"In the Eye of the Typhoon: Aspirations of Buddhists and Catholics in Turbulent Hong Kong

PhD defended at: 

Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia)

Author: 

Dr. Mariske Westendorp

Defended: 

2016

This thesis wishes to contribute to the current scholarly debate on urban religion. This debate focuses predominantly on the visibility and materiality of religious practices and symbols in the urban environment; on the effect of migration (both rural-to-urban and transnational) on the religious landscape of the city; and on religion in cities in the ‘secularised’ West. My research aims to correct some of these biases by shedding light on the ways religion features in an Asian urban setting by residents in not-always public and/or visible ways. I argue that life in cities is not only shaped by religious practices and symbols, but equally by religious orientations, which provide a lens through which residents see and evaluate the complex and at times unsettling urban environment. To that end, I investigate the experiences of Hong Kong middle class Buddhists (primarily Theravāda Buddhists) and Catholics concerning tensions between the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) post-1997 Handover. These tensions culminated in the so-called Umbrella Movement, during which an estimated 1.2 million people occupied the streets of urban Hong Kong from late September to mid-December 2014.

The thesis takes its point of departure in the realisation that there is antagonism between Mainland China and Hong Kong. Fears regarding this antagonism are especially expressed by members of Hong Kong’s middle class, who see their aspirations threatened and who describe their lives to be situated in political and socio-economic turbulence. This particular turbulence inscribes itself in middle class Buddhist and Catholic orientations. At the same time, these orientations shape their attitudes towards the changes and challenges they face.

In the three main chapters that constitute this thesis (which follow a brief exploration of the position of Buddhism and Catholicism in historical and contemporary Hong Kong) I investigate how specific urban circumstances and religious orientations mutually influence each other, shaping people’s day-to-day city lives. I do this by exploring three themes. The first theme deals with how and why my informants emphasise tradition and universalism as the stable foundations of their religions. These foundations provide them with an anchor in the uncertain political environment in which they live. The second theme regards personal accountability as a central tenet in my informants’ religious beliefs, appointing their role and position in their religion and in the world. The specific notion of religious accountability shapes the way in which my informants negotiate the threat Mainland China poses to their socio-economic aspirations. Regarding the third theme, I investigate how, by trying to (re)gain the rights to the city during the Umbrella Movement, my interlocutors highlight their religious aspirations of salvation as a possible goal in the here and now. In all these themes, global, local, religious, and non-religious factors combine to give shape to life in the city of Hong Kong.

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International Insitute for Asian Studies