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May 9, 2022

Thai Americans & the Rise of Thai Food in the United States

There are around 300,000 Thai Americans but almost 5,000 Thai restaurants in the United States. To understand how Thai restaurants became so ubiquitous in the US, we dive into the history of how Thai cuisine arrived in the US before Thai immigrants started to arrive in large numbers, and how Thai Americans capitalized on the popularity of their food to find their niche in the US economy.

I’m joined in this episode by Associate Professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Dr. Mark Padoongpatt, author of Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Image Credit: “Thai chef Salapirom Phanita, from Pattaya Marriot hotel catering, prepares food in the forward-deployed amphibious dock landing ship USS Tortuga's (LSD 46) galley during a cooking exchange with U.S. Navy chefs as a part of exercise Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Thailand 2013. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Amanda S. Kitchner/Released).”

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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. Today, we're discussing Thai Americans and the history of Thai food in the United States. In the US today, there are somewhere around 300,000 people of Thai descent, nearly a third of whom live in California. There are over 5000 Thai restaurants in operation across the country. Surprisingly, Thai food arrived in the United States before most Thai immigrants did. In 1965, a white woman named Marie Wilson published the first Thai cookbook in the United States. It was called "Siamese Cookery." Unlike other Southeast Asian countries, Thailand hadn't been formally colonized after World War II, but it was home to a US military base, there to help the US keep an eye on China, and Americans began to visit Thailand. Marie Wilson's husband went to Thailand on a Fulbright teacher exchange program, and Marie, who joined him there, used her experience to collect recipes and then publish them. Other military, diplomatic and cultural visitors to Thailand also returned to the US with a taste for Thai food. By the time Thai immigrants started to arrive in the US in larger numbers, Americans who had any sense of Thai culture had learned it entirely from the perspective of food. On October 3, 1965, at Liberty Island, New York, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act into law. Johnson remarked that the old system with national origin quotas had been, "unAmerican in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought 1000s to these shores even before we were a country." One of the main effects of the new law was a marked increase in immigration from Asian countries. From 1960 to 1970, around 5000 Thais immigrated to the US. From 1970 to 1980, that number jumped to 44,000, and it continued to increase in subsequent decades. Many of the Thais who came to America in the first decades were students coming to study in Los Angeles and other parts of the country. And they were among the first to open restaurants. However, in the early restaurants, the ingredients were not really Thai ingredients. Instead, they were substituting more easily available Chinese ingredients. In 1972, Pramorte Tilakamonkul,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         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That led to a boom of Thai immigrants moving to the Los Angeles area, and Thai restaurants going up in the region as well, including Tilakamonkul's Royal Thai Restaurant on the west side of LA. The location of early Thai restaurants, so near Hollywood, meant that Hollywood stars got to know Thai food and the rise of celebrity culture helped to popularize the cuisine. Tilakamonkul's son, by the way, is celebrity chef, Jet Tila.

Although many cities have Chinatowns, it wasn't until 1999 that the first Thaitown in the world was recognized, a six block stretch of Hollywood Boulevard between Western and Normandy avenues in Los Angeles. Although the area is no longer populated primarily by Thai Americans, there has long been a Thai community there, and the stretch is home to Thai restaurants, shops and markets. It has been nicknamed by Thais as "Thailand's 77th province." The Thai government took an active interest in the popularity of Thai cuisine abroad, and pioneered gastro-diplomacy to improve their global reputation and increased tourism. In 2002, the Thai government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched its global Thai program, and various government agencies have been involved in a push to train chefs, research recipes, and export foods. In 2002, the Public Health Ministry published a book called "A Manual for Thai Chefs Going Abroad." The Thai Foreign Ministry honors some restaurants abroad, with the Thai Select Award. These restaurants need to be owned by ethnically Thai immigrants, and must make a number of authentic dishes following the official recipes. In 2014, under the leadership of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the government-financed Thai Delicious Committee developed a machine to test the authenticity of food. They described the e-delicious machine as, "an intelligent robot that measures smell and taste in food ingredients through sensor technology, in order to measure taste like a food critic." The 21st century wasn't the first time a Prime Minister of Thailand took an active interest in cuisine. In the 1940s, the stridently nationalistic Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who wanted to counter the cultural influence of the Chinese population in Thailand, decided to develop a symbolic Thai national dish. The result was Pad Thai. And the public welfare department, as part of a "Noodle is Your Lunch" campaign, distributed recipes for the new national dish around the country. Phibunsongkhram saw cuisine as well as stress as a way to avoid colonization. As he said in a speech to his ministers,  "If we were highly cultured, we would be able to uphold our integrity, independence, and keep everything to ourselves." Joining me to help us understand more about Thai American culture and Thai food in the United States is Dr. Mark Padoongpatt, Associate Professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of "Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America." Hi, Mark, thanks so much for speaking with me today.

