Insights through Asia Challenge

ITAC banner image with dark purple background. The text "ITAC" is spelled out in photos of past ITAC participants. Text in white letters reads, "Richard Charles Lee Insights through Asia Challenge" and "*Funded* Student Research + Travel Opportunities"

ITAC 2024 Call for Ideas: Changing World Order

Applications Due: February 28, 2024, 11:59PM

Information Session & Application Workshop: February 7, 2024, 10:00-11:00AM

Rm 208N-North House, 1 Devonshire Place. Please RSVP here.

The Asian Institute’s Richard Charles Lee Insights through Asia Challenge (ITAC) is an award-winning experiential learning program that supports outstanding original student research and research-related travel.

This year, ITAC invites students to propose research projects on the theme “Changing World Order as it connects to Asia. We call on ALL U OF T STUDENTS (undergraduate and graduate across all 3 campuses) who want to connect classroom learning to fieldwork in Asia.

Students apply in small teams of 2-4, and awarded teams will be funded to travel to Asia for up to 3 weeks to conduct research over the summer semester. Projects should address a specific issue within the broad theme. For example, how are migration, borders, citizenship, sexuality, race, belonging, exclusion, territory, land, environment and myriad other issues impacted by and shaping of a “Changing World Order.” We invite teams to produce their research in a form well-suited to their project. For example, past ITAC awardees have created policy reports, journal articles, short documentaries, interactive websites, or events. Awarded teams will also complete a short written report (following an ITAC template) at the conclusion of the project.

ITAC is a uniquely immersive and supported research experience. Students prepare extensively for fieldwork and receive academic and professional development training, cultivating all the tools necessary for a successful ITAC experience.

ITAC culminates with a public showcase of research outcomes in September 2024.

Selected teams will receive an award of approximately $5000 each (per student).


Any Questions?

Don’t hesitate to reach out to Shannon Garden-Smith (she/her), Research Coordinator, Rm 103N – North House, 1 Devonshire Place


ITAC is open to undergraduate and graduate students across all three University of Toronto campuses. Students currently enrolled at the Asian Institute will be prioritized.

IMPORTANT: Fieldwork in a country or region of a country with a travel advisory of “Avoid all travel” or “Avoid non-essential travel” is ineligible, as per University policy. Travel advisories are issued by the Government of Canada.

How to Apply?

To apply, please complete TWO online application forms 1) Part 1 - Information Form 2) Part 2 - Project Proposal by 11:59PM EST, February 28, 2024.

Please note, this is a two-step application process. 1) Each team member in your group must submit their own information form. 2) Your team should collectively submit one project proposal form.

Evaluation Criteria

Proposals are reviewed by a committee of Asian Institute faculty, using the criteria below. The committee prioritizes applications from students enrolled in Asian Institute programs.

Quality of Proposed Research Project

  • Compelling and clear research question relevant to the program’s call for ideas
  • Suitability of research methodologies to the proposed topic
  • Research deliverable appropriate to the topic

Impact of Award

  • Significance of the award opportunity for the team’s academic/professional/personal development
  • Potential impact of project results


  • Project objectives are viable with respect to program timeframe and funding


  • The team demonstrates competencies necessary to undertake the project and exceptional research capabilities relative to applicants’ stage of study
2024 Timeline
  • Call for Student Applications Announced

January 22

  • Information Session & Application Workshop

Rm 208N-North House, 1 Devonshire Place. Please RSVP here.

10-11am, February 7

  • Applications Due

11:59PM, February 28

  • Award Decisions Announced

March 28

  • Research Ethics and Methods Workshop
  • Safety Abroad Workshop
  • Students Complete Safety Abroad Requirements


  • Progress Review Meeting & Research Approval

Late April

  • Field Research
  • Monthly Virtual Cohort Meetings


  • Check-ins with Research Coordinator
  • Presenting Research Workshop
  • Research Deliverable (as proposed by the team) & Short Written Report Due (template provided)

Late August

  • Public Presentation of Research Outcomes


Previous ITAC Cycles

2023 ITAC Projects

The Answer Is In The Nearby: Between Boundaries of Class and Borders Chinese International Students and Middle Class — A Preliminary Study on Capital Accumulation and Relevant Processes
  • Zhehui Cici Xie | Literature and Critical Theory, Contemporary Asian Studies, Creative Expression and Society
  • Valerie Ng | Ethics, Society and Law, Literature and Critical Theory
  • Amelia Collet | Peace, Conflict, and Justice, and Public Policy

Aside from its role in lessening inequality, education and the school as an institution often legitimize and reinforce it (Storey 1999, p. 47), with education historically relating to the justification of class distinction and generating patterns of cultural consumption framed as legitimate ways of life. What is obtained from learning is internalized and presented as natural cultural competence (Storey 1999, p. 47); socio-economic differences are “transformed” into, or framed as, academic differences.

