Sharing my National Geographic Explorer Application Essay
I'm off to Singapore this November!
After months of keeping mum about this, I can officially announce that I am one of the 5 National Geographic Explorers for the class of 2023-24!
Especially since this is an incredibly competitive program, I’m sharing my Nat Geo application (which is separate from my Fulbright application) for those interested in this fellowship for next year.
If this has been helpful to you, please consider supporting my time in Singapore next year with a donation!
A special thank you to Grant Stream-Gonzalez and Matt Kamibayashi for their edits on my application.
National Geographic Grant Level I Application
Title of Project
Impact of State Interventions on Food Security: Investigating Access Via Hawker Centers & Wet Markets
Brief Project Summary
My research in Singapore will analyze two government-backed systems that address food access and security: hawker centers, open-air centers that house prepared-food vendors; and wet markets, markets that sell fresh produce, meat, and other raw ingredients. These centers are widely recognized as a meaningful part of the country’s “heartland heritage,” but their continued existence is threatened by shifting consumer attitudes and diminishing economic returns.
In the face of these challenges, I will study the impact of government actions supporting these two institutions since the country’s founding in 1965, and how they have influenced business outcomes for its vendors and food security for local residents. I will focus on three centers in ethnically, socioeconomically, and developmentally diverse areas: Tekka Market, Geylang Serai, and Tiong Bahru.
For National Geographic, I will utilize photo essays, written interviews, audio clips, and short-form videos to document the lived experiences of vendors and local residents. This will culminate in a set of 12 multimedia stories: 6 of hawker center or wet market vendors, and 6 of local residents. The National University of Singapore (NUS) has agreed to include these artifacts as part of their libraries’ permanent digital archives, available for students, faculty, and researchers in the future.
Through this project, I hope to expand awareness of the changing dynamics of Singaporean food, people, tradition, and governmental policy beyond academic circles into public consciousness.
Please describe what skills, attributes, and/or experiences make you uniquely qualified to implement this project.
As a first-generation, Chinese American chef with a diverse background in food service, I can relate firsthand to the joys and challenges of defining success as a food worker and entrepreneur with the vendors I’m hoping to build relationships with. As a food stylist and award-winning photographer who developed and executed visuals for 6 cookbooks, I possess the tactical skills to execute my proposed photo essays. I am also well-versed in short-form videos as a verified content creator on social channels such as Instagram and TikTok.
As part of my Master of Education, I was able to hone in and practice my application of critical theory as part of my nonprofit’s existing research methodology. Critical theory is a multidisciplinary approach to analyzing and challenging power structures that integrates qualitative and non-traditional research methods, including visual-forward ones like photography, to better understand how research subjects understand and relate to existing social hierarchies. Critical theory will inform my framing, design, execution, synthesis, and distribution of this project and its deliverables.
During my time at Harvard, I also worked with the Harvard Food Law & Policy Center to write several memos that will be used to shape future legislation. This experience strengthened my ability to understand and navigate food policy at all government levels, and will be instrumental in contextualizing my research on Singaporean food systems for a global audience.
Please describe your career goals over the next 5 years and tell us how receiving a grant from National Geographic will help you achieve them.
In the next 5 years, I hope to be in a leadership position within a public federal agency that oversees food and education-related Task Forces like the one on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. I will apply my 11 years of experience advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion within the private food sector to transition into a public servant role that spearheads the implementation of new food-related interventions at a federal level.
I will leverage Fulbright’s non-competitive eligibility for federal positions to secure a role at an agency foundational to the U.S. food system, such as the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). My goal for researching Singaporean wet markets and hawker centers is to inspire new approaches to food justice. Given that the U.S. already has stateside versions of hawker centers and wet markets in the form of food halls and farmer’s markets, I believe there are many opportunities to learn from Singapore’s proactive approach to state interventions in the food supply chain – rooted in equity and self-efficacy – and adapt them for the American context.
My project with National Geographic will bring alive and make particularly urgent the need for wholesale food systems change in the U.S. While the core issues underpinning my research – inequitable food access, unsustainable margins for small food businesses, lost knowledge due to an aging entrepreneurial population, gentrification compounding the housing crisis, etc. – are not new, they are often alienated from the mainstream through academic texts, political news, or inaccessible reports. My project’s use of narrative storytelling will make these issues relatable and personal to a broader audience and spur renewed interest and enthusiasm for participation in food policy at the local, state, and federal levels.
