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Trained as an urban planner, human geographer, and architectural historian, I study the interrelationships between people and the built environment around them. This pursuit allows me to understand how migrants/immigrants in China and the United States invest new meanings into the places they call home. In an era of rising anti-Asian violence amidst the pandemic, my current research asks how Asian American spaces—such as Chinatowns and Asian American homes—that once bore racial stigmas are again becoming the forefront of racial hostility and aesthetic contempt in the public gaze. By analyzing architectural archives, historical ethnographies, and other archival sources, I have charted an active effort to interpret these spaces through the eyes of the marginalized whose journey through life was drastically different from those in power. 

My work is situated at the intersection of Asian American studies, architectural history, material culture studies, and anthropology of foodways. There are four main areas of research: 1) placemaking through art and architecture, 2) ethnic food landscapes in America, 3) the architecture of Chinatown, 4) community-engaged public history.

PLACEMAKING THROUGH ART AND ARCHITECTURE

Landscapes of Resistance: Chinese Placemaking across the Pacific

 

My current book manuscript traces the subtle forms of resistance practiced by Chinese immigrants from 1880 to 1950. I use the term “placemaking” to underline tactics that were often ephemeral, discrete, and sometimes intangible, but nevertheless allowed Chinese immigrants to contest the racial hierarchies embedded in their everyday spaces. For example, Chinese domestic servants reconceived service quarters as social spaces where they cooked and consumed their own cultural food. Spatial and culinary practices such as these allowed Chinese servants—as well as Chinese restaurant and home owners—to carve out new avenues for personal liberation and cultural expression. By unearthing new evidence from architectural archives, food material culture, and historical ethnographies, this interdisciplinary study confronts a chief methodological challenge: the lack of first-person accounts from Chinese immigrants in historical research. My goal is to employ this previously overlooked evidence and conduct spatial inquiries into written records. In doing so, I aim to center the voices and agency of Chinese immigrants, detailing how they persevered in an era of racial exclusion.

 

Related publication in progress:

  • “Homemaking in White Suburbia: The Jue Joe Ranch, 1919–1958.” Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum. Forthcoming in Fall 2024 (Volume 31.2).

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Camp Reynolds today, showing the living quarters of high-ranking officers on the slope, south of the parade grounds, where Chinese servants worked. Courtesy of Angel Island Conservancy.

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Accompanying colleagues who attended the 2009 International Geographical Union (IGU) Conference in Beijing to visit the 798 Art District in Beijing. 

My earlier work in China explores how art districts—the artworks on display and the built environment inside—shaped people's sense of place and city-based identities, drawing on the works of geographers such as Yi-Fu Tuan and Edward Relph. This study received the Committee Award for Excellence in Area Studies from the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers in 2012.

Publications resulting from this research:

  • “Art as Place and the Place as Art: Comparing the Beijing and Shanghai Artist Districts.” Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers 75 (2013): 217. 

  •  With Shangyi Zhou and Xiang Kong. “The Structuralistic and Humanistic Mechanism of Placeness: A Case Study of 798 and M50 Art Districts.” Geographical Research 30, no.9 (2011): 1566-1576. ​

  • With Xiang Kong and Junjie Qian. “The Exploration of the Influences of Local Cultures on Cultural and Creative Clusters: A Case Study of 798 and M50 Art Districts.” Commentary on Cultural Industry in China, 15 (2011): 366-380. 

ETHNIC FOOD LANDSCAPES IN AMERICA

My interest in Asian American history began with Chinese restaurants. When I first moved from Beijing to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was struck by the scarcity of ethnically distinctive architecture in the city except for the presence of local Chinese restaurants. One occasion of dining at one of the former restaurants owned by the Toy family inspired me to begin this strand of research. Later, I also examined the domestic kitchens and food landscapes of Hmong immigrants in Milwaukee.

Publications and talks resulting from this research:

  • “Toy’s Chinese Restaurants: Exploring the Political Dimension of Race through the Built Environment.” In American Chinese Restaurants: Society, Culture and Consumption, edited by Jenny Banh and Haiming Liu, 285-300. New York: Routledge, 2020. 