The Chinese case is unique in many ways. One of the reasons making it worthwhile for our attention is the emerging scapes of inequalities in the process of being produced, instead of continued, as China transitions institutionally and politically from the Mao-era communist ideologies to Deng-era (and arguably preceding that) market-oriented reforms. This is not to say that inequality did not exist in China during the Mao era and the preceding revolution processes; rather, this study bases its argument on the ideological and institutional discontinuities China went through in its development. We might approach this issue through the various "contexts"--perhaps most crucially the familial context--of an individual Chinese overseas student's experience and decision-making, with a particular focus on Canada. Furthermore, we have learned that important, often coercive and violent, institutional and infrastructural processes are heavily implicated, if not playing central causal roles in, the international student circuit of (re)production, despite the fact that coercion and violence are not the only factors defining the process of moving children/students and families overseas.

Resiliency Factory: Mental Health Discourses in the Recruitment and Training of Overseas Filipina Workers (OFWs)
  • Angeli Almonte | Contemporary Asian Studies, Diaspora and Transnational Studies
  • Angelica Alvarez | Industrial Engineering
  • Nicole Uson | Health and Disease, Biology

This research project examines the current discourses that make mental health (un)knowable in the Filipino labour diaspora and how they shape recruitment and training strategies, perceived well-being, and grassroots collective action. This project is specifically aimed with a feminist and anti-oppressive lens due to the prevalence of precarity, exploitation, and abuse in Filipina Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs). A sample study was conducted in Toronto, Canada, and Manila, Philippines, in which five NGOs, two governmental organizations, and 20+ Filipina OFWs were interviewed. Recruitment and training materials were collected from two government agencies in Manila. Filipina OFWs and OFW-supporting organizations reported high mistrust between OFWs and recruitment agencies, pervasive cultural stigma towards mental health across the diaspora, and limited social protections abroad. Findings were consistent in both cities. Despite widespread concern for OFWs' mental health, explicit information on this subject is rarely seen in organization training materials. Instead, there is a preference for anti-trafficking awareness and ethical recruitment practices. The prevalence of bagong bayani (Encinas-Franco 2013) or national hero discourses in marketing materials conceptualize OFWs as subjects of sacrifice, self-sufficiency, and resilience, negating the need for supportive action and acknowledgement. The lack of widespread programming and awareness for OFW mental health leads us to conclude that discourses directly influence the concern for this aspect of well-being. Mental health becomes (un)knowable in the process of recruitment, training, and labour abroad. We hope this research highlights the ongoing challenges in integrating mental health as an indispensable aspect of OFW well-being abroad and in the Philippines.

Negotiating Meritocracy and Educational Inequality: Exploring Parent and Student Responses to Contradictions within Singapore's Meritocratic Narrative and Private Tutoring Industry
  • Melody Chan | Peace, Conflict & Justice, Human Geography, Environmental Studies
  • Nicole Shi | Contemporary Asian Studies, Philosophy, Political Science

Singapore has one of the world’s largest and most conspicuous private tutoring sectors. The existence of private tutoring introduces new disparities in access to opportunities, arising from the fact that students from prosperous families can afford to access more and better educational support. Such inequality of opportunity undermines meritocracy, one of the nation’s guiding principles, which promises to reward individuals fairly based on their hard work. This research study, which will form the foundation for a forthcoming documentary, explores Singaporeans’ increasing recognition of widening inequality and disillusionment with equal opportunity. Despite this, both the demand for private tutoring as a means of consolidating advantage and the persistent belief in meritocracy for the pursuit of upward mobility remain. This study identifies Singapore’s high-stakes and tiered education system and the influence of kia su culture as key drivers for the high consumption of supplementary education services. This study also finds the Ministry of Education's policy initiatives aimed at reducing the emphasis on academic performance and broadening the concept of student success as ineffective and insufficient in altering prevailing attitudes. In response, educational non-government organizations are emerging to address the illusion of equal opportunity amidst Singapore’s educational landscape, not only by supporting the immediate educational needs of lower-income students, but also by facilitating critical discourse that resists dominant meritocratic narratives surrounding individual responsibility and success.

Lamyerda: Filipino Walk of Life
  • Niño Jan Pol V. Dosdos | Anthropology, Public Policy, Contemporary Asian Studies
  • Ferdinand M. Lopez | Ph.D. in Women and Gender Studies

Lamyerda is migration—a wandering across the seas. In fact, our Filipino migrant workers abroad are called overseas foreign workers (OFWs) because of our archipelagic unconscious and our islandic consciousness which recenter water as the dominant force that shapes our realities and drives our actions. Filipinos have been wandering far and wide, traversing the nexus of time and space within the archipelago and elsewhere.

