Sharing my Fulbright application essay
Free and available for anyone interested in the program
Update 4/17/23: I can officially announce I am the Fulbright finalist for Singapore for 2023-24!!!!
A few weeks ago, I received exciting news that I’m a semifinalist candidate for a Fulbright fellowship in Singapore!
If you’re unfamiliar with Fulbright, it’s a government-sponsored program for U.S. citizens to study, research, or teach abroad. I’m specifically applying to research hawker stalls and wet markets in Singapore, and how they have influenced food (in)security in the country. If selected, I’d be working with three professors at the National University of Singapore to document and analyze the impact of Singaporean governmental interventions in these two areas since the country began (1965).
Similar to why I posted my successful Harvard Statement of Intent, I’m openly sharing my full Fulbright research proposal for anyone who is interested in the program. No gatekeeping of applications here! (Also, contrary to popular belief, you can apply even if you’re not a student, so I encourage everyone to consider it if researching abroad is a dream of theirs.)
Special thanks to Bruno Villegas McCubbin, Agustina Ollivier, Grant Stream-Gonzalez, Jim Coffman, and Ayelia Ali for their support in the application process. Shoutout to the folks who wrote my letters of recommendation: Edric Huang, Mykim Dang, and Abbey Stone.
I’ll find out about my final status in April, so keep your fingers crossed for me!
Impact of State Interventions on Food Security: Investigating Access Via Hawker Centers & Wet Markets
Abstract / Summary of Proposal
Every country takes a different approach to ensuring food access for its residents. I’m proposing my Fulbright for Singapore to analyze two structures of its food system as potential models for improving food security in the U.S.: hawker centers, open-air centers that house prepared-food vendors; and wet markets, markets that sell fresh produce, meat, and other raw ingredients. I aim to understand how state interventions supporting these two institutions have affected food access for local residents.
Hawker centers emerged in the 1960s as street hawkers were consolidated into centralized stalls for public health purposes; rent was subsidized to incentivize hawkers to stay and keep prices low. Many hawker centers and wet markets were also built by the government alongside new housing developments, so residents had reliable outlets for fresh and prepared food. In recent years, the state has also invested in efforts to digitalize wet markets and improve the nutritional composition of hawker menus.
As a professional chef and social justice advocate in the food industry, I’m intrigued by these alternatives to U.S. food aid. Unlike programs like food pantries and SNAP, hawker centers and wet markets readily adapt to customer choices, carry little stigma, and serve as a throughline across socioeconomic groups. I want to investigate if this approach is fully responsive to the needs of local residents, and if so, what interventions have made a long-term impact.
Synthesizing how public policy affects outcomes at hawker centers and wet markets can improve future legislation in Singapore while offering a new framework for developing food policies in the U.S. My long-term goal is to apply these learnings as a public policymaker.
Statement of Grant Purpose
The design of food policies affecting how people are able to acquire which foods, where food is distributed, and what food messaging is embedded into mainstream media carry long-term implications for the relationship between individuals and the state. My research seeks to understand the impact of government interventions within the food system to support those facing food insecurity, and if these policies ultimately deliver on their intention to sustainably improve food access for local residents.
I’m proposing my Fulbright specifically for Singapore to analyze the efficacy of two culturally and politically significant institutions of its food system in regards to food access: hawker stalls, or open-air centers that house a multitude of prepared-food vendors; and wet markets, or open-air markets that sell fresh produce alongside meat, fish, and other raw ingredients. As of 2013, there are 107 hawker centers (with over 6,000 stalls) and wet markets across Singapore. Even in 2022, prices at certain hawker stalls remain below $1 Singaporean dollar, and wet markets offer more affordable fresh foodstuffs than most supermarkets. Given that the country is home to four major ethnic groups, these spaces have also evolved into state-sponsored entrepreneurial centers that can intuitively and appropriately respond to diverse needs.
In addition to overseeing these two institutions (through the National Environmental Agency or NEA) and conducting regular inspections, the Singaporean government has repeatedly intervened to improve their atmosphere and food offerings. Since 2001, the Hawker Centres Upgrading Programme has renovated centers with anti-slip floors and better sewage and ventilation systems. During COVID-19, the Infocomm Media Development Authority launched a campaign to digitalize wet market vendors so they could sell via mobile apps; the NEA offered cash assistance, rental waivers, and subsidies for services like centralized dishwashing; and the Community Development Council distributed resident cash vouchers to be redeemed at hawker stalls. Alongside formal policy, the state uses soft power to influence directionality. In 2014, the Health Promotion Board introduced the Healthier Dining Programme encouraging hawkers to provide at least one healthier menu option; over 2,700 stalls participated.