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  8:33  
Yeah, thanks for having me.

Kelly Therese Pollock  8:35  
Yes, I have been looking forward to this one for a while. And I learned so so very much reading your book. So I want to start with, I know that food is not what you had originally planned to write your dissertation-turned-book about. And so I wanted to ask just sort of how you got here to writing a book about food?

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  8:55  
Yeah, I love that question. Right? Because I think it's important. And I try to tell everyone who would listen, that I did not set out to write a book about Thai food. And in fact, I was sort of adamantly opposed to doing so because growing up Thai American, being associated with food growing up, right, that's just how people came to know Thai people. And when they would discover that I was Thai, it was always the first comment, right? It was I love Thai food. And so I didn't want to perpetuate that. I didn't want to write a book. It would just be so cliche. In my head, I was like, the one of the first Thai American historians or Thai American Asian American Studies scholar. And of course, he would write a book about Thai food, right. So I tried to avoid that as much as possible. And I say as much as possible, because once I started graduate school, so I was sort of thinking about writing a book and a dissertation first on the Thai American community in LA and I was an undergrad at the University of Oregon. And when I got to graduate school at USC, I, I was sort of steadfast in that until maybe, you know, two or three years into the program, where I just, it became clear that I couldn't avoid food. I couldn't avoid talking about food. And that's because when I started doing the primary source research, began kind of diving into the source material, which just wasn't a lot of right. And most of the written documents were food related, whether it was like a restaurant review that would tell the history and the story of the restaurant owners, or if it was, you know, something related to a food festival and zoning policies and food festival, so it just always seemed to come back to food. And I think that's when I decided that, you know, instead of avoiding it, I think some of the critical questions that I'm asking and interested in, related to immigration, identity, activism, was actually all going through food anyways. And so instead of just kind of avoiding it altogether, it made more sense, and a little bit more exciting for me to say, "Okay, so what is actually happening through food? And why is it that I have such a fraught relationship with it? And maybe I can kind of understand that at a larger scale."

Kelly Therese Pollock  11:31  
Yeah. So you just mentioned source material. I think everyone would want to think you just got to go eat a bunch of food, and that's how you write about Thai food. But what's actually going on here, you talk about sort of a dearth of materials. So how did you go about researching this book?