In this project, we want to find out how Filipino migrants and immigrants imagine Newfoundland, (in general) and Saint John’s (in particular) through lamyerda or wayfaring as means of exploring conditions of possibilities in life. Specifically, how do diasporic Filipinos develop a sense of home in Saint John’s, Newfoundland? And what functions does meandering, walking, and urban sauntering serve the Filipinos in diaspora? These are among the important questions our research seeks to probe.

Majority of Filipinos from the Philippines and elsewhere come to St. John’s because of diverse work opportunities, and the shorter waiting time in acquiring permanent residence status. Filipinos find and make home in Saint John’s because they are drawn to the kindness and good nature of Newfoundlanders, the laidback life in the islands, the scenic beauty of the Maritimes, work availability, and the welcoming presence and hospitality of the Filipino community there. Walking at St. John’s help the Filipino migrants to keep their bodies fit for work, and help them relieve stress and anxieties, reach their work destination when the transport system breaks down, enables them to pause and consider life’s vicissitude and constant clobbering, form new social relations, establish a care network, and strengthen bonds of affection.

Understanding Mobility as Stuckness: Understanding Climate Change and Environment Degradation in a Cambodian Floating Village
  • Tracy Dusabimana | Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies, African Studies, Contemporary Asian Studies
  • Tariq Harney | Anthropology, Political Science
  • Abhay Singh Sachal | Global Health, Peace, Conflict, and Justice
  • Pritika Vij | Economics, International Relations, Data Analytics

This study investigates challenges linked to climate change, adaptation strategies, and migration in Prek Toal, the largest floating village in Cambodia situated on Tonle Sap Lake. We conducted qualitative interviews and employed purposive sampling to explore environmental challenges faced by the community. These include decreasing fish populations, water level alterations, corruption, illegal fishing, and the spread of invasive water hyacinth. Our analysis reveals how the community's unique reliance on water interconnects with their livelihoods and well-being. It also delves into the impact of limited educational opportunities on younger villagers and examines the influence of Western conservation ideologies, particularly the role of a local NGO in environmental preservation efforts. The research underscores the precariousness of villagers' living conditions, investigating the theme of mobility through the lens of stuckness. While limitations such as participant recruitment challenges, time constraints, and language barriers exist, the study contributes to the understanding of climate change impacts and adaptation within vulnerable communities like Prek Toal.

Why here and not there? An Exploratory, Qualitative Study about Medical Tourism in South Korea
  • Chloe Eunice Panganiban | Global Health, Science and Society
  • Nadia Schwartz Rivero | History, Psychology
  • Catherine Yang | Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, History

Through the examination of Seoul, South Korea’s medical tourism industry, the purpose of this project is to qualitatively address driving factors for international collaboration, participation, and mobilization concerning healthcare. This research aims to understand what South Korea’s role in the medical tourism industry is internationally and why individuals choose Seoul over other destinations, to further understand what “medical tourism” is and can be. With an emphasis on comprehending client selection processes, treatment planning/implementation, and personal experiences, this study examined the unique perspectives and insights of those involved in South Korea’s medical tourism sector. Beginning with an extensive review of pertinent literature to determine individuals, organizations, and businesses with experience and/or knowledge of medical tourism, subjects suitable for interviewing were identified and contacted. These subjects included clinics/hospitals, third-party medical facilitators, and academics. Participants were then asked to engage in 60-minute semi-structured interviews, which allowed for qualitative discussions of medical tourism. The purposive choice to use qualitative methodologies was in an effort to address a persistent research gap amongst the relevant literature, which overwhelmingly favors quantitative data and analysis. The experiences of those interviewed alongside personal observations pointed towards a variety of possible themes/trends such as quality service, cost-effectiveness, safety, self-image, quality of life, culture, etc. Overall, these ideas suggest that while medical tourism can be defined in literal terms such as cross-border medical services, it may also be tied to larger notions of care and well-being.

Celebrating an idol's birthday: The intersected circulations of desires, affections, and money of music fans in Hong Kong
  • Bernice Hoi Ching Cheung | Music
  • Pamela Tsui | Sociology

Our study examines the birthday celebrations of Anson Lo, a prominent Cantonese pop music icon hailing from Hong Kong, aiming to understand the motivations and mechanisms behind fans' engagement in the exchange of emotions, desires, and financial contributions revolving around Lo's birthday festivities. Employing an interdisciplinary approach that merges sociological and ethnomusicological viewpoints, we offer an ethnographic comprehension of fan culture in contemporary Hong Kong.

