
Do you imply then the emperor himself is a sinner?
A humble subject I am… how should I dare to speak about the august emperor? I am, however, willing to answer the question. As long as the emperor is human, he cannot be free from being sinful.
Then, the Bible says that the sinners cannot be saved apart from the redemption done by Jesus Christ on the cross. Does this mean that the emperor needs the redemption by Jesus Christ?
With due reverence to the emperor, I must repeat what I said before. I believe the emperor needs the redemption by Jesus Christ as long as he is human.

Rev. Sugero feared God. He had a difficult life. He died in prison. When a human is elevated to the divine the storm comes. The majority of the people will not resist the storm. But some dare to resist. They will not ‘do as the king of Egypt commanded them’.

 


 

FOOTNOTES

[23] See Ienaga Saburo, Taihei-Yo Senso Shi (History of the Pacific War). Iwanuarui Publishing House, Tokyo 1968, p. 241.

[24] Jinja Mondai to Kiristo Kyo (Issues relating to the Shinto Shrine and Christianity) ed., Tomura Masahiro, Shinkyo Publishing House, Tokyo 1976.

[25] ibid., pp. 173f.

What if Vincent Chin was an evangelical Chinese Christian? (Expanded)

December 5, 2016

This year, there has been an increase in anti-immigrant and racist incidents across the country. President-elect Donald Trump’s election campaign, which openly courted these sentiments, has been blamed for emboldening many people to perpetrate such acts. The church that I pastor was an apparent victim of such an attack just prior to the elections. Two backward swastikas and the word “die” were etched into a window and door in the back of our building as you can see in these photos:

We have not been able to find the perpetrators. When I posted these photos on my Facebook feed, I alluded to the elections, but provided little additional commentary. Most of my Facebook friends viewed this incident as an instance of a renewed climate of racism and nativism. Many, many friends and churches offered supportive words. Some even offered to help pay to replace the windows.

Many folks at my church, however, appeared more perplexed than angered or fearful. After all, this incident could have been a mere prank rather than an overtly racist act. Our large English and Chinese sign would have made us an easy target for pranksters or white nationalists. Even after local news reported numerous anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant incidents, my members did not seem to want to talk much more about it.

I think it’s safe to say that most Asian immigrant and conservative evangelical Christians are averse to addressing explicitly the structural sin that leads to racial discrimination, the violations of civil rights, and other seemingly minor acts of intimidation. Most of us are more comfortable engaging Family Values activism and remaining satisfied with being charitable. To paraphrase sociologist Christian Smith, like most of the evangelical world, most of us Chinese Christians do not have the “theological tool kit” to understand the systemic nature of racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice.

But what if more conservative Asian American evangelical Christians discovered that speaking against racial injustice, for example, is a core faith commitment? What if we learned how to break free from privatized spiritual habits? The editors at Inheritance Magazine challenged me to imagine an alternative history. So I came up with a fictionalized story of how an influential Chinese American evangelical family helped the Chinese Church in America to break their silence around racial injustice.

Because of space limitations in Inheritance Magazine, my original story was shortened considerably. So here is an expanded version. But remember, this never happened! Let me know what you think! – Tim

about-photo

Dr. Tony Yang


Update Dec. 6, 2016. Last June, fellow historian Dr. Tony Yang interviewed me to discuss racism and my Vincent Chen story in his “I’ll Look Into It” pod cast. [go to illlookintoit.org].

Here is the interview: 


Original Article: Timothy Tseng, “Chinese Evangelical Vincent Chin Pronounced Dead: What if Vincent Can had been an evangelical Christian?Inheritance Magazine (June 2016): 34-37

NOTE: In this story, Truman Wong, Chinese Evangelical Missionary Society and Go for Christ Missions, the narrator and his family are fictitious. The rest of the story is based on actual historical accounts.

San Francisco, California

June 20, 1982

“Why was he in a place like that?” Mom nearly shouted into the phone. “Okay, we’ll pray for him and for you. Please let us know if anything changes.”

