Date of Award

December 2021

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Jasmine W Benyamin

Second Advisor

Anna V Andrzejewski

Committee Members

William W Wood, Yong Chen


agency, built environment, Chinese American history, Chinese restaurant, food history, homemaking


This dissertation explores the resistant voices of Chinese immigrants embedded in their food and food spatial practices in California from 1880 to 1960. While restrictive immigration laws in the United States generally prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country, a sizable number of Chinese laborers navigated a culinary path to America through cooking, farming, and operating Chinese restaurants; some gradually achieved upward mobility. Although these activities have been noted broadly in Chinese food and immigration histories, few scholars have explored their spatial and material impacts. There is, however, a rich transnational history behind the everyday spaces that Chinese immigrants occupied and owned. They actively engaged in spatial practices around food preparation, service, and consumption to negotiate their power and identities. These practices have shaped both the physicality and experience of the built environment and influenced Chinese American food history.

Engaging with interdisciplinary and transnational approaches to architecture, food, and identity, I follow a common culinary trajectory of Chinese immigrants from service to ownership, exploring their everyday practices in middle- and upper-class white American homes (historic house museums today) in San Francisco and Oakland, Chinese restaurants in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and a Chinese-American ranch in Los Angeles. Using a series of case studies, I unearth new oral histories, examine spatial ethnographies in both Chinese and English language sources, and investigate artifactual evidence to reveal the deliberate and strategic choices Chinese immigrants made about the built environment and culinary artifacts. I argue that their everyday practices simultaneously conformed to and challenged the uses prescribed by original designs. Chinese immigrants harbored complex and layered identities, performing a delicate dance between their desires and societal expectations through their tangible and intangible architectural and culinary practices.

In the three settings, Chinese immigrants adopted different tactics to negotiate for survivance and power. As domestic servants who lived in white American homes, they contested the prescribed uses of the homes, such as redefining service quarters as liminal spaces of liberation. As restaurant owners, they capitalized on cultural stereotypes in the design of the building exteriors while retaining a more regional identity in the interiors through imported Chinese embellishments, family-style dining, and Taishanese food. As ranch owners, the family in my case study resisted racial exclusion by consciously establishing a home with an American exterior in a predominately white emerging suburb while modifying the interiors to accommodate their transcultural lifestyle. Increased upward mobility allowed Chinese restaurant owners and homeowners to assert cultural agency in more material ways compared to Chinese domestic servants. However, all three roles profoundly communicated the agency of Chinese immigrants as seen in their choices, negotiations, intentionality, and creativity conveyed through everyday immaterial practices.

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