During the summer of 2023, we conducted observations at a series of celebratory events in Hong Kong, coupled with interviews involving twenty fans. Our findings reveal that fans employ diverse monetary practices as a means of expressing their deep affection for their idol They not only purchase branded apparel and accessories from their idol's enterprises or advertised by the idol, but they also take the initiative to craft various "eungwon" souvenirs to share with fellow fans. In addition, they actively raise funds for charitable causes under their idols' names. It's worth noting that these behaviors extend beyond the boundaries of Hong Kong itself. Fans residing in countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia, and others also contribute to local charitable organizations in honor of their idols. The aim is to establish a positive reputation for idols among the local people through these acts of kindness. Our documentary's primary focus lies in capturing the visual and auditory essence of the birthday event, thus providing a historical testament to the transformative impact of fan practices on the urban landscapes of Hong Kong.

Building A Chinese Garden in America: The Transnational Production of the Astor Court in 1980
  • Taro Zheming Cai | Ph.D. in Architecture, Landscape, and Design

The Astor Chinese Garden Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art stands as the first authentic reconstruction of a Chinese garden in North America. Crafted as a replica of a courtyard from the Garden of the Master of Fishing Nets in Suzhou, the Astor Court was prefabricated in Suzhou with authentic materials and assembled in New York City by Chinese artisans in 1980. This endeavor also marked the first permanent cultural exchange between the United States and the People's Republic of China, concurrently signifying the establishment of Sino-U.S. diplomatic relations.

This study delves into the design and construction processes of the Astor Court, engaging in a comparative analysis of its Suzhou precedent within cultural, legal, and ecological frameworks. Site surveys and archival research reveal the Astor Court's role as more than a simple garden replica; it emerges as a project with profound political implications. Firstly, the Astor Court transcends traditional garden-making, embracing the characteristics of modern architectural production. It institutionalizes and objectifies a multitude of garden elements into a cultural artifact—an assemblage representing the classical Chinese garden. Secondly, the Astor Court exemplifies the globalization of Chinese gardens as both the People's Republic of China's cultural identities and apparatus of cultural diplomacy.

Crossing Waters: The Past and Present of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau-Bridge
  • Sabrina Teng-io Chung | East Asian Studies
  • Qi Hong | East Asian Studies
  • Hongyun Lyu | History
  • Kachun Alex Wong | John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design

China’s investment in mega-infrastructure projects at both domestic and international level has prompted new inquiries into questions of mobility and immobility, circulation and disruption. Our project takes the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (HZMB) as a vantage point to investigate acts and aspirations of crossing waters in the Pearl River Estuary. The world’s “longest sea-crossing bridge,” the HZMB comprises a network of cable-stayed bridges, undersea tunnel, artificial islands, marine viaducts, and link roads that span across lands, waters, and administrative jurisdictions. Through archival research and fieldwork related to traveling across the Pearl River Estuary, our project contends that the HZMB functions more than just as an infrastructure that facilitates movements; rather, it embodies a history of immobility and disruptions across land and waters.

On the one hand, we demonstrated how, from its initial inception as the Lingdingyang Bridge in the 1990s to its present-day formation, the HZMB has made possible the construction of new assemblages of artificial islands that introduced significant changes and disruptions to local travel patterns and living conditions in Zhuhai, Macau, and Hong Kong. On the other hand, from government reports to memoirs to cultural productions, we traced multiple narratives or acts of crossing waters across the Pearl River Estuary that were codified as “smuggling,” “escaping,” and “border transgressing.” Deemed “illegal” by governments—be they Chinese, British Hong Kong, or Portuguese Macau—these acts nevertheless provide a crossing space where cultural memories about transgressions against government management of mobility and intimacies collide and converse. By engaging with the past and present formations of the HZMB from the analytics of crossing waters, our project has contributed to new ways of rethinking Chinese mega-infrastructures.