I see my National Geographic project as a public proof of concept for expanding the type of research expressions at the future organizations I lead. To me, social justice is a concept that must be rooted in people and their relationships. Research methodology and deliverables aimed at improving social good should then magnify and highlight the humanity and beauty of its subject matter. I see this project as a way to introduce meaningful aspects of community building through storytelling using photo essays, first-person interviews, audio samples, and short-form videos as part of a holistic research process. I believe these integrations can provide vibrant new possibilities for the American government to approach food justice in personally attuned ways that more accurately reflect the varied lived experiences of the people within our shared food ecosystem.
Please provide background information and context about the issue your project will address. What is unique or important about your project and how is it different from previous work on this topic?
Detailing the changing dynamics underpinning Singaporean foodways offers an intimate glimpse into the tensions inherent in its broader society. Today, Singapore has 83 wet markets and hawker centers (with over 6,000 stalls) regulated by the National Environmental Agency (NEA) or its partners. Hawker centers are officially recognized by UNESCO as heritage sites, and wet markets by the National Heritage Board as a core part of Singapore’s “heartland heritage.”
Even in 2023, prices at certain hawker stalls remain below $1 Singaporean dollar, and wet markets offer more affordable fresh foodstuffs than most supermarkets. These impressively robust structures for food access and security reflect the government’s proactive planning. Shortly after the country’s founding, street hawkers were consolidated into centralized stalls for public health purposes; rent was subsidized to incentivize hawkers to stay and keep prices low. Many wet markets were explicitly built alongside public housing developments, to ensure residents of all income levels had reliable outlets for fresh food. In recent years, the state has also invested in efforts to upgrade facilities, digitalize wet markets, and improve the nutritional composition of hawker menus.
Yet, the future of these spaces is threatened by shifting consumer attitudes within an increasingly fast-paced and globalized society. In 2018, 38% of Singaporeans had not visited wet markets in at least a year, instead opting for the convenience of modern supermarkets with set hours and pricing. At the same time, vendors and hawkers are aging out; the median age is 59, and younger generations are more apt to join the white-collar workforce and sell the family business, instead of taking over.
Add onto this the pressures of being a small country with limited agricultural land, where the need for food security underscores policy focus and direction. The Singapore Food Agency (SFA)’s approach of the “three food baskets” to protect against food insecurity – focusing on diversifying the food supply through innovative solutions locally and abroad – raises questions if technological leaps may leave behind traditional wet markets, alongside the vendors and consumers whose livelihoods depend on them.
The ongoing evolution of hawker centers and wet markets in Singapore mediate a larger conversation about cultural preservation in the face of modernity, weighing legacy against socioeconomic mobility, and solidifying food security while maintaining equitable access. For my multimedia project, I will utilize photo essays, one-on-one interviews, audio clips, and short-form videos to showcase the lived experiences of vendors and local residents engaging with these spaces in uniquely personal ways. Food is a vessel for the stories of humanity; ensuring a future of food justice requires us to first understand our shared history to collectively create environments where the people and culture behind food can adapt and thrive.
There already exists important works like the book Wet Market to Table, guides like Makansutra, and research projects like On Hawker documenting the lives and knowledge contained within hawker centers and wet markets. My National Geographic project will contribute to this conversation through an ethnographic combination of visual, auditory, and written storytelling with concrete historical research and qualitative fieldwork. I aim to express the intersecting lives contained within Singaporean food culture and its full range of struggle, triumph, and perseverance against the backdrop of existential change. That way, my project can offer a path to both protect an intangible wonder of the world, while also taking part in actively improving it for generations to come.
Please provide a bulleted or numbered list of the objective(s) of your project with a short description of each, and how progress towards each objective will be measured.
Objectives should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound.
The final deliverable for this project will be a set of 12 multimedia stories (6 of hawker center or wet market vendors, 6 of local residents) in the form of photo essays, written interviews, audio clips, and short videos. In addition to being part of National Geographic’s portfolio, these stories will be displayed at NUS and permanently archived within their digital libraries. To achieve this, I will:
1. Determine the progression of state interventions in hawker centers and wet markets (3 months)
I will work closely with my 3 professors at NUS to search its own institutional library, art and research databases, government archives, and public food-related collections to conduct appropriate background research. This will likely include in-person interviews with government officials from the NEA, National Heritage Board, and other food-related government agencies.