I aim to build off existing research on the evolution of hawker centers and wet markets to analyze the impact of government interventions on these two institutions, and how those policies have affected food access and security for local residents. The National University of Singapore (NUS) has invited me to conduct this research with the joint support of three of its faculty members from their Business School, the Communications department, and the Yale-NUS College Environmental Sciences programme. My faculty champions will connect me with the agencies involved with hawker stalls and wet markets, supervise the NUS students supporting me in archival review and translating interviews, and offer feedback through the lens of their own areas of expertise.
Over a period of 10 months from August 2023 through May 2024, I will examine the interventions the Singaporean government has undertaken since the 1970s (after the Republic of Singapore was established and economic activity began to rise) to standardize and invest in hawker centers and wet markets. In the first three months, I will interview government officials and review historical archives of existing synthetic research to document and categorize past interventions in three hawker centers and wet markets: Tiong Bahru, Lau Pa Sat, and Maxwell Centre. These interventions will be organized into groups such as, but not limited to: financial aid, press and messaging, resources/training, and land use. For each category, my interviews will pay special attention to the strategies for amassing public and political support for these policies. In efforts to understand how consumer perception of hawker centers and wet markets have changed over time, I will also track how, when, and where mainstream media was deployed to influence the uptake and acceptance of these state interventions.
I will then review quantitative data (e.g., sales revenue, foot traffic, stall permits, stall turnover, physical improvements) to determine if there exists a correlation between interventions and the overall success of those centers in the months or years afterward. I’ll also interview multi-generational hawkers and vendors for detailed accounts of how these policy decisions impacted them at a business level. Seeing these centers are a critical source of livelihood to its vendors, I seek to understand the role of ancillary entrepreneurial resources provided by the government in their overall job satisfaction and stability.
In the remaining months, I will conduct qualitative research by interviewing ethnically diverse residents living near these three hawker centers and wet markets. These will consist of one-on-one interviews over the period of a month, small focus groups, and in-the-field observation, to understand the power of these structures on everyday consumption patterns. I plan to use an inductive reasoning approach to ask detailed questions assessing if there is an observable influence on residents’ feelings of access and ability to acquire nutritious food for themselves and/or their families. To appropriately compare across mixed research methods, I will develop a common qualitative coding system to draw out key themes, and utilize case study logic to offer nuanced examples of how these institutions influence daily food decisions.
I am a professional chef, author, and speaker who regularly teaches the politics of food to public and private organizations, and I have carried out similar field-specific research through my nonprofit think tank since 2018. Our research has subsequently become foundational aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion policies in leading industry organizations such as Vox Media and Dotdash Meredith. I am also gaining formal academic experience in emancipatory research and ethical research design via a Masters of Education degree from Harvard University. Thus, I am well aware of the challenges this type of research faces, especially in acquiring research subjects; I will leverage my own, NUS, and volunteer networks to establish mutually beneficial, trusting relationships with vendors and residents I hope to study.
Food is an inherently political arm of the government, and I believe the results of my research will be salient across both Singaporean and U.S. contexts. For Singapore, surfacing the dynamics between food, culture, and public policy will be meaningful in shaping future legislation targeting food insecurity in the context of different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. I will be working with NUS Libraries to create a digital archive and showcase rooted in my research, and hope to secure an audience with representatives from NEA to present my findings. I do recognize food security is a sensitive issue for the Singapore government, and will tailor my approach to appropriately align with the state’s priorities in these areas.
Despite the differences in government structure and resident demographics, I believe there will be translatable aspects of my research to offer convincing new perspectives for embedding self-determination and self-governance within existing food aid programs in the U.S. Seeing we already have stateside versions of hawker centers and wet markets in the form of food halls and farmer’s markets, I am eager to adapt my learnings about successful state infrastructure and interventions to enhance, expand, and evolve these spaces. Ultimately, I hope my research can further bilateral conversations between the U.S. and Singaporean governments about effective systems-level interventions in each country, and together allow us to co-create more equitable foodscapes across geographies.
Host Country Engagement
I commit to advocating for positive change in the Singapore hospitality industry through grassroots initiatives. I will start my search through the People’s Association, a government agency that promotes cross-cultural social cohesion. For example, volunteering with Residents’ Committees at the sites of my research seems a natural first step toward building rapport with the community and grounding my work in a sense of place.
I also plan to connect with organizations like the Hawkers’ segment of the Federation of Merchants’ Associations to find localized and worker-led efforts. I can see that the hospitality community in Singapore and U.S. face certain parallel issues, and believe my experience implementing more equitable standards within the U.S. food system, alongside my academic background in food and politics from Harvard, will be useful in mobilizing with future colleagues on the ground.