International Student Outmigration - A Case Study of Punjabi Youth Mobility Towards Canada
  • Anukriti Randev | Masters of Global Affairs, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy
  • Kriti Sharma | Masters of Public Policy, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy

Despite the mainstreaming of international student migration into migration research, very few attempts have been made to understand the substantial migration of Indian students to North America, particularly Canada. This study explores the determinants of Punjabi youth mobility towards Canada through in-depth interviews with Indian students in Punjab preparing to study in Canada (n=34). The research goes beyond the structural drivers of migration to delve into more intimate mechanisms that underpin student’s decisions by also considering the individual aspirations for education, freedom and personal growth, the role of family situations, and the catalysing impact of intermediaries and agents. Our findings reveal that the migration of Punjabi youth is more influenced by long-term settlement goals than purely educational pursuits. We highlight the intricate connection between the Canadian dream of Punjabi youth, marketization of Canadian higher education and immigration policies that affect both education quality and job prospects for these students. Other prominent individual-level factors inspiring out migration include pursuit of social and financial independence and presence of social capital in Canada. The notion of freedom emerges as a new driver of student migration. Our findings reveal distinct nature of freedom-driven migration between female and male aspirants. Student migration from Punjab also appears responsive to economic incentives in Canada and economic constraints in India. While Canada's adaptable education system and perceived job opportunities attract students, highly competitive quality education and joblessness in India are identified as key push factors. Finally, we also find an active network of intermediaries that significantly shape the migration process of aspirants. In the examination of these determinants our research tries to inform policy to improve education-migration experience for the student, for the state of Punjab and for Canada.

2022 ITAC Projects

ITAC 2022

The Asian Institute’s Richard Charles Lee Insights through Asia Challenge (ITAC) is an award-winning program that supports outstanding student experiential research by inviting undergraduate and graduate students to work on a research project led by an Asian Institute faculty member.

Working together in small, focused teams, awarded students receive funding to conduct research on a professor-led project over the summer semester, gaining direct research experience on a major scholarly project with an expert in the field.

Awardees form a dynamic peer group and receive academic and professional development training specific to their faculty-led project, as well as support in preparing their application, presenting research outcomes, and more.

ITAC culminates each year with a public showcase of student research outcomes.

  • The program is open to undergraduate and graduate students across all three University of Toronto campuses. Students enrolled in Asian Institute programs are prioritized.
  • Awarded students receive approximately $1,000-$2,000 CAD
Cities of Sand: Tracing contingency in concrete
  • Faculty Lead: Professor Tong Lam
  • Sadat Anwar, John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture
  • Jonathan Banfield, Peace, Conflict and Justice; Contemporary Asian Studies; Political Science
  • Clover Chen, Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies; Ethics, Society, and Law; Indigenous Studies
  • Emily Huang, Department of Geography and Planning (Master’s)

Astoundingly, sand—a material we associate with notions of infinitude and time—is beginning to “run out.” As the primary ingredient in concrete and glass, sand circumscribes our lives, forming the very ground from which we operate. By volume, sand is now the second-most consumed material in the world after water, and it speaks to the temporal, material contradictions at the core of our contemporary world. As Professor of International Politics Laleh Khalili writes, in Asia, massive urbanization projects have led to the illegal mining and smuggling of sand from the Global South, such that beaches in Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Morocco are disappearing overnight to be refashioned into sidewalks and skyscrapers on distant shores. 

Our project examined the dynamics of sand extraction and consumption locally in Tkaronto/Toronto, another city of sand. We considered how these local dynamics overlay with those that Khalili has traced internationally and how the parallels and distinctions reveal specific local histories and ongoing practices of coloniality. By design, our experimental, exploratory, and highly interdisciplinary project approached the topic using a heterogenous mix of research methods. In cultivating a complex, critical view of extractive practices, our project sought to resist these same logics in our own research, instead approaching our time together as an extended seminar that unfolded responsively through reading, discussion, workshops, and site visits. We participated in a workshop with the City of Toronto archives before embarking on archival research, which the team compiled into a moving image document. We used expanded methods borrowed from contemporary art practice, meeting and hearing from artists with related research concerns and participating in exercises that attuned us to the ubiquity of sand in our daily lives. We examined the wider context of mineral extraction in Ontario by participating in a counter tour at a museum, and we learned how sand is extracted, processed, and used in the local construction industry by touring a major sand pit in the GTA.

Indian revolutionary Rash Behari Bose, Manuscript Assistant
  • Faculty Lead: Dr. Joseph McQuade
  • Zuha Tanweer, Contemporary Asian Studies; Political Science
  • Sumayyah Shah, Peace, Conflict & Justice; Criminology; Diaspora & Transnational Studies

Students supported Dr. Joseph McQuade with tasks related to the completion of his book manuscript, a biography of the early twentieth-century Indian revolutionary Rash Behari Bose. Students contributed to Dr. McQuade’s forthcoming book project by assisting with compiling the book’s index and helping to locate historical photographs and maps for inclusion in the manuscript. Students worked with Dr. McQuade to identify potential images for inclusion in his book and were tasked with researching relevant policies to ensure reproduction of the images conforms to local and international copyright laws.