Mom hung up the phone and returned to the dinner table. She could barely contain her agitation. “That was your aunt Lily. Cousin Vincent is in the hospital now. Very badly beaten. In a coma. Two men were arrested. They were white.”

“What happened?” Flora and I asked in unison.

“She’s not sure what happened. Vincent was at a topless club last night. We don’t know why he was beaten so badly.”

“What about his wedding? Are we still going to Detroit next week?”

“Flora!” mom was agitated. “We should be praying for Vincent!”

My sister Flora just graduated high school but had the sensitivity of a fifth grader. But she was right. Our family was planning to attend Vincent and Vikki’s wedding next week. But Vincent was in the hospital and everything was up in the air.

It’s not as if our families were very close. Mom and Vincent’s mom were not real sisters. They met at the Chinese Bible Church (CBC) of Detroit back in the early 60s before the church moved into the suburbs. Cousin Vincent had been recently adopted. Even though Uncle David was an American World War II vet, he worked all his life in Chinese laundries. Brought over from Canton province in China as a war bride, Aunt Lily also worked in laundries and restaurants. She found a support network at the church and mom became her best friend. At that time, dad and mom started the Chinese Evangelical Missionary Society (CEMS) at CBC. Years later, as CEMS grew into one of the largest Chinese para-church organizations in North America, our family moved to the Bay Area.

When CBC moved to Detroit’s northern suburbs, Lily and Vincent stopped attending. They said that the church was too far away, but I suspect that its new middle-class Mandarin-speaking professional members made it less comfortable for the working-class Cantonese-speaking Chins. But after Vincent’s dad died last year, Aunt Lily and Vincent started going to CBC again. Mom and Aunt Lily renewed their friendship. We heard that cousin Vincent was making his way into computer graphics field (whatever that was) and looking to purchase a new house.[1] His mom was planning on moving in with him and Vikki. We were especially delighted to learn that Vincent and Vikki had re-committed their lives to Christ and had started to attend the English ministry at CBC.

But for some inexplicable reason , Vincent was at a topless bar. And now everything was up in the air.

March 16, 1983

Instead of a wedding, we made the trip to Detroit for the funeral. We found out that Vincent’s friends persuaded him to have a bachelor’s party at the Fancy Pants strip club for one last fling. Such a tragic decision for a guy whose life was heading in the right direction. Everyone was glad that Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were apprehended. The good folks at CBC encouraged Lily and Vikki to forgive as they awaited the hearings. But Aunt Lily, having lost her husband and her son over the past two years, confessed that forgiveness was the last thing on her mind.

Today, however, Judge Charles Kaufman had found Ebens and Nitz guilty of manslaughter. But he sentenced each of them to just three years probation, a $3,000 fine, and no jail time. No prosecuting attorney was present and neither Lily nor any witnesses were called to testify.

“Are you certain that you want to do this, Lily?” mom had been on the phone for over an hour.

“Yes! Vincent was my only son. And I cannot rest until there is justice for him! He needs to rest in peace, too. I am all alone now and really need your help.” We could tell Aunt Lily was crying bitterly as her voice shrieked over the phone.

After praying with Aunt Lily, mom and dad gathered our family for a discussion. When she shared the details of Judge Kaufmann’s ruling, we were all shocked.

Lily’s very upset. She wants to appeal the ruling,” mom said. “and she wants our support to hire legal counsel. She will ask for help from CBC and the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council.”Despite thinking that racial prejudice was behind the light sentencing, we didn’t want to entertain that thought any further. Nevertheless we decided to donate some money for Aunt Lily’s appeal.

June 5, 1983

Our family dinner conversation was tense.

“I want to go to the rally,” Flora insisted. “I’ll be safe. It’s being organized by some Asian American churches in the Bay Area.”

“Which churches?” asked dad.

“The Chinese Community Church of Berkeley, a couple of Japanese congregations, I think. I know that Chinese Presbyterian Church of San Francisco and folks from Cameron House are involved.”

“Well, I’m not sure we should associate with liberal Christians. The greatest Chinese evangelists taught us to avoid them. They care too much about worldly affairs instead of preaching the gospel. That’s what John Sung concluded after his studies at Union Theological Seminary. And he was right. After the war, these Christians compromised with the Chinese Communists. Chinese evangelicals should focus on preaching the gospel and building up our churches.”