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  11:47  
Yeah, I mean, it's again, another really important question. And I think as historians we all know, kind of the value of primary source material, but I feel like the work of you know, a lot of scholars from marginalized communities, whether that was, you know, George Chauncey's work on gay New York, or, you know, any kind of minoritized or marginalized population, that that labor of having to create one's own archive, often goes unnoticed, that, you know, I didn't walk into, you know, a library, and I would have loved to, walk into a library and say, "Could you get those boxes on Thai American, you know, festivals," and I was just kind of sitting there. I mean, it involves, you know, going to do and conducting original oral histories, right with people in the community. And I used both the Wat Thai of Los Angeles, which is the largest Thai temple in the country, I use that as kind of a headquarters, to meet people and to be introduced to context. And I also used the Thai Community Development Center, which is in East Los Angeles, East Hollywood, to kind of get to know people who were in the community and who had been there for a while. So oral histories were really important. But in addition to that, it was like doing the oral histories, you know, visiting people's homes, they would hand over just materials that they had collected or kept over the years. So that also became a way for me to kind of build the archive. And then I think using traditional materials, in what I felt like was reading against the grain or more creative use of those materials. So visiting, for example, the JFK Library in Boston, and reading materials from Peace Corps volunteers, was one way that, you know, in my chapter on the Cold War in Thailand and US Thai relations, I really wanted to know what was going on with Thai food culture during the Cold War. And I felt like the, the, the closest I could get right as a historian was to go through kind of Peace Corps volunteer oral histories, or just written kind of diaries and notes that they had taken. And I found a lot, right. And I think that that kind of filled in some of those, those gaps. But yeah, just kind of, you know, using materials like that. Cookbooks, was also, you know, again, using cookbooks and Thai cookbooks, not just as a cultural product that like, I'm going to read this using kind of cultural analysis, but as a historical document of when were ingredients available? And can we can we get a sense of that from looking at these cookbooks from the 60s and 70s? And we do right, you can see the recipes changing. You can see lists of local grocery stores in the back and so it was a that was kind of a fun way I think to to get at some of the experiences and formation of a Thai American community, even if, you know the records weren't robust, right from the Thai American community.

Kelly Therese Pollock  15:10  
Yeah. So in the title, you call it "flavors of empire," and you know, I think there's probably a lot of people who if they haven't thought a whole lot about it, don't think of America as an empire. So can you talk to them about what what you mean by that by "empire, flavors of empire?" And how that specifically relates to this project, to the Thai American project?

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  15:34  
Yeah. So, you know, in the, in the book, I sort of mentioned that, that that title, "flavors of empire" kind of speaks to two things. One is, you know, literally, and I guess I'll get to whether or not the US is an empire in a second, but I think, you know, if my, my argument was that it is the US is a kind of informal empire, especially during the Cold War in terms of establishing its global dominance and influence. Of course, that looks different than earlier empires, and how they executed imperial rule, but the kind of informal US Empire. So the the title "flavors of empire," I think, captures one that the US, US informal empire and expansion abroad, especially in Asia in the Pacific during the Cold War, quite literally brought new flavors to the United States. I mean, we're talking about new tastes, flavors, cuisines, that arrived into the United States, or were kind of circulating in the United States, even before Thai people got there in large numbers. And so I think the title is attempting to kind of speak to that a little bit, right that, again, we get these cuisines, but the kind of structures that make this possible, is the very structure of kind of US expansion abroad, whether military or political. So I think that that's one aspect of it, but also thinking about how we as historians and just kind of, I think ordinary, the general public understands what an empire is, right. So the different flavors of empire in terms of the very, the different kinds of manifestations of empire, right, whether that's hard power, and colonial rule, and dominance and violence is how many people imagine an empire being. But then there's also kind of the everyday soft power of cultural diplomacy, and winning hearts and minds. That is still to me, as I argue in the book very much rooted in a kind of colonial logic of, you know, sort of needing to save other countries, in this case, from communist aggression, that we need to kind of guide, the United States felt like it needed to guide these sort of third world, people in Asia in the Pacific to modernity, and to be modern, kind of civilized, forward thinking people, and that those mechanisms, and the strategies of imperial rule have various flavors. Like they look different, and they can be different. And it can be enacted through tourism, or culinary tourism. And it's, it's all kind of feeding towards or breathing life into establishing the United States' global dominance and influence.