Hyperlocal Histories: Libraries and community media centres in immigrant communities
  • Faculty Lead: Professor Aditi Mehta
  • Sneha Mandhan, Ph.D. in Planning, Geography, and Planning, Collaborative Specialization in South Asian Studies
  • Janine Cik, Department of Geography and Planning (Urban Studies; Human Geography)
  • Angel Yang, Urban Studies; Human Geography; Environmental Geography

Public branch libraries are hyperlocal institutions that produce and disseminate local knowledge, and play important roles in immigrant communities. They serve as assimilation and/or integration centers, gathering places, economic training grounds, sites of activism, and locations of ethnic identity assertion and memorialization. The histories of these community organizations are stories about the development of a neighbourhood, the preservation of culture and identity, as well as the growth of coalitions and divisions. When branch libraries are under-funded or even missing from immigrant neighbourhoods, how do residents fill in the gap? And what does this mean for the practice of community development in ethnic enclaves?

This summer, our research team focused on answering these questions through the case of the Chinatown Branch of the Boston Public Library (BPL), and also began exploring similar branches of the Toronto Public Library (TPL) via mapping and literature reviews for comparison. Through archival research, media analysis, and interviews, we documented the 100-year history of a grassroots movement for a branch library in Boston’s Chinatown. The once-transient branch finally became official and opened its doors in 2018. Our research team identified two important and paradoxical mechanisms that led to the permanence of this hyperlocal institution: 1) the organizing of Chinatown youth who wanted to stay connected to their heritage in their rapidly changing neighbourhood as well as 2) the resources of new Chinatown residents who were unintentionally gentrifying the neighbourhood.

Circuits of Labour: Southeast Asian care worker migrations
  • Faculty Lead: Professor Rachel Silvey
  • Angeli Gem D Almonte, Contemporary Asian Studies
  • Adam Iyad Shafiq Bani Hani, Public Policy; Contemporary Asian Studies
  • Chi Lok (Melody) Chan, Peace, Conflict & Justice; Human Geography; Environmental Studies
  • Alfonso Ralph Mendoza Manalo, Public Policy; Global Asia Studies; Critical Migration Studies
  • Reshad Mubtasim-Fuad, Economics; Political Science; Statistics
  • Chloe Eunice Panganiban, Department of Human Biology, Global Health
  • Nadia Schwartz Rivero, History; Psychology
  • Aisha Shafaqat, Political Science
  • Nicole Shi, Contemporary Asian Studies; Political Science; Philosophy
  • Hannah Wu, International Relations; Contemporary Asian Studies; History

Working with highly motivated students with interest in research on gender and migrant labour from Indonesia, this project developed a relational comparison of migrant workers’ experiences from West Java, Indonesia among those who have traveled for work to a range of destinations in East Asia, the Persian Gulf, and North America. The empirical foci of this research were: i) the migrant rights groups (interstate organizations [ISOs] and non-governmental organizations [NGOs]) working for migrants’ labour rights. The research focused on these organizations (both international[1] and within Indonesia[2]) to provide analysis of specific institutions (e.g., religious and secular migrant rights organizations) and practices (i.e., audiences targeted, Internet communications, discourses invoked, and partnerships developed with other religious and secular groups) to understand how the politics of religion are inflecting contemporary efforts to improve migrants’ rights. In this way, the research developed understanding of place-specific mediations of transnational migration politics. In addition, in that it centered on the socially produced meanings of gender, religion, and rights among migrant workers, the research developed insight into the historic and geographic specificities of these processes.

Building alternative archives of China’s Maoist past
  • Faculty Lead: Professor Yiching Wu
  • Jakub Mscichowski, East Asian Studies
  • Ying On (Erica) Chan, International Relations; Contemporary Asian Studies
  • Shizhe Guo, Political Science; East Asian Studies
  • Yangming Hu, Political Science
  • Zihao Li, History

Primary sources about the tumultuous Maoist past are limited and scattered, as numerous sources have remained locked in state archives and remain inaccessible to both researchers and the general public. They are deemed “sensitive” under the Chinese regime, which fears that historical inquiry may disrupt the official narrative of unity and progress and undermine its legitimacy. Students worked with Professor Wu on a project that aimed to develop innovative and collaborative ways to preserve, curate, and share valuable historical sources. The project built on a large—and continuously expanding— collection of sources including archival documents, pamphlets, correspondences and diaries, Red Guard publications, and more.

