The influences of Chinese Christians in Vancouver are on the rise. Half a million Chinese lives in the scenic city on Canada’s West Coast, which is the highest concentration of Chinese population in the entire North America.
BBC World Service Heart and Soul did a special coverage on how the population in this British Common Wealth city celebrates their strong evangelical faith with the ancient Chinese traditions.
Matt Wells, the BBC broadcast correspondents, interviewed Chinese Christian leaders in the evangelical church and business field in the booming suburb of Richmond, which is a city within the metro-Vancouver area.
In the 1980s till the late 90s, Vancouver is known as “Hong-couver” for the large number of immigrants coming from Hong Kong. Besides those from Hong Kong, immigrants from Taiwan and other south-east Asian countries settled in Canada. Yet, the new wave of Chinese immigrants in the last decade has been those from mainland China, predominantly those belonging to the upper-middle class.
Seeing the growing Chinese immigrants from mainland China, the Chinese churches from all protestant denominations started Mandarin Sunday services and programs that catered to the new-comers. There are over 100 Chinese churches of all denominations in Vancouver.
Wells said he hears of younger generation of churchgoers are starting churches of their own, where English is the main language of worship. He also hears of local Canadians view wealthy Chinese immigrants with suspicion, which has its roots in Canada’s past discrimination against the Chinese, who were denied full rights until 1967.
As this is the year of the snake, BBC’s Hearts and Soul seeks to identify the impact that the large population of Chinese Christians is having on the region and the secular multi-cultural society in which they live.
In the 19th century gold rush, the first Chinese immigrants came and helped establish Vancouver. A few decades later they built much of the Canadian pacific railway, joining this picturesque port with the rest of the country – a feat that still isn’t fully acknowledged in the beautiful British Columbia. Chinese-Canadians were given full rights as citizens to vote in federal elections only after Canada signed the UN charter of Human Rights after Second World War. The country saw the contributions of Chinese-Canadians, who served in World War II, and finally gotten rid of the Chinese Exclusion Act. On June 22, 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, representing the minority Conservative government, issued a public apology and redress to the historic Head Tax, calling it a “grave injustice.”
Wells asked a pharmacist named Sam, who is a practicing Christian, on how does ethnic unity influence Chinese-Canadians in joining churches. Sam said a customer of his invited him on several occasions to join a Christian winter conference locally, but he hesitated at first. However, he eventually joined because his customer had already registered for him. It was at the conference that he became a Christian and is now actively involved in sharing the gospel. He added that one of the ways Chinese parents would come to attend church and become a believer is through seeing the positive changes in their children, who were sent to attend children’s ministry programs like Awana offered at churches.
Bill Chu, chair of Canadian for Reconciliation Society, a Christian group, told Wells that many Chinese are moving to Vancouver, because it is so close to China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. In recent years, Canada has benefitted from the influx of cash as reflected in Vancouver’s real estate market, marked as the second highest in the world now, he said.
“Through media, certain people within church system…are glorifying the [China] leadership that they have now,” said Chu, according to BBC. Chinese suffered discrimination under Canada’s policies until 1967. In the 70s, the government introduced multi-culturalism, but failed to acknowledge the very history of Chinese in Canada, he said.
Although the Chinese helped built the trans-pacific railroad and worked in the gold mines, Chu said, “In the average Canadian minds, they still look at the local Chinese as aliens without any real history here.”
Queenie Chu, who isn’t a believer and chief executive of SUCCESS, the largest Chinese community service agency in the city, told BBC that Christianity has been good for growth.
Wells commented on how he heard that SUCCESS and Christian churches have been the biggest booster for growth among the Chinese community. Chu said there are commonalities, where both offer services for new-comers settling in Canada, including those for seniors and for the low-income individuals and families. “In a way, we help those who otherwise would be deprived,” she said.
Chinese-Canadian Christian Stephen Cheung, who was born in Hong Kong and lived in London and is a financial analyst, shared with BBC’s Heart and Soul his experience as a Christian businessmen in Vancouver. He said that while some of his agents are Christians, their Christian faith “is a good driving force” to want to doing something mutually beneficial for the clients. “For those coming to a new country, having a church home, where they have people they can trust and love in return, is a good thing,” he said.
BBC’s correspondent visited Peace Evangelical Church, and the Canadian Martyr’s Catholic Church located in Richmond on New Year’s Day. Wells said the church pastor of Peace Evangelical Church did not mention of the New Year, which has its roots in Buddhism and myths. He said that the lack of Christian root seemed to trouble some of the more pious Christian evangelicals. About a mile away among the Roman Catholics, it is a different story – congregants are wearing red, celebrating the festivity with music and a buffet style of food offered after the church service.