For example, the generational loss of hawker stalls as another wave of owners retires is similar to the decline of Chinese restaurants in the U.S., with second and third-generation children pursuing other careers. Gentrification is another common theme: rising rents in popular locales are pricing out legacy businesses, altering the fabric of those neighborhoods.
To deepen my relationship in the hospitality community, I will also stage (i.e., apprentice) at several hawker stalls. As a chef, I know that working service together is an important trust-building exercise. I will document this educational experience using various media to digitally preserve this part of Singaporean heritage and generate interest worldwide. Given hawker centers’ UNESCO status, I hope this can be part of the National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship.
Plans Upon Return to the U.S.
After working to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion within the food, I want to transition into a public policy center like the Food Policy Institute, then move into a Task Force, like the one on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, charged with implementing new interventions.
My Fulbright experience will deepen my critical analysis of state considerations in addressing residents' food needs. Beyond food insecurity, I aim to evolve our nation’s perspective of food as a construct of power, influence, and control.
There have been talks of a Council to coalesce the 20 federal agencies handling food legislation. My dream would be to lead this Council through a social justice-based lens, so future policies can dismantle inequities in our incarceration system, immigration law, and public education currently perpetuated through food politics.
Food tells us where we belong. At least, I know it did for me. As a first-generation Chinese American, how I learned my place in the world was in relationship to food: where I sat at the dinner table; who I could linger with during lunch at school; what flavors, textures, and presentations were acceptable, and “good”—and which ones were “different,” like me.
What I ate not only shaped others’ perceptions of me, but also my own understanding of identity. Through the nostalgic dish of tomato and egg my parents often made, I found myself in a generation of immigrants belonging to a cultural nowhere: too disconnected from my “home country” to find solace in it, too foreign and racialized to transition seamlessly to the U.S. From the bruised, mushy watermelons and blackened bananas my grandpa persuaded me to eat by calling them “best-in-class,” I learned the realities of social mobility in the U.S.—and how essential it is to maintain pride and dignity in the face of both hardship and aid.
The unspoken rules of food are real-world manifestations of the power dynamics underpinning our relationships at every level. Controlling our food supply, policy, service, and culture have far-reaching implications, it has become my life’s work to embed a thorough consideration of food politics into decisions within the private and public sector. At 21, I left a comfortable career in management consulting and a Columbia MBA to pursue culinary school and a career in the food industry. Working in restaurants for 60 hours a week, for $9 an hour, while living in the most expensive city in the U.S. put in sharp relief how food is used as a political tool. The U.S. hospitality industry was founded on enslaved labor and is still reliant on an undocumented BIPOC workforce. It is by design foodservice workers are categorized as “low-skilled,” making pathways to naturalization difficult: this legal precarity renders workers unable to leave, even in the face of poor wages and workplace conditions.
I, however, did have the opportunity to leave foodservice. This arbitrary privilege was not lost on me; I dived into the social justice world, starting a nonprofit community think tank called Studio ATAO that advocates for more equitable standards in food, beverage, and hospitality. Our first initiative focused on issues in food media: we spent two-plus years collaborating with leading food publications to improve guidelines for their journalism and workplace policies.
But food issues do not exist in a vacuum. As Studio ATAO expanded its capacity, I’ve led us to take on more entangled and systemic subject areas. This year, our key project examined the relationship between hospitality businesses and gentrification. Our research brought up questions that reached into social and legislative issues like housing, law enforcement, and the nonprofit industrial complex. This led me to embark on two interrelated paths: one to create a meaningful food education that takes a political perspective, and the other to enter the public sector.
I am pursuing a Masters of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in preparation for both of these goals. My time at HGSE will equip me with a deeper understanding of how individuals learn, and I am actively implementing learnings into Studio ATAO’s Food Systems 101 curriculum. Fulbright is my step toward the second path, exposing me to new frameworks for considering future policies to sustainably address food insecurity.
In my 2020 TEDx talk, I asked the audience what it would mean to recognize “food’s faculty in highlighting the complexities – and often hypocrisies – of human relationships.” I want to build a future where food is not absolved from its political implications, but embedded in both diplomatic and legislative decisions. From my social justice career so far, I’ve learned there is only one slow, deliberate way to make this a reality: By changing one conversation, one person, one relationship at a time. I look forward to using my Fulbright as an opportunity to do just that.
Memes from This Week
Personal Things From This Week
Listening to: Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel
Watching: Haven’t started yet, but Carol is next on my list for when I have a moment!
Reading: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (back on my YA research!)
Eating: Some bamya I made the other day!
Drinking: Some Châteauneuf-du-Pape (arguably my fave AOC?) I purchased from Wegman’s — my first time shopping at Wegman’s!!!
Nice thing I did for myself this week: Wow have I slept a lot this week! The luxury! Nearly 7-8 hours a night!