2021 ITAC Projects

Youth identity in the Milk Tea Alliance
  • Tracy Cheung (Contemporary Asian Studies and Human Geography)
  • Rashmi Raj (Contemporary Asian Studies and Sociology)

The Milk Tea Alliance is an online hashtag that originated on Twitter to signal solidarity between multiple Asian countries/administrative regions such as Thailand, Myanmar, Hong Kong and more. Primarily powered by youth, this alliance stands for democracy and human rights although it originally began as a meme war. In an increasingly globalized world, social relations and how youth identify themselves are constantly transforming under rapidly changing conditions, which includes emerging online communities. This project examines youth identity in Hong Kong and Thailand in relation to the Milk Tea Alliance to uncover whether this alliance has the potential to impact how youth identify themselves in relation to nationality and on a global scale. Our research asks, if Asian youth are willing to take part in the online, transnational Milk Tea Alliance community, does their participation shift their sense of identity, so that they feel identified with transnational alliances that exceed national identity? We gathered data through online surveys circulated between Thai and Hong Konger social media users. The results indicated a relationship between Asian youth strongly favouring the alliance and participating in the hashtag and their identification as a global citizen more than a citizen of their nation state. Possible explanations for this trend include their increased immersion in a global community that circulates transnational information with high regard for universal human rights, therefore increasing feelings of solidarity with fellow Asian youth.

Rogue representations: Diasporic digital archives of South Asian musical media
  • Hassan Asif (PhD Student, Faculty of Information)

In this essay I explore how social construction of memory is operationalized in South Asian diasporic digital archives of musical media while interacting with the transformative potentials of digital memory-making tools. I ask how social media and related digital platforms develop conditions for digital memory-making for South Asian diasporic communities and question if there are epistemic blind spots in the way we locate power and related negotiations in such diasporic archives of musical media. I do this by presenting two case studies of South Asian digital musical media archives, Discostan and Hamnawa being maintained and curated by individuals in North America. Through semi-structured interviews of archivists from both digital archives, I understand their archival practice, their motivations, and their logics for organizing, negotiating, and approaching South Asian media from the past while constructing alternative presents and futures. These digital archivists consider their archival practice as a labour of love while aiming to rectify projected musical categories imposed by Western archival platforms onto non-Western musical systems that often chart their own trajectories in digital media.

Camaraderie and clientelism: A qualitative content analysis of China-Cambodia relations
  • Jonathan Banfield (Contemporary Asian Studies, Peace, Conflict and Justice, and Political Science)

The expansion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) raises critical questions about the nature of client-state relationships within Southeast Asia. Drawing on the case of Cambodia, this paper seeks to draw out the key factors animating official pro-China sentiments through a comprehensive literature review and qualitative content analysis of major Cambodian news outlets. Articles from 2014 to 2021 discussing Khmer-Sino interactions were collected from the Khmer Times, Agence Kampuchea Press, and Phnom Penh Post. These articles were systematically coded for seven themes: Chinese sovereignty, development, deviation, friendship, military relations, neutral foreign policy and sentimental support. Analysis of Khmer Times’ content indicated a number of trends, including: an increase in the number of coded mentions of neutral foreign policy in response to increased coverage on development, and a return to emphasis on friendship and decreased coverage on development following the COVID-19 pandemic. Analysis of the other news outlets revealed a general uptick in the number of mentions of friendship over time, with particular spiking attributable to the pandemic. Drawing on Cambodia’s case, this article contributes to understandings of Southeast Asian patron-client relations through analysing official sentiments and assessing how and why they are projected thematically in different ways.

The sustainability of culture-led regeneration: 2 cases from Shanghai’s urban waterfronts
  • Amy Chen (Contemporary Asian Studies, Diaspora and Transnational Studies, and Political Science)

Since China’s market reforms in the late 1970s, Shanghai has played a leading role in the country’s economic restructuring. The transition from a manufacturing-based economy to one that prioritizes creativity and innovation is supported through a series of urban renewal projects. This research compares two urban regeneration project cases on Shanghai’s waterfronts–M50 and Shanghai West Bund–and explores the effectiveness of culture-led urban regeneration in addressing the sustainable redevelopment of urban spaces. Data is gathered from primary and secondary literature and analyzed using GIS (geographic information system) technology. It is then interpreted through Bianchini and Parkinson’s (1993) proposed debate on culture-led urban regeneration, including the cultural funding dilemma, economic dilemma, and spatial dilemma. The analysis demonstrates the varieties within culture-led strategies of urban regeneration and how different instances of culture-led regeneration have considered sustainability an anchoring factor in their design. This research concludes that Shanghai’s culture-led urban regeneration of industrial heritage is faced with the challenges of (a) incorporating the creative resources generated by current institutions into shaping the projects’ future development and (b) offsetting the effects of gentrification, brought on due to the urban renewal process, by providing benefits to a fuller definition of the community.