“But most of my InterVarsity Christian Fellowship friends will be there, too” Flora said. “So will many local American-born Chinese evangelicals. This isn’t about fellowshipping with non-Christians or liberals! It’s about speaking up for justice. And isn’t that part of the bible, too?”

Detroit’s Chinese community had gone ballistic over Judge Kaufman  and refusal to acknowledge their anger. Yes, the American auto industry was tanking, but blaming someone who looked like a Japanese person for it and then beating him to death… and then that judge’s sentence made me boil over. I was especially outraged when I learned that Kaufmann said, when questioned about the sentencing, that Ebens and Nitz “aren’t the kind of men you send to jail. You fit the punishment to the criminal, not the crime.” How could a statement like that NOT diminish the value of Vincent Chin’s life?

American Citizens for Justice (ACJ) was formed in late March to coordinate the community outcry. Members of twenty groups in Detroit formed ACJ, including the Detroit Buddhist Church, the Chinese Community Church, and Chinese Bible Church. Their legal team appeared to have found evidence of racial discrimination when one of the dancers reported hearing Ebens making racist epithets at Vincent and his companions before the fight broke out. They sought federal civil rights investigation into the case. ACJ also mobilized many groups to raise national attention and apply public pressure for a fair sentencing. On May 9 about 1,000 marchers rallied in downtown Detroit to protest the sentences. Rallies were planned for a number of major cities, including the one upcoming in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“But I don’t see how making all this ruckus with angry rallies will help,” dad opined. “Isn  If this wasn

As the General Secretary of an important Chinese evangelical para-church organization, he was never expected to speak on a public issue. While increasing number of younger Chinese Christians were urging him to address the Vincent Chin case, he correctly ascertained that CEM’s support base would be highly critical of any venture into the social arena. Dad was feeling the pressure and seemed genuinely torn.

Foe instance, most expected the Chinese Community Church, a member of the liberal United Church of Christ denomination, to be part of ACJ’s effort, But we were taken by surprise by CBC  In fact, CBC circulated a letter to Chinese evangelicals and encouraged them to pray and seek justice for Vincent and Lily Chin. They wanted dad to write an editorial in the CEMS newsletter.

We were also surprised that the Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals (FACE) also took a public stance. Truman Wong wrote an editorial in the most recent issue of FACE’s quarterly newsletter, AboutFACE, that broached a public matter for first time ever. I shared with my dad this excerpt:

     Our brother in Christ, Vincent Chin, was not the perfect model of Christlikeness. But God was turning his life around. He was renewing his commitment to Jesus Christ and the Chinese Bible Church of Detroit….The God of the Bible is both forgiving and just. Out of love for him, his mother, Lily, and his fiancé, Vikki, we invite our fellow Chinese American evangelicals to speak out for justice. Even if you do not participate in upcoming rallies, please take time to study about biblical justice, to pray for a fair hearing, and send petitions to your local representatives.[2]

“Dad, please say something to all the Chinese churches.” Flora urged.

I interrupted, “God put you in a strategic position to give our churches the courage to raise up their voices. Don’t you remember George McKinney’s message at Urbana? At times, the church must speak up for what is right.”[3]

“And not just for Chinese Christians, but for everyone who suffers injustice,” Flora added. “Suffering for our faith doesn’t mean we have to remain silent. The next generation of Chinese American Christians will not want to be silenced.” Flora was making me proud. Just one year at Cal’s IV chapter and she was thinking like a prophet.

Mom looked directly at dad and finally spoke, “Stephen, I don’t think it is wise to remain silent. Our children need to know that we care about what they care about.”

“Okay. I’ll call Jeremiah and propose that CEMS and Go for Christ Missions make a joint statement.”