Kelly Therese Pollock  15:34  
Yeah, so expanding on that a little bit, you talk some about the importance of studying transnational history that, you know, it's not enough to just be like, well, this is about Americans and America, we're just gonna sort of draw the borders here. And that's where the project is. And I think you know, this podcast mostly because it's what I know the most about is, you know, largely about American history. But absolutely, reading your book, I had to, to grapple with that sort of history that happened, not just within the sort of quote unquote, borders of America, but what happens before immigrants get here? Why did they come here? What what is that back and forth look like? The episode right before this was about Korean American immigration, and it was a very similar kind of thing. Like, why, what's happening there? What does that history look like? So can you talk a little bit about that? And that that sort of larger role in history and in thinking about how we study history, and that it can't, you know, we can't just say like America only happens within these prescribed geographic borders and what that means to doing histories like yours.

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  19:47  
Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, I guess I sort of went in with the assumption writing the book that it just mattered, right? And I, I felt like you know, I, I felt confident enough in the fact that much of what I was writing about, couldn't be written about if we just kind of stayed within the formal borders of the United States. And I think more broadly, what's what's important about that is, you know, you think about a lot of the kind of significant turning points in US history, especially after World War II, right. And it becomes really difficult. And it became really difficult for me to explain those things, by just looking at what was happening within the United States, right, even whether it was food culture, as you say, food, culture, migration, politics, right. And it really made me rethink. For example, you think about someone like Marie Wilson, who wrote the very first Thai cookbook in the United States, "Siamese Cookery," in 1965. And like, her traveling abroad to Thailand had a very profound impact on her life in when when she came back to LA, and I, it made me wonder what kind of social and cultural changes happened in her own life, but also in the neighborhoods that she had access to. And so even then, it's sort of like, how do we even talk about suburbs, West LA, unless we think about these other global transformations and experiences of the people living in these spaces. Right. And I think that that it's it's important in another way, in that I was also thinking about debates over immigration. Right? And who belongs, who is a citizen? What does it mean to be Native? What does it mean to be foreign? So I took an experience like Marie Wilson, who had been to travel the world, and said, even the people who would define themselves as Native, and as citizens, are even bounded by this country, this country, right. And so even their experiences are transnational and global. And if that's the case, then migrants and undocumented immigrants can stake a claim to the United States as well, right, because their experiences are also transnational and transcend borders. So for me, it was it was sort of also a way to kind of critique how we think about citizenship. And if we can see and see and read in the historical narrative, US citizens who are traveling the world, and not bounded here, claiming to be US citizens as well, then what what kind of opportunities does that afford undocumented migrants or other other migrants claiming citizenship?

Kelly Therese Pollock  22:45  
Yeah, I like the term you use too, "x documented," and I think that, that that's a nuance, you know, in my day job, I work in Student Affairs, and that's a nuance we see a lot in that, you know, a lot of people who, who are, you know, currently, quote, unquote, undocumented in the United States, and throughout the past decades, came with documentation, didn't didn't sneak over the Mexican border, as you know, popular culture might lead you to believe.

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  23:11  
Yeah, exactly. And that you sort of hit it on the head so that that term "x documented" was also trying to grapple with that right of, you know, what does it actually mean to be, I shouldn't say citizen, right? Because I don't think I'm talking about it in that kind of, like, formal policy recognition of citizenship, but like, what does it mean to be part of a place, to belong? And I think for X documented folks, right, it's sort of like we've been here, we've not only contributed, but we sort of established and built lives here, whether or not we contributed anything, right that like, we have some kind of claim here, we go to work, we cook food, we are building lives. And it just opens up all of those questions of so how long does one have to live in a place before they can be part of that place? Does one have to be born there? But what if one is born there and leaves and then comes back? Or what if someone's born in Wisconsin and moves to LA? Are they more of a citizen than someone who is undocumented or ex documented, but has been living in LA for 25 years? Right, so all of these questions are, were really kind of informing why I think I wanted to make that nuance, and why I wanted to kind of tease that out a little bit.

