This dissertation explores the history of Thai American community and identity formation in Los Angeles within the context of the rise of U.S. global power and the boom in U.S. leisure culture after World War II. I use foodways—the production, representation, and consumption of a food—as a window to show that these two transformations became inextricably linked, maturing most decidedly during the Cold War in Asia and the Pacific. Though Thais constitute the main subject of this study, I put Thais' encounter and negotiation (in Thailand and Los Angeles) of racial, gender, and class structures through what I call "leisure culture imperialism" at the center of my analysis.
The study builds on the body of literature on post-World War II U.S. history, Asian American studies, and urban/suburban studies to illustrate that leisure culture imperialism reached its most compelling expression in Thailand where it produced transnational networks through Thai migration and tourism, played itself out in foodways, and readapted itself in Los Angeles' multiracial/ethnic suburban and urban spaces. I argue that foodways hardened racial and ethnic boundaries for Thais as well as exacerbated gender and class divisions within the Thai American community. Thai food operated as a site for the sensory construction of race where taste, smell, and sight worked in concert to construct Thai Americans as an exotic, non-white other. This racial formation process occurred in Thailand and in the United States. Yet, Thais found pleasure in preparing, serving, and consuming Thai cuisine as they provided the labor for U.S. leisure culture. Moreover, Thai Americans considered food to be an avenue for not only economic mobility or a way to preserve cultural heritage, but also collective mobilization, political visibility, and belonging. The power of leisure consumption, however, imposed barriers and inscribed an identity that "binded" Thais to foodways, which made it extremely difficult for Thais Americans to move beyond food in struggles for social, political, and economic rights.
As the first historical investigation of a Thai American community, the interdisciplinary and pioneering nature of my dissertation has required the examination, and the collection of wide range of materials. I rely on a combination of oral histories and the historical analysis of archival materials as well as original sources including cookbooks, menus, travel guides, memoirs, literature, and magazines. Metropolitan Los Angeles is a perfect site to investigate Thai American community and identity formation because it is home to the largest Thai population outside of Thailand as a hub of the Pacific Rim. This project challenges the dominance of "sight" in studies of racial formation by offering a glimpse of the way other human senses sustained racial thinking and practice in the U.S. Moreover, the study can be used as a model to examine the complexities, contradictions, and possibilities of racial and ethnic identity formation within conditions of increased privatization of society under free-market capitalism.