August 1, 1987

Today I start my first full-time pastorate at Chinese Bible Church in Detroit. It took me an extra year to finish up at Fuller Theological Seminary, but the delay was worth it. I was able to be part of some exciting developments. I’m not talking about the Vincent Chin case. That was a disaster. It started well enough. A federal investigation was opened, partly in response to the public pressure. In November 1983, Ebens and Nitz were indicted on two counts – violating Chin’s civil rights and conspiracy – by federal grand jury. The following June, Ebens was sentenced to 25 years in prison for violating Chin’s civil rights, but was released on a $20,000 bond. Nitz was cleared of all charges.  Then last September, a federal appeals court overturned Ebens’ conviction on a legal technicality (an attorney was accused of improperly coaching prosecution witnesses). This spring, the U.S. Department of Justice, facing intense public pressure, ordered a retrial to be held in Cincinnati, Ohio. But Ebens was cleared of all charges in May. In last month’s civil suit, Ebens was ordered to pay $1.5 million to the estate of Vincent Chin. However, he disposed of his assets and fled the state. Neither Ebens nor Nitz have spent a full day in jail for the beating death of Vincent Chin. Asian Americans are very dispirited, but new movements for racial justice – both secular and Christian – were launched.

Chinese evangelicals, in particular, have made remarkable progress. The 1983 joint statement from CEMS, Go for Christ Missions, and FACE found its way into just about every Chinese evangelical church and ministry in North America. This statement, based on the section on Social Responsibility in the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, encouraged Chinese American evangelicals to more deeply explore the meaning of biblical justice and social engagement. I was one of three seminarians invited to be on a commission created to study current issues, make recommendations, and implement social justice ministry programs on behalf of the Chinese church. I believe that the commission broadened the North American Chinese evangelical church’s social concerns to include poverty, gender discrimination, and other pressing issues. After the shooting death of Greg Owyang on June 30, 1985, this commission offered reflections about violence and gun control. Truman Wong’s Chinese ministry program at Fuller Seminary and other Chinese-language seminaries incorporated the commission’s resources social justice into their curriculum. Partnerships with Asian American activist organizations were forged. Chinese evangelicals are getting a reputation for being deeply engaged with most important issues affecting Asian Americans.

The work of the commission gave overseas-born and American-born Chinese evangelicals an opportunity to work together on common issues. This ameliorated some of the inter-generational tensions within the Chinese American churches.

But not everything has turned up roses. As my dad anticipated, financial support of the groups that issued the statement shrunk. Many well-known pastors were very critical of the statement and the commission’s work. Another Chinese organization was formed to counter our public stances with politically conservative alternatives. Oh well, at least these folks are also engaging the public square.

Neverthless, I think the best thing to come out of all this was Aunt Lily’s restored faith. Yesterday she told me that she recently contemplated returning to China because she was so disgusted with the U.S. justice system’s inability to be fair to racial minorities. But after witnessing how her son’s death inspired Asian Americans and Chinese Christians to fight for justice persuaded her to stay and share her story of struggle and inspiration. Occasionally she speaks at churches and public events, but she tells me that she prefers to simply talk to young people over tea. I think Aunt Lily is becoming a symbol of the struggle! [4]

SOURCES

“Murder of Vincent Chin” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Vincent_Chin

Lian Xi, Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2010)

Helen Zia, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People (New York, 2000) pp. 55-81

The Lausanne Covenant (1974). 5. Statement on Christian Social Responsiblity https://www.lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant
     We affirm that God is both the Creator and the Judge of all people. We therefore should share his concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men and women from every kind of oppression. Because men and women are made in the image of God, every person, regardless of race, religion, colour, culture, class, sex or age, has an intrinsic dignity because of which he or she should be respected and served, not exploited. Here too we express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. Although reconciliation with other people is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbour and our obedience to Jesus Christ. The message of salvation implies also a message of judgment upon every form of alienation, oppression and discrimination, and we should not be afraid to denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist. When people receive Christ they are born again into his kingdom and must seek not only to exhibit but also to spread its righteousness in the midst of an unrighteous world. The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities. Faith without works is dead. (Acts 17:26,31; Gen. 18:25; Isa. 1:17; Psa. 45:7; Gen. 1:26,27; Jas. 3:9; Lev. 19:18; Luke 6:27,35; Jas. 2:14-26; Joh. 3:3,5; Matt. 5:20; 6:33; II Cor. 3:18; Jas. 2:20)

NOTES

[1] http://racerelations.about.com/od/historyofracerelations/a/Remembering-Vincent-Chin.htm

[2] Chinese Bible Church actually did not participate in ACJ and did not give attention to the Vincent Chin case.

