Cover of Kathy Chin Leong’s new book on Chinatown

San Francisco’s Chinatown” book and trailer can be found here: https://www.chinatownbooksf.com 

Finding the Story of Chinatown and your community in God’s Story

Imagine if God were walking through Chinatown. Where would you see God? “Maybe God looks like an old Chinese grandma. Maybe God speaks Cantonese,Russian, or Spanish (all languages prevalent in Chinatown). Maybe God is smoking a cigarette. Maybe God smells like fish or herbs or incense. When we walk through Chinatown, we encounter a God who challenges us because Chinatown challenges us. Here, we meet God on God’s terms.” – Nate Lee, board member of Kingdom Rice

In a vicarious way, that’s how I imagined Dick and Kathy when they were researching for the book. They did not stay on the beaten tourist path; they dug deep into the stories of people. And though their book is not Christian per se, I believe these stories help illustrate God and his purposes. For example, they went into the SROs, led in by Chinatown’s respected leaders. Over and over, the book gives witness to how God is bringing about celebration amidst the shame. Even secular reviews of the book observe this overarching narrative. “New Chinatown photo book explores neighborhood’s journey ‘from shame to celebration'” is the title of one of many reviews of the book.

In late 2020, Kathy and I did a joint talk about her book and Chinatown. Kathy’s contribution was fascinating; through her secular book, she was helping tell the story of God in Chinatown, though implicitly. My job was to bring out that story explicitly, and how we all can find our story within this Chinatown narrative.

  1. How can the Chinatown story help illustrate our story in God’s?
  2. People from these nations are thirsting for an honor only God’s Story can ultimately give.
  3. What are next steps to bringing the Kingdom to our own Ohanas?

How can the Chinatown story help illustrate our story in God’s?

Part of this unfolding story is the fact that missions is no longer just across the oceans, it’s across the street, across the hall, in the market, or dancing next to us in Zumba class.

Consider the sheer migration of people into Bay Area cities from all throughout the world. There’s never been a time like this. Consider that in 1900, only 8% of the world’s population lived in cities. In 2014, that increased to 54%!

And consider WHO has moved into the Bay Area. (See this chart found at one of my partner ministries, Youth With a Mission, San Francisco)

In particular, there are two unprecedented dynamics that define the new frontiers of mission. They are the “Asianization” and urbanization of our world (urban theologian Ray Bakke named this trend 20 years ago). I already covered how the world is urbanizing. In addition, Asian culture and influence are sweeping the world. “Asia is here.” Whereas our Western world was once characterized with rugged individualism and the “Marlboro Man,” immigration and the onslaught of social media has brought “face” culture to the mainstream. Thirst for “face” is no longer a descriptor for Asians only. Everyone wants face, and the Church needs to embrace this a lot more than it does now.

With the nations at our doorstep, the Chinatown story points to the unfolding of the biblical story, a story that will see people from every nation, every ethnic group  worshipping our God in heaven. Cities like Bay Area ones have a front seat, and our Ohana culture plays a huge role to invite people to share in this story. Why?

People from these nations are thirsting for an honor only God’s Story can ultimately give.

Current Western seminary education AND mission organizations largely suppress biblical themes of honor and shame. With biblical word study technologies in our pockets, anyone can reveal the biblical weight of shame and honor; there’s really no excuse that a majority of reputable systematic theologies and Bible dictionaries fail to list shame and honor in their indices. To be fair, the themes are there, but buried deep, thanks to hundreds of years of Western dominance in theology. But take a look at how global Christianity has shifted from West to East, and North to South. Similarly, the moral imperative has shifted from guilt to shame. With all these unprecedented global shifts, sharing the Good News that God gives honor to the shamed (and not just righteousness for the guilty) is necessary.

You are already familiar with Jesus’ invitations to the least likely in many of his encounters to the most despised, outcast, ridiculed. And perhaps you’re already familiar with all the “shameful” characters contained within Jesus’ genealogy.  We know Jesus’ mission. But rarely is it expressed this way. Jesus reverses our shame. How much have you thought through any of Jesus encounters with that simple framework? Or for that matter, how much have we thought through the entire biblical story with that framework? How much have you shared your own testimony to others from a place of how God reversed your shame? It requires vulnerability; it requires being present in other people’s lives.

Consider these links:

Bringing the Kingdom to our own Ohanas.

“Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit.” Je 29:5, NKJV

Are apocalyptic-looking skies part of our new normal of disasters, loss, masks, and injustice? Under very different circumstances, the Israelites too had to accept a new normal. False prophets promised escape. Yet the Lord commanded the Israelites to settle into the new normal, to engage for the long haul, and to seek the peace in their city. How relevant these words are to us today to embrace this new normal and to seek the peace of our own communities, orange skies and all.

Christian history reveals times when Christianity rose during transitions and new normals (e.g. the early Church, communist regimes, previous pandemics). This is the time (during our pandemic) and the place (our increasingly diverse U.S.) to seek the peace of where we live.

Where do we go from here? 

I started offering immersions into SF’s neighborhoods as a way to frame the theology of honor-shame through the stories of the neighborhood’s peoples. This is why I found great interest in Kathy’s “shame to celebration” telling of Chinatown. This is a huge part of the Gospel often left out!  That said, let me invite you to a few next steps:

  • Consider buying Kathy Chin Leong’s new book (or look for it at the library): https://www.chinatownbooksf.com
  • To go a little deeper into the theology of honor-shame, I wrote a chapter for a book filled with the top thinkers, scholars, and practitioners on the subject.  “Honor, Shame, and the Gospel: Reframing Our Message and Ministry.”  My chapter is called “Sharing God’s Love in an Urban, Pluralistic Context.” If you’ve ever taken a missions course (e.g. Perspectives) or read on the subject, you’ll recognize some of the other authors.

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  • Consider subscribing to this blog.
  • Consider an immersion into Chinatown once restrictions are lifted. That might not be for a while. So for the short term, this post documents just a fraction of the immersion. I call them “immersions” because I want us to see, smell, feel the alleyways as disciples looking to seek the peace, not disciples looking for the best pork buns :).
  • Feel free to reach me at steve.hong@kingdomrice.org.

Biographies:

Kathy Chin Leong:

A mother of two, Kathy is a freelance writer who lives in Sunnyvale with her husband Frank Leong Jr.  As a second-generation American Born Chinese from San Francisco, she became a believer her senior year of high school. It was at San Jose Chinese Alliance Church where her faith was nurtured in the loving community of extremely caring brothers and sisters.  She graduated from San Jose State University with a degree in journalism. Over the years, she has dedicated her writing skills to the Lord whether it is teaching children at a writing camp, inspiring others to pen their personal testimonies, or crafting an article for a newspaper or magazine.

In 2019, the Lord brought forth an opportunity to write text for the coffee table photo book, San Francisco’s Chinatown.  It was then that God revealed that she had been unconsciously burying her ethnicity in order to embrace the American culture. During the writing of the book, God gave new eyes to see the same parks, shopping areas, restaurants, and movie theaters her family brought her to as a child.

By imparting His  heart for Chinatown, she now has a love for the community she once distained. God has not only redeemed Chinatown, He has redeemed her attitude, bringing a renewed sense of being God’s child as an ABC.

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