Kelly Therese Pollock  24:30  
Yeah. You mentioned a little bit earlier, not just the sort of cooking and how we do that, but in fact what food people have access to when they're living in LA or other parts of the US where it might be even more difficult, what what ingredients they have to cook with, how they get that and so you go into that in the book and I think that that's a piece that you know, living in sort of modern America we take for granted, that that you have access to any ingredient you could possibly want. But what what did that look like over time, and how were people sort of grappling with that? "Well, we don't have access to the things we used to cook with, or we might want to cook with."

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  25:08  
Yeah, no, I think I think you're right. You know, I think we probably could get whatever we want now, whether it's legal or not, you know. I think, I think we could probably grow a lot of the ingredients that I talk about in the book, in our backyards now, but it is, I think, important to kind of think about that moment of the 60s and 70s, when there were larger numbers of Thais coming to the US. It's, it's one thing to not have, the ingredients that you feel are authentic, and core for cooking Thai cuisine, right. But it's another thing where we kind of think about how policies and trade policies are connected to that, and I think that plays a very, or that played a really important role. Right. So the reason why, you know, Thais couldn't grow, or have access to buy makrut, or kaffir lime leaves is because trade policies and even state policies around agriculture didn't allow for it to be grown in the United States, because they were afraid that it was going to lead to a kind of disease, citrus disease among native plants. And so those barriers led to kind of very creative ways to bring these ingredients over. Right. So I think the first kind of attempt was to just smuggle stuff from Thailand through personal affects, right? Anybody traveling could bring dried goods, some kaffir lime. But obviously, that's not kind of sustainable for an entire community, or a restaurant industry looking to cook Thai cuisine. And so you had business leaders in the Thai community, Pramorte Tilakamonkul, who opened up opens the Bangkok Market in 1971, along with an import export company, to really navigate some of these trade policies in order to import Thai food to the United States. And so you have the kind of everyday personal smuggling of goods. You have business leaders in the community who are or have not the vocabulary, but they have more insight and experience with trade policies, or they know people who do and can can make those goods and foodstuffs more readily available, including from Mexico, which is in one of the chapters, right that most of the Southeast Asian produce that was coming to the US in the 80s was coming through Mexico, because Mexico is trying to prove that they're ready for NAFTA. Right. And so it's sort of that, that historical moment, that makes that possible, as well and free trade zones. So you have that, and then also, just the kind of ingenuity and creativity of Thai women in LA, after discovering that UC Riverside, which is my hypothesis, right? At UC Riverside, because they have a huge citrus collection, going back, you know, throughout 20 century, they discovered that there was a kaffir lime tree on the premises, and would make this 60 mile round trip, you know, or, you know, one way trek to Riverside, to pick these makrut. And then take them home and freeze them so that they can use that for pad prik pao, and tom yum, and all of these other dishes, Thai dishes, kind of staple Thai dishes. So you just have all of these various ways that, to me, really reveal just how important food was for Thai people, and the extent to which they would chase this authenticity. Right. And I think I'll just quickly add that, you know, what I learned in that process, too, is any conversation around authenticity, and what is authentic is not just about catering to a white palette, or the chefs themselves, but also about policy and what people have access to. So let's, let's take it easy on some of the, the restaurant chefs who, you know, are maybe in cities around the United States, and they're getting blamed for not cooking authentic food when, you know, maybe there's a reason that's not just about them, but just access to certain kinds of ingredients. And so, yeah, I think that that that's my way to kind of  back them up on that.

Kelly Therese Pollock  30:02  
You just said something about food being important to Thai Americans. And so I want to sort of tease that out a little bit. Because, you know, I think you make a pretty compelling case that there, there isn't anything, as sort of natural, necessarily about the fact that there there is such a close relationship in this country, between, you know, Thais and food. That this is sort of a cultural construction, and there's a power imbalance, but it does, there are actors on both sides that are contributing to this. So can you talk some about that? And you know, why it is that Thai food is still so hyper visible, when Thai Americans are, as you noted, still largely invisible?