I will track my progress by working with a digital illustrator to concurrently create a visual timeline of the development of current hawker centers and wet markets. This is meant to offer a digestible, at-a-glance insight into how these spaces map onto the country’s origin story, immigration patterns, and cultural identity development. I will conclude this segment of work with a written literature review of publicly known information on the impact of state-sponsored interventions to date.
2. Identify 2 vendors and 2 local residents per market center to be featured as part of my qualitative research (2 months)
I will leverage my local connections to connect with as many vendors and local residents at my research sites as possible. I will also set up a table stand at each center and spend dedicated time developing trusting relationships with vendors and residents. I aim to have signed memorandums of understanding (MOU) on their participation in the research process at the end of 2 months.
3. Capture portraits, food photos, behind-the-scenes (BTS) photos, videos, and conduct in-person interviews (6 months)
I will focus on 1 vendor and 1 resident per month to deep-dive into their story and everyday life. I anticipate spending 5 hours to conduct 2-3 lengthy one-on-one interviews that will be recorded by video and audio. I will also spend 5-10 hours a week with each person to capture 3-5 portraits, 10-20 food photos (i.e., plated food for vendors, finished meals for residents), 20-30 BTS photos (i.e., process shots for vendors, lifestyle imagery for residents), and 1-2 hours’ worth of supplemental footage (b-roll) to be cut into 2 short-form videos up to 3 minutes long.
4. Compile, synthesize, edit, and finalize research materials: 2 months
I will organize all the raw materials I’ve collected, then collaboratively review and curate them with my research participants to develop an accurate and engaging multimedia portrait of their relationship with hawker centers and wet markets. In particular, I will pay attention to if/how these interactions have been impacted by state interventions, and how they have changed over time. I aim to showcase their lived experience through the lens they want it to be told, versus my interpretation of their story.
I will use Otter.ai to transcribe interviews and student researchers to translate between languages. I will personally edit the interview audio clips and videos in Adobe Premiere Pro in tandem with executing the last month of step #3 above.
5. Present findings at a public archival exhibition
I will work with NUS Libraries to host a public-facing event to showcase my research outputs from Fulbright and National Geographic. I will be inviting representatives of all government agencies I connected with, and they will build relationships with my research participants to hear and act on their needs. The exhibition will also be available online, with the videos being proliferated on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok to create bridges across generations.
Please provide a timeline and description of the activities, methods, tools and/or storytelling coverage plan you will implement.
Explain why you think these are likely to achieve your objectives, and describe any potential ethical or safety risks to your project and how you will mitigate them.
For the first three months, I will conduct a literature review to shape my own lens of research analysis. I will start with the government archives and NUS libraries, then ask my professors to connect me with local experts, like Kf Seetoh, and academics, such as Lily Kong and Vineeta Sinha (co-authors of Food, Foodways, and Foodscapes: Culture, Community, and Consumption in Post-Colonial Singapore).
Next, I will conduct vendor and resident outreach. I recognize that food security, access, and business viability are vulnerable topics that necessitate trust. From my work in community outreach for my nonprofit, I know that repeated exposure is an essential first step to normalizing a research presence within a new community. I will contact the NEA for approval to host a table at each research site to familiarize myself with the community (and vice versa). I hope to build trust by explaining my project goals through a values-based lens, focusing on the significance of using narrative storytelling to display the lived realities of people behind the otherwise abstract idea of cultural foodways.
Given the diverse ethnicities of the places I’m studying, I will utilize student interpreters in instances of language barriers. I also anticipate spending several months navigating the International Review Board (IRB) process with support from NUS before starting fieldwork.
From March to August 2024, I will interview, photograph, and video-record the stories of 1 vendor and 1 resident per month. I will approach my interviews with semi-structured questions, and have begun reviewing my questions experts to ensure cultural relevancy.