[3] George McKinney: Professing Christ In The City (Urbana 1981) https://urbana.org/urbana-81

[3] George McKinney: Professing Christ In The City (Urbana 1981) https://urbana.org/urbana-81

[4] The real Lily Chin returned to China in 1987.

Korean American Christian history contest

January 22, 2014

In the interest of promoting the history of Asian American Christianity, I’d like to announce Asian American Christian Legacy’s first blog/essay contest! (Deadline March 31, 2014)

Here are the details…

Please submit a blog or short essay about a Korean American Christian who played a significant role in Korean American, Asian American, and/or overall American Christian history (In the future, we will seek other themes. But for this contest, we’d like to encourage more engagement in the Korean American Christian experience).

David K. Yoo, Contentious Spirits. Religion in Korean American History. 1903-1945. (2010)

The winner of this contest will receive a free copy of David K. Yoo’s book Contentious Spirits: Religion in Korean American History. 1903-1945 (2010) and a $50 gift certificate.

For more information about the book go to this link:

http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=18209

Dr. David K. Yoo is currently the Director of the Asian American Studies program at UCLA. He and I go way back! He received his M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and Ph.D. from Yale University. I completed my M.Div. and Ph.D. from Union Seminary (NY) at the same time. We’ve worked together on a number of ecumenical and academic projects over the years. For example, one my favorite projects was an essay about race relations for Sojourners. Here is the link to “The Changing Face of America” (1998).

It has been a privilege for me to partner with David and be considered his friend! I’m delighted to make his book available

Criteria for selecting the winner:

1. Email me the essay/blog/photos/video links no later than March 1, 2014.
2. I will judge the winning entry (with consultation with others who are familiar with the history of Korean American Christianity) by March 31, 2014.
3. The winning essay/blog will be cross-posted on the Asian American Christian Legacy Facebook page (and my blog if the winner is okay with this).
4. Criteria for selecting the winner. Please address these questions:
Does the essay/blog…
– avoid excessive academic terminology or technical jargon? The blog/essay should be accessible to a general audience.
– avoid hagiography? (e.g., only treating the subject heroically). Allow your subject to be fully human – one who is animated by complex motives and desires.
– pay enough attention to the interaction between the individual you write about and his or her historical contexts? Do race, ethnicity, culture, and politics – as well as Christian faith – affect (or is affected by) the individual? So don’t just write about a person who was a powerful evangelist or an incredible church planter.
– provide proper footnotes and attributions? The blog/essay should be familiar with relevant historical issues and historiography.
– include photos and/or audio-video materials? Though these are not required, they will be strongly considered in the final selection.

Any questions? Feel free to contact me.

Thanks!

Tim Tseng

Book review of Scott Zesch, _The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871_ (2012).

Cross posting a book review. – Tim Tseng

H-ETHNIC REVIEW

Scott Zesch. The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871. New York Oxford University Press, 2012. Illustrations. xii + 283 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-975876-0.

Reviewed by Sharon Sekhon (The Studio for Southern California History, University of California-Fullerton)

Published on H-Ethnic (March, 2013) Commissioned by Amy J. Johnson

Scott Zesch’s The Chinatown War is an important study about the October 24, 1871, killing of eighteen Chinese men and boys, an event that gave Los Angeles its first international notoriety. In relaying this history, Zesch weaves together the stories and storytelling of this tragic event. Historians have long grappled with nineteenth-century Chinese California but have done so in ways that have privileged a top down and/or institutional approach, relying on the scant historical record: legislation, court records, and public documents. Immigration historians, influenced by Robert Park’s Chicago School of Sociology, have used assimilation as the model from which to measure a success driven narrative of the Chinese experience. Other historians have focused on the possibility or impossibility of the Chinese to ever be considered “American” by dominant nineteenth-century society. More recent histories have included a global consideration of immigration in addition to local networks of support. In this continuum, very little has been written on the Chinese Massacre, and it has been presented as an extension of an Anglo-centered story. The Chinese undoubtedly were victims of a xenophobic and anti-Christian society that exploited their labor and them as political foes when it suited. And the public violence exacted against the Chinese served as immediate and long-term lessons to Chinese immigrants’ place in Los Angeles hierarchy.