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  30:45  
Yeah. I mean, I think that's a really, you know, a big and important question as well. Right. And I think, like our argument of the book that, you know, I think the the groundwork, and the context for the United States to understand who Thai people were, was through this prism of food, right, that had been established, and that that was going to be kind of their entree into American society. I did not plan to say that. That would be their entree into American society, and that that's how they would be sort of understood, compared to other groups, where they fit in socially, economically and culturally, to the United States. And I think that that, again, the kind of main argument of the book is just having to navigate that as a Thai person in the United States is kind of what constitutes, and makes and remakes Thai American identity. So it's not that if you like Thai food, or, you know, on a scale of one to 10, how often do you eat Thai food, like that's, that's not to me, what the relationship between food and Thai Americans and Thai American identity. It's really just grappling with that, right. And I see this as akin to Black men and criminality, as being the kind of racialization of Black men and like, no matter kind of how you operate, or the spaces you kind of walk in as a Black man in the United States, like that's something that you have to grapple with. And that, at its core, is sort of the central to Black identity, Black American male, men identity. So I think in in that way, that's sort of how I was thinking about food and food and identity. And you're right, right, like it's not, I think it goes without saying, but probably important to still say that it's not a natural, again, to American identity. It's not it's not this natural, or even cultural affinity for food. Right, that I think this is a space and economic opportunity, a cultural space site that Thai people felt like they could be seen. And you get people like Tommy Tang, who had, you know, was the first kind of bicoastal Thai restaurant tour in the United States in the 80s. He's moving up, he moved up into the upper echelons of the culinary world. And, you know, that's open for Thai people and Thai immigrants, right? Because, again, that expectation and that groundwork is laid out for them to ascend to that upper echelon. And so I think what I mean by not cultural is, you know, thinking about kind of a comparison, right? So Cambodian refugees have no cultural affinity for donut shops, right? In Khmer culture, necessarily. I mean, obviously, there's desserts, but there's not donut shops. Ethiopian culture is not rooted in like, you know, taxi driving, right. But these are industries that have been open to certain groups. And they, to your point, right, the agency there is to seize those opportunities and to make the most of them. And I think that's what we're seeing with with Thai, what we saw with Thai immigrants, it is significant to say because I remember doing an interview for a newspaper a couple of years ago, and they were asking me similar questions. Why do you think it's so popular? What what explains the rise and I was trying to kind of contextualize it structurally and institutionally, but I think the story ran without any of that and was just like, you know, all Thai people love Thai food and They're just so good at it. And we're on we have this entrepreneurial spirit. And all the time I'm kind of reading this thinking like, but I think kitchen workers like so what happens to their entrepreneurial spirit? Do they just not have it? Like, what is that? Are they not Thai? Because if Thai people are supposedly, you know, entrepreneurial by culture, what about the 80, 90% of other Thai people who are struggling? Are they not Thai? And so I think it's just, it becomes kind of important to tease that out. Right. But like it's not cultural. It's not natural. As much as I would like to think that I can just be born to cook Pad Thai. Like, I don't think that's something innate within me. But yeah, I think that that's it just just dangerous in the sense that it perpetuates all of these kind of ideas about innate ability, cultural ability, that then ignores many of the larger social, political and economic factors that I tried to address in the book.

Kelly Therese Pollock  35:38  
Yeah, and so you're talking about the brand of multiculturalism that existed in LA, you know, which comes from a good place, right. But then it can be really dangerous, and because of these sorts of things. So can you maybe talk a little bit about that? And you know, why, why it's not enough to just be like, well, I like Thai food, so I'm multicultural.