I will use portraiture, lifestyle, and food photography as well as audio clips and video as a kind of ethnography to convey how individual histories and perspectives impart their own contours on the Singaporean foodscape. Every human has an inherent, embodied knowledge of food, identity, and culture, and I hope to showcase these internal and external dynamics in uninhibited states. I have seen how different environmental contexts can alter a subject’s willingness and creativity in on-camera expression, and will collaborate with my research participants to curate intentional spaces for photo and video footage.
I have considerable experience in food styling and will continue my style of highlighting natural, small details in the frame to convey context and add nuance with minimal staging. For local residents, their routine diets will be captured as composed “dishes,” and their portraits and lifestyle snapshots a symbolic meal of emotions, to reveal the dynamism of food on individual identity.
I will combine my experience developing short, analytical explainer videos on food politics for my nonprofit with my experimental background in extended reality (XR) to script, storyboard, stitch, and edit video footage detailing the origin stories of vendors, and the corresponding influences demonstrated within the products or finished dishes sold at their stand.
From June to October 2024, I will compile, organize, and synthesize collected data, using emic coding to organically draw out themes and patterns. I will draw upon the tenets of critical participatory action research (CPAR) by inviting my research participants to co-design the qualitative data review process, and engage in consensus-based decision-making on how the results will be displayed and used.
Finally, my awareness campaign for the project debut will be rooted in community-centered preservation. I will likely host the exhibition in tandem with grassroots partners to build cross-functional coalitions supporting the longevity of hawker centers and wet markets.
Please briefly describe your stakeholders, how they are involved in the project, and whether you have existing media or dissemination plans with any of them.
We define stakeholders as anyone impacted by your work, such as local communities, professional networks, public/private sector, media outlets, students, or audiences. To help us evaluate the outreach component of your proposal, please add links to any websites, social media accounts, public engagement platforms, or other mechanisms you will use to engage your stakeholders.
1. National University of Singapore professors, students, and Library
My Fulbright research proposal is co-signed with 3 professors at NUS. I will be meeting with them on a bi-weekly to monthly basis to refine my research plan, review findings, and adjust when needed. These professors each have their own focus areas that I hope to incorporate in some capacity: environmental policy, business leadership, and inclusive citizenship. In addition to acting as advisors, they have agreed to support my work by finding potential grants, offering the support of their student researchers, and providing access to NUS libraries and other physical resources.
2. Singaporean Government
I will conduct interviews with government officials in the National Environmental Agency (which oversees hawker centers and wet markets), the National Heritage Board (which publishes research and reports on these centers), and the Ministry of Health (which has engaged in healthfulness campaigns with hawker vendors) to understand how they see these spaces integrating into the national agenda for the future. I will leverage my network to connect with these representatives. For desired interviewees that I do not have warm introductions to, I will conduct cold outreach through email, phone, and in-person meeting requests.
3. Hawker Center & Wet Market Vendors
I will initiate cold (in person, via email) and warm (via an introduction from local peers) outreach to vendors I’m most interested in interviewing as part of my project. For those open to hearing more, I will set up times to meet, introduce myself, and walk them through my research proposal, objectives, their time/energy requirements, and compensation. My approach is rooted in collaboration and mutually beneficial engagement, and I commit to altering my research or documentation methods based on their feedback.
After a formal memorandum of understanding (MOU) of their consenting to be part of the research process is signed, I will spend approximately 5 hours a week, for a month, with 6 different vendors to capture all needed collateral to convey their story. I will ensure they can access all final collateral, invite them to the project exhibition, and promote them on social media (e.g., my own Instagram/TikTok, NUS, Fulbright, and National Geographic accounts). I hope vendors will see this project as a way to publicly preserve aspects of their legacy and connect with their local community.
4. Local Residents
I will set up a table at my three research sites with a sign inviting local residents to learn more about and/or participate in my multimedia project. After telling each person about my research proposal, I will offer them several ways to engage: a 5-minute survey (manual or digital, unpaid, unlimited spots) about their interactions with that center, a 30-minute to 1-hour long interview (in-person or virtual, paid, unlimited spots), or the entire multimedia documentation process (5 hours a week for a month, paid, 6 spots total). Like how I approach relationship-building with my selected vendors, I will collaborate with residents to design a documentation process that feels values-aligned and consistently include them in this project's promotion, dissemination, and archival. I aim for my project to validate residents’ lived experiences, highlight their concerns and ideas, and model positive community engagement for future research efforts.