The pastor of the Catholic Church, Father Paul Chu, told BBC, “We have a cultural of 5,000 years of celebrating Chinese New Year. Together with our Christianity, which is about 2,000 years, when these two cultural merge together, sometimes we find it we have to adjust for those who believe in God, we know that Christianity somehow purifies our civilization, which is beautiful.”
While many of the Chinese New Year cultures are based on myths, such as wearing red to ward off mythical beast, Chiu said, “Churches now days put the gospel into the culture.”
Moreover, when asked about the independent protestant denominations, Chu said that the Catholic churches have joined some in voicing out their oppositions to gay-marriage and other social concerns in the city and the province.
BBC correspondent reported that Catholics and Evangelicals alike are acknowledging the generational divide by introducing English language services. He visited Richmond Chinese Alliance Church, where two hundred mainly young worshippers gathered during the English service on New Year.
“There are attempts to develop a more distinctive theology. I think as a second-generation English-speaking Chinese-Canadian reflecting more on scripture and what that has to do with their everyday lives,” said Justin Si, who is getting his PhD on Cantonese Protestants in the Vancouver area, BBC reports.
Si, who moved to Vancouver when his father started a church in the 1980s, said the evangelical churches are working at adapting to a new wave of Mandarin speakers from mainland China, and the needs of young believer.
“I think the practices are going to be different, and the question is can we find somebody to lead that congregation within the larger church structure. And again, this varies from congregation to congregation,” he told BBC. “There are even churches planted by second-generation Chinese pastors. This sort of mirrors what is happening in southern California in the 1990s called the “silent exodus” with the Korean-American church. Here, those churches are beginning to emerge.”
The BBC correspondents then asked if there are concerns about the evangelical church being too inward looking as a result of the strong identity. Lee responded, “I think we are trying to integrate into the community. We believe in the Canadian mosaic. There are many different ethnic groups, and Chinese being a very strong group in Richmond, but we, nevertheless, believe that culture is not antagonistic to our faith. Yet, if by culture you mean worshipping idols, then we are not into that. If you mean by normal customs…in fact, Chinese New Year is to celebrate new beginnings and new blessings from God. If you work hard, then you will succeed. I think the Calvinistic and puritan work ethnics kind of fit with Chinese emphasis on diligence and hard work, blending together quite well.”
Lee added, “Our aim is not to become rich in our own. In our services this morning, because we were on the book of Nehemiah, taking care of the poor and justice are part of our emphasis as well. We’re to share with other what God has given us.”
Wells then interviewed the Chinese employees of Boeing’s subsidiary Aeroinfo, who gathered at RCAC that evening. One of the participants said that it is tradition of China to gather once a year and make dumplings together. While most of their family members are Buddhists and Christianity is not that popular in China, they have been greatly affected by the Christians in Canada upon moving here. When asked if she will eventually join a church, she said, “We all believe in destiny. If something leads you there, then you are there.”
The crowd sang secular Chinese New Year song and the music gets more spiritual a bit later, which is part of the church’s soft evangelism efforts, but none seems to mind, according to BBC.
The BBC reporter also visited a gathering in downtown Vancouver Chinatown on New Year’s day, where politicians and community leaders exchange greetings in a shopping center. Wells said, “Vancouver is a progressive city with proud secular traditions. The biblical conservatives that come with many evangelical Chinese congregations are becoming a worry to the liberal establishment. Frustration is mounting. The city tolerance might be under attack from Chinese Christian values.
Douglas Tood, who writes about spirituality, religion, diversity, and philosophy for The Vancouver Sun, told BBC, “There tends to be quite a bit of tolerance and diversity, and certainly a lack of discussion. There are whispers about what are these Chinese people doing coming here and becoming conservatives. Some of the Chinese Christian congregations have been at the forefront of anti-homosexual campaigns. Some of them have to do with local secular school board introducing anti-homophobia programs. It looks like they are not succeeding. I pick up a certain naivety from them. I don’t think they think they are being political, but they are just standing up for what’s right.”
BBC correspondent observed that it is only a small percentage of the Chinese in British Columbia that are advocating against abortion and gay marriage, which starkly contrasts the culture of U.S. voters just south of the border on these moral issues. In addition, the second-generation of leaders may eventually steer their sterner parents in a live and let live approach in the beautiful city with the forested road and close view of the mountain covered in snow during winter and spring.
Still, Chinese evangelicals have been exercising their rights as Canadian citizens to vote to place their conservative candidate of choice to represent them. Among various moral issues, they have also fought to shut down the supervised drug injection site located in downtown Vancouver Eastside. Vancouver is the only city in North America that provides a legal facility for drug addicts to administer heroin and cocaine and other type of substances. This site is government sanctioned and funded.
In conclusion, BBC Heart and Soul correspondent said, “Chinese Christians want their fair share of the city that they are finally helping to shape.”