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  35:59  
Yeah, yeah. Because I think that for those of us who, you know, have been kind of studying race and racial inequality and inequity, a lot of us do look at, you know, the kind of structural dimensions of this, and by structural, you know, not just, there's not like a strong sentiment of anti Thai hate or any kind of like, hate, it's just, it's already built in, right. So like, whether that's housing, or immigration policy, or even these concepts of citizenship and belonging, that, you know, a cuisine driven multiculturalism, I think, doesn't get at that, of course, right. It doesn't get it. It's not intended to, right, it's not going out to eat ethnic cuisine is not, you're not like, oh, I wanted to solve kind of this housing, wealth gap. Like that's what it kind of feels like it's an attempt to. So it's sort of one of those things where like, it's not meant to do that. And there's nothing wrong with this kind of eating across other cultures. But I think when it's taken to, well, that absolves me of this right, that you have all of these cuisines, we eat all of these different cuisines. We're welcoming of all of these different people, it then kind of renders inequality, the racism, xenophobia, to a kind of personal feeling of bigotry, and then in which the solution is just to like people, and to kind of love people and accept people for as I'm kind of thinking about, and others as well, of course, but we're sort of thinking about how do we address the kind of concrete institutional inequalities that are embedded in Los Angeles, whether that's labor, again, labor, housing, immigration, where does food fit into that? How do we bring the attention or shift the attention away from just something you feel in terms of racism as racism as being a feeling or a bias or bigotry to kind of the structural dimensions of that? And I think cuisine driven multiculturalism keeps us kind of locked in to that feeling. Right. So I think that's what I was trying to work out in the book a little bit.

Kelly Therese Pollock  38:12  
Yeah. And so I think that maybe then ties to these food festivals that you write about, that are happening in the suburb, which is, of course, largely white, and you know, it has certain expectations for what a temple, a Buddhist temple will be like, has certain expectations for what the suburb should be like and shouldn't be like, and draws these tensions, these people who will, of course, claim that they're not racist, but it's not about race, but is still creating certain tensions. Can you talk a little bit about that, that piece of it and what is going on with, you know, sort of expectations versus reality, versus, you know, personal feelings and structure and how are these play together?

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  38:56  
Yeah, that's no, that's great. So maybe I'll back up and just kind of give a quick kind of briefing on that, that, that tension. So when the Thai temple or the Wat Thai Los Angeles was established in 1979, Thai people threw huge food festivals, cultural festivals, with food, I should say, a large festival that included food, like every weekend, throughout the 1980s in a suburban neighborhood, and the neighbors kind of grew fed up with, with that music, just trash being thrown on their lawns, you know, things that I think I would be, as I get older, would be kind of frustrated by as well. Right. So I think there's a level of understanding that I have now for that. So they grew frustrated and to your point, you know, sort of consistently claimed and said to local reporters or anybody who was reporting on this growing tension between the temple and the neighbors that, you know, they were not racist, they didn't have any kind of bias that, in fact, this temple could be a landmark for their community, if it just kind of stayed within what I call to borrow from George Lipsitz to within this kind of white, spatial imaginary of a suburb. And what that means is, you know, the way that it's not like all white people think the suburbs should be this way. But it's a cultural imaginary, right? In the same way that, you know, when we think about beaches, right, what do we think a beach is, for some people, it's sustenance, and food, for some people, it's leisure. And these are cultural imaginaries of a physical place. And so the white spatial imaginary kind of sees suburban neighborhoods, as, you know, places where that value property and property value and home deeds over anything else, and the exchange value of property, overuse value of property. And so the Thai temple challenged all of those things, right. They were using private property more for its use value, right? We want people here, we want people to use the space, we want this to be a public community center. So I think what was happening at the temple really flew in the face of those expectations, as you mentioned, right? Those expectations, that imaginary. And, you know, again, I tried not to kind of make it about whether or not the neighbors were biased or racist, or had anti Thai feelings. But I made it, and I wanted to tell more of a story about these different expectations of what a suburban neighborhood could be. And that those expectations were racialized in the sense that, you know, the white neighbors were sort of rallying around this postwar, 1950s image of suburbia and Thai immigrants, were like, "We don't want to stay in our homes, right? Even if we live in the suburbs, we kind of want to see each other and build community." And all of that, I think, is what came to kind of came to a head in that that corner of a suburban neighborhood in North Hollywood.