5. Broader Singaporean Food Community
I have begun outreach to leaders and organizational / community hubs within the Singaporean food community. So far, I’ve met Tse Wei Lim, a former restauranteur writing a book featuring home recipes of various hawkers, and Angela Wu, owner of the local cocktail bar Nemesis. Others I’d like to connect with and ask to be my project's informal (but credited) advisors include Pamela Chia, the folks behind Everyday Tour Company, Kf Seetoh, Luke Tay, Khir Johari, and the academics I previously mentioned.
Describe all of the expected results of this project, its predicted impacts, and what success means for each stakeholder.
Results are defined as the deliverables that will be created during this project (e.g., academic/white papers, photographs, lesson plans, etc.). Impact is defined as the specific changes you hope to achieve (e.g., behavior change, greater understanding of an issue, improved management of a resource, etc.)
1. Selection of 12 multimedia interviews (6 of vendors, 6 of local residents)
My goal is to bring alive the interviews I conduct with each person as a rich multimedia gallery comprised of 30-50 photographs, audio clips, short-form video, and printed quotes. These stories will be available digitally (via National Geographic and the NUS archive) and analog (via an in-person exhibition).
I view this project as an ethnographic snapshot of Singaporean identity today, told through people’s dynamic relationship with their food environment. Success would be conveying to the audience that food is a vessel for storytelling: by understanding what, how, where, and why Singaporeans eat the way they eat, we can more accurately address the power structures and social pressures inherent within every society. To my and my professors’ knowledge, a project of this nature does not yet exist.
2. Series of 12 short-form videos (2 per vendor)
These mobile-native, 3-minute-long vertical videos will be part of both the multimedia exhibition and the online launch strategy. Each vendor will be featured in two videos: one will focus on their stall's origins and evolution, while the other will center around a dish or ingredient that represents who they are. Woven through their stories are reflections of their place in Singapore’s future, contextualized within the government’s stated national priorities.
These videos are meant to bridge the divide between academic research and mainstream engagement. By leveraging platforms like Instagram and TikTok, these videos offer audiences domestically and internationally a glimpse into each vendor’s personality, history, and sociocultural perspective. They are not documentary-style videos, but instead positioned as a casual conversation between community members. I hope this intimate, yet playful, celebration of vendors and their legacy can fuel continued public interest in preserving these cultural heritage sites.
3. Literature Review & Visual Timeline
The first written component of my research will be a literature review of the Singaporean government’s interventions in hawker centers and wet markets and their impact on vendors and local residents. I will work with a digital illustrator to depict these efforts via a visual timeline. This timeline will be used as a starting point to introduce visitors (digital or in-person) to the rest of my project.
4. Research Paper
My Fulbright deliverable will take the form of an academic text, analyzing the impact and efficacy of state interventions in hawker centers and wet markets on the axes of food security, access, and business outcomes. I hope my research can lend insight into potential strategic changes for the Singaporean government to direct funds and resources in ways that support the sustainability of vendors and local residents.
5. Public Exhibition
To debut my research project’s inclusion in the NUS Libraries, I will host a public exhibition at the university in collaboration with a local grassroots organization to gather featured vendors and residents, their friends and family, government officials, project advisors and researchers, as well as the broader Singaporean food community to participate in a physical “gallery walk” through the multimedia artifacts. Success means that this event deepens relationships between the featured vendors and residents with key stakeholders in Singaporean society. I believe this exhibition and resulting discussions will foster a spirit of collaboration and mutual aid long past my departure from the country.
As a professional chef and social justice advocate, I know that mapping the interplay between food, individual/cultural identity, and politics is critical to understanding the trajectory and implications of human development across history. I believe my research will clarify the transformative nature of how humans relate to food for many more generations to come.
Recent Meme Roundup
Personal Stuff from the Week
Watching: Princess Agents and it’s so cringe and yet, I’m still here
Reading: This intriguing piece about taste, recommended by
Eating: A beautiful spread of Chinese food made by my friend Helen!
Drinking: Watermelon juice as watermelon season comes to an end and all the melons are too soggy for plain eating
Nice thing I did for myself this week: Spent dedicated time just playing with polymer clay strictly for fun so I can have hobbies that don’t turn into semi-professions