Researcher of the Month – April 2020, Ann Gillian Chu

Ann Gillian Chu is a PhD (Divinity) candidate in the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics, St Mary’s College, the University of St Andrews. She is jointly supervised by Dr John Perry and Prof. Mario Aguilar. Her research interests cover the intersection between theological ethics, political theology, and theological anthropology in the context of contemporary Hong Kong.

Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?

I grew up in Hong Kong as an ethnically Chinese Canadian citizen and graduated from the University of Edinburgh with Master of Arts (Honours) in English Language. In an unexpected turn of events, I became a Fellow of Chartered Certified Accountant (FCCA). After completing my accountancy qualification, I wanted to deepen my understanding of my Christian faith, which is why I completed my part-time Postgraduate Diploma in Theology with the Alliance Bible Seminary in Hong Kong. I enjoyed the rigorous academic study in theology so much that I quit my job as an accountant and moved to Vancouver, B.C. to complete a Master of Divinity at Regent College. All of this experience across multiple academic and professional fields, including chartered accountancy, public administration, tertiary education teaching, English language and linguistics, and religious work, broadened my horizon as an academic. Nonetheless, I have found it very difficult to transition from a taught master’s program to the unstructured, self-directed approach of doctoral-level research. Moving back to Scotland was a bit of a surprise for me, as well. I did not expect myself to enjoy living in St Andrews as much as I do since I have always lived in large-scale cities. Yet, I really enjoy the quaint university town vibe, bumping into friends everywhere and having inspiring conversations throughout the day.

Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area? 

I was born and raised in Hong Kong during the Sino-British Handover negotiations, an agreement that led to Hong Kong’s Handover from a British colonial rule with a laissez-faire government to a Chinese communist governance with a more autocratic regime. While Christianity was never firmly established in Hong Kong’s collective consciousness, Hong Kong has a small but strong Christian community that is engaged in exploring how their political practice can be reconciled with their Christian identity. As a Christian, I have a vested interest in trying to reconcile what it means to be an ethnically Chinese person from Hong Kong with Christian convictions. While I want to know how best to be a disciple of Christ in my own life experience, the localisation of this case study in Hong Kong does not negate its global significance or its transferability to various global contexts with diverse religious perspectives and belief systems. Like many places in the twenty-first century, Hong Kong is experiencing a shift toward more authoritarian or autocratic political orders, especially since the Handover. My work will provide a much-needed framework for thinking about the intersection of religious identity and civic engagement in non-democratic, non-Christendom societies. Through consideration of the Occupy Central Movement and the Umbrella Movement, I aim to provide a glimpse into the manner in which Hong Kong Christians engage with the public sphere and conduct their civic lives as lived theology.

 What are you currently, or about to start, working on?

My doctoral research looks at the ways Christians under Hong Kong’s non-democratic regime handle civic engagement, particularly through recent non-violent resistance, such as the Occupy Central and Umbrella Movements. I am in the second year of my PhD and have been conducting fieldwork research in Hong Kong from November 2019 to March 2020. Being in the field gives me space to think consciously about what is immediately apparent to me as a native, but inaccessible to outsiders, and be more critical of what is happening around me. Critical estrangement is about taking the IMG_4657familiar and taken-for-granted and making it seem strange. The process of having to keep a field journal gave me the space to think about it more analytically. I initially thought this place would be very familiar and all I would have to do is conduct the actual interviews since I am from Hong Kong. Yet my time in Hong Kong has been marked by the Anti-Extradition Legislation Amendment Bill protests and the coronavirus pandemic. As such, there is a sense of strange-yet-familiar characterising my fieldwork period. As my ethnographic fieldwork mainly consists of interviews and field observations, what is currently happening has immediate effects on my informants and their interpretation of concepts like democracy and human rights.

In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?

My research examines the role of religion in public life by asking questions regarding how the Christian community influenced and acted in recent political protests in Hong Kong. This topic is important for those outside of Hong Kong because, in our current historical moment, with the rise of China and India and the decolonisation of European power, a new world order is forming. These changes raise questions about ‘universal’ ideals regarding citizenship, engagement, politics, and religion. Since the majority of the world’s population adheres to some form of faith practice, religion will play a significant role in determining future events within this new political landscape. There is a need to explore the interlinkages between religion and national consciousness, which frame current debates over citizenship and to ask questions about the relationship between faith and public life. Likewise, we need to think of religion and engagement with the world alongside authoritarian versions of power, not just in a democratic society. Otherwise, we will not have enough adequate tools to understand current political events.

Image Credits: Ann Gillian Chu