Zesch, an independent scholar, drops any attempts at integrating these tidy narratives into a larger historiography. He provides the messy and often contradictory details that make history compelling and perhaps more accessible to our own chaotic lives. Concerned with how cultures clash in different historical contexts, Zesch has authored several significant histories including fictional accounts as well as the acclaimed history of his great-great-great uncle in he Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier (2004). The Chinatown War is a direct and intimate look into one of the most horrific instances of mob violence in Los Angeles history with a focus on the human agents; the complicated series of events during the riots; and the role of Los Angeles’ law enforcement before, during, and after the massacre. Not only does Zesch aptly put this event into its proper contexts, but he also demonstrates the diverse responses by Los Angelenos to the Chinese. Whenever possible, Zesch uses the testimony and writings of the Chinese to share their hitherto unshared point of view. This book is a recovery project that gathers new information on the years leading up to the 1871 event and subsequent court cases.

The Chinatown War is organized into two sections. Part 1 explores the foundations of Chinese life in Los Angeles, documenting the reasons individuals came to California; the lawlessness in the area, the societies and institutions that the Chinese formed to navigate and prosper in such a hostile environment; and the much-publicized differences between the Chinese and the rest of the population. Part 2 builds on the foundations established in part 1 to show how these factors shaped the events leading up to the Chinese Massacre. Zesch breaks new ground in sharing not only the details of the night, but also the events leading up to October 24 that were three years in the making; the massacre was one in a series of hate crimes against the Chinese. As the book’s title conveys, that day was brutal in a war on the Chinese and not an isolated event. Sources include court records, newspaper accounts, and memoirs from Anglo-American “pioneers” from the mid- to late nineteenth century. Zesch shows that much of the vitriolic rhetoric against the Chinese in local newspapers was reprinted from publications in San Francisco and northern California, home to the nativist Workingmen’s Party.

Missing from Zesch’s investigation is an in-depth analysis of the sources. The author undoubtedly provides a critical lens to all of the content and discusses the impermanence of the Chinese from historical memory. However, a more thorough examination of the motivations behind the local presses and memoirs would substantiate this telling of the Chinese experience in the mid- to late nineteenth century.

This book is rich with reproduced source material. Included are advertisements, photographs, drawings, and maps from local archives, such as the Huntington Library and the Seaver Center for Western History Research. Zesch’s informative captions provide a visual materiality to the detailed history. For example, included is a nondescript black-and-white photograph from the Seaver Center with the following caption: “This 1869 photograph shows Commercial Street from its T-intersection with Main Street, looking east toward Herman Heinsch’s two-storied saddle and harness shop (which was replaced by the present-day Federal Building). Three Chinese were hanged from a wagon parked on the south (right) side of the street”. The Chinatown War situates its subjects geographically whenever possible, and provides information on the site of an event in relationship to its current location.

While the entire book is captivating, chapter 4, “Daughters of the Sun and Moon,” on the wretched lives of Chinese women is especially illuminating. It provides an unflinching look at Los Angeles’ seen and public Chinese women and extrapolates on the lives of hidden married Chinese women. Zesch demonstrates how the conditions for human trafficking and treatment of Chinese women left some of them continually brutalized and dying alone, destitute in back alleys.

The Chinatown War is an ideal candidate for educators teaching courses on Los Angeles and the history of the West, as well as general surveys on the nineteenth century, sociology, and American studies. While the book uses Los Angeles as its example, the lessons drawn from this case study are applicable to a nation that continues to struggle with immigration, controlled networks of information, and its history.

Citation: Sharon Sekhon. Review of Zesch, Scott, The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871. H-Ethnic, H-Net Reviews. March, 2013.

URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=37048

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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