Kelly Therese Pollock  42:21  
In a minute, we'll tell people how to get your book, but in addition to reading your book, which they should do, do you have recommendations for other ways that that people can can learn more about Thai Americans can can sort of, you know, I will admit, I love Thai food, I eat a lot of Thai food, but you know, I want to make sure that that is not the only way that I am engaging with the Thai American community. So you know, what, what would be your recommendations?

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  42:48  
Yeah, I mean, there's not a lot of scholarship, right? Even, you know, with my book, which I hope, you know, people would sort of challenge, critique, and build on just to get kind of more or work out there. You know, I think I think of one person, actually a graduate student at UC Berkeley, who's doing great work. So his name is Thiti Jamkajornkeiat. And he is a PhD candidate in South and Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. So he's kind of doing great work on on Thai Americans. And Jiemin Bao, who is my colleague here at UNLV, has written extensively about Thai temples in central California, or in Northern California and Fremont. And kind of the similar kind of tensions that grew around temples. But she's also written about the Thai middle class in the United States. And in terms of kind of what's happening locally at the local level, I would really encourage people to look into what the Thai Community Development Center or the Thai CDC is doing in East Hollywood, right? They're really, they've been, I think, the only organization I was gonna say, the leading organization, one of the only organizations that advocates for Thai immigrants, but is really centered on kind of housing, immigrant rights. They just recently helped launch a farmers market in East Hollywood. They've taken I think, a better approach. I don't know if there's like a solidly good approach to kind of redevelopment of urban space, but they've taken I think, one of the better approaches. So I would encourage people to kind of look into what they're doing on the ground. And they were the ones that I mentioned in my book that took the lead on the El Monte slave labor case as well, in 1992. So they've been doing this for a long time. But I think anybody who's interested in kind of the political work that is happening within the Thai American community, I think that would be a good place to start as well.

Kelly Therese Pollock  44:59  
And how can people get your book?

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  45:01  
Yeah, so you can find my book at UC Press, the University of California Press website. So my book is available, available for purchase there. It's on Amazon, as well. And I think, Google my book, and you'll probably be able to find it, but I'll point you in those, at least those two directions.

Kelly Therese Pollock  45:24  
Yeah, no, I'll put a link to it. It's a great read. And I recommend that people get some carryout from their local Thai restaurant and sit down with the book. Get all the senses going at once.

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  45:36  
Yes, yeah. Especially when you get to chapter two, I think you're gonna want to get you're gonna have to have some Thai food in front of you when you're reading about "Chasing the Yum."

Kelly Therese Pollock  45:45  
Yes, definitely. Is there anything else that you wanted to make sure we talked about?

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  45:50  
No, no, I think that's, that was great. You know, thank you so much for those questions. I'm really grateful to be able to talk about my work in this in this space and this venue, and on this platform, so just want to say thank you. And yeah, read the book, and I hope you find it useful.

Kelly Therese Pollock  46:07  
Well, it's terrific. Everyone should read it. So Mark, thank you so much. This was really fun. 

Dr. Mark Padoongpatt  46:12  
Thank you, Kelly.

Teddy  46:13  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain, or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.

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Mark Padoongpatt

Mark Padoongpatt (he/him) is associate professor of Asian American Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He received his Ph.D. in American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California in 2011. He researches and writes on the histories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the 20th-century United States, with a focus on empire, migration, race, and urban and suburban cultures. His book, Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America (University of California Press, 2017), explores how and why Thai food shaped the contours of Thai American community and identity since World War II. He’s currently writing a book and developing a podcast series on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Las Vegas titled "Neon Pacific," which explores histories of race, space, and placemaking in Vegas.