  • “Cooking in the Hmong Cultural Kitchen.” In Routledge Handbook of Food in Asia, edited by Cecilia Leong-Salobir, 89-105. New York: Routledge, 2019.

  • “Hmong Food Landscape.” Picturing Milwaukee: The 2015 Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures Field School—Washington Park Neighborhood. (link)

  • “C&S Supermarket” Picturing Milwaukee: The 2015 Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures Field School—Washington Park Neighborhood. (link

  • “A Chinese New Year Celebration: American Chinese Restaurants” for edited book American Chinese Restaurants: Society, Culture and Consumption, Chinese Historical Society of America, Zoom, 2021. (link)

Cooking in the Hmong Cultural Kitchen
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THE ARCHITECTURE OF CHINATOWN

Interview with Vox Media, 2021.

Interview with Emma Marie Chiang, 2021.

As an activist-scholar, I constantly ask myself why I do what I do and how will my research reshape the public perceptions of Asians in America. I found some of my answers in the architecture of Chinatown. I embarked on this strand of research during the peak of the pandemic when Chinatowns across the globe began to experience rising racial hostility. My research of San Franciso's Chinatown and Los Angeles's New Chinatown reveals that embedded in the architecture of Chinatowns are not only the historical roots of racism but also the cultural resilience of the Chinese American communities who worked and lived in these spaces for generations. 

Publication, talks, and interviews resulting from this research:

  • “Joy Yuen Low: The Architectural Formation of Los Angeles’s New Chinatown.” In The Five Chinatowns: Chinese Americans and the Creation of Multi-Ethnic Los Angeles, edited by Will Gow, Kelly Fong, and Isabela Quintana (accepted for inclusion).

  • “Built for Food: Chinese Restaurants in San Francisco’s Chinatown,” Talk Story, 1882 Foundation, Virtual on Zoom.

  • Interviewd by Emma Marie Chiang. Saving the Far East Cafe: San Francisco Chinatown’s Last Banquet Hall. Good Medicine Picture Company Chinatown Shorts Series. 

  • Interviewd by Ranjani Chakraborty. The Surprising Reason behind Chinatown’s Aesthetics. Vox Media. 

  • Interviewed by Janelle Bitker. “S.F. Greenlights $1.9 Million for Chinatown, and Restaurants Like 100-year-old Far East Cafe are Already Getting Relief.” San Francisco Chronicle, Jan 21, 2021. (Link)

COMMUNITY-ENGAGED PUBLIC HISTORY

The goal of my research is to write histories about people whose experiences are fragmentary or entirely absent from official accounts and institutional archives. For that reason, I work closely with community organizations and local residents to document their oral histories and to produce public history about these historically underrepresented communities in both written and documentary forms. My current work focuses on the history of Chinese businesses in twentieth-century Milwaukee (second book project funded by the Oral History Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities) and Chinese American architects in Mid-Century California. 

Research report, talks, and film resulting from this research:

  • With Sujin Eom. “Chinese American Architects and Designers.” In Rediscovering Asian American and Pacific Islander Architects & Designers, edited by Gail Dubrow, Sean H. McPherson, and Yao-Fen You, 50-79. New York: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2023.

  • “Places of Their Own: Learning Chinese American Legacy in Milwaukee through Oral History,” Organization of Chinese Americans-Wisconsin, Milwaukee Jewish Federation, 2023.

  • “Asian American and Pacific Islander Architects and Designers: Findings and Next Steps,” Society of Architectural Historians (SAH Connect), Virtual on Zoom, 2023. 

  • Places of Their Own. A short documentary film on the history of Chinese laundries, restaurants, and grocery stores in Milwaukee, WI. Executive Producer. 

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Places of Their Own, co-produced with Emily Hiltunen, 2023. 

Roundtable “Asian American and Pacific Islander Architects and Designers: Findings and Next Steps,” 2023.

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