China as an ideological threat against America? A dissemination of anti-China sentiment on far-right forum
  • Cheryl Cheung (Political Science and American Studies)

This project delves into to the far-right online forum to investigate whether a predominant source of anti-Asian hate within the American alt-right community is based on a fear of the Chinese government’s power. Using a case study approach to detect the sentiments underlying posts with keywords relating to China, the findings revealed anti-China sentiment on the forum was largely directed to China as a singular entity overseas, rather than at Asian-Americans. Though the posts reveal a suspicion of government corruption, many of the government-related accusations were also about the state gaining the ‘upperhand’ over America. In sum, there is looming fear of China’s increasing power at the cost of Americans’. Given the dearth of academic research on, I encourage greater analysis by journalists and scholars to examine the impact of discriminatory speech on far-right forums like this one as a bid for greater public awareness and more robust policy by lawmakers.

(Re)envisioning routes: Examining environmental and cultural sustainability in Nepal’s tourism industry
  • Ashwini Selvakumaran (Peace, Conflict & Justice Studies, English, Diaspora & Transnational Studies)
  • Neha Dhaliwal (Peace, Conflict, & Justice Studies, Human Geography, Diaspora & Transnational Studies)
  • Aishwarya Patel (Comprehensive Music Studies, Political Science, Certificates in Health Applications in Music & Music Technology)
  • Sachin Oza (Ethics, Society, & Law, Contemporary Asian Studies, Near & Middle Eastern Civilisations)

This project analyzes the extent to which tourism practices negatively impact cultural and environmental sustainability in Nepal, and how the government, in tandem with other stakeholders, can alter its approach to preserve the country’s unique socio-environmental landscape. In particular, our team’s focus was on Kathmandu and Upper Mustang. Through an extensive literature review, we analyzed existing literature related to the socio-economic damage brought about by COVID-19 to Nepal and the intersections between current tourism practices, the cultural sustainability of these practices, and environmental degradation. This provided us with an appropriate backdrop when understanding Nepal’s socio-cultural and environmental landscape. We connected with stakeholders and organizations including environmentally conscious NGOs, local people whose livelihood surrounds tourism, and tourism workers. We conducted a range of interviews, collecting quantitative data that mobilized the perspective of citizens and workers who are at the forefront of these issues, supplementing our preexisting understanding of the country’s tourism landscape today. In a forthcoming policy report, we conclude that conservation strategies must be holistic. Sustainable development measures beyond ecotourism are needed to maintain Nepal’s environmental landscape. A wide variety of stakeholders will need to (continue to) work together to support Nepal’s culture and traditions and resist the commodification of traditional artefacts by tourists.

Female-led labour unions as empowerment: Bangladeshi garment factories
  • Ibnat Islam (Political Science and Peace, Conflict & Justice)

This research explores the feminized garment industry in Bangladesh by analyzing the capacity of labour unions to act as a space of sociopolitical empowerment for female workers during COVID-19. Through a literature review, documentary and film analyses, and interviews, the research investigates what Bangladeshi female garment factory workers’ labour means in the broader context of the global supply chain, and how pandemic-era mobilizations can impact the workers’ ability to empower themselves. The research finds that, set against the backdrop of a globalizing world and a patriarchal society, the class and gender positionalities of female garment factory workers impact their ability to successfully organize into unions. The pandemic has exacerbated the dire working conditions of garment factories and reinforced deep-rooted gender roles through the unequal division of labour both at home and in the workplace. Further, the ability of female workers to unionize has become increasingly more difficult during the pandemic. This is due to the implementation of social distancing measures and the inability of the workers to prioritize their own working conditions, as the capitalist and patriarchal conditions of their environments force them to spend more time servicing their family members and households throughout the pandemic lockdowns.

Exile activism: Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activism in the United Kingdom
  • Wan Li (Contemporary Asian Studies and Human Geography)
  • Chan-Min Roh (Contemporary Asian Studies, South Asian Studies, and Asian Canadian Studies)

Through the case study of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activism in the UK, this research explores the question: How does exile change activism? The origins and process of exile can be traced directly to key political events, notably the escalation of local protests in Hong Kong from 2019 to 2020, the subsequent imposition of the National Security Law, and the enforcement of the BNO policy by the British government. These events impelled the current mass exodus of Hong Kongers to the UK. Drawing on insights from exile politics, social movement theories, and contentious politics, the research focusses on how mechanisms of mobilization change prior to and after exile. Crucially, exile acts as a catalyzing factor that allows for a comparison of two case studies (pre-exile and post-exile). By conducting an extensive literature review on relevant theoretical frameworks, we set out to assess the applicability of the contentious politics framework in the study of exile activism. Through conducting interviews with Hong Kong pro-democracy groups in the United Kingdom and analyzing the primary social media sites of their political mobilization, we are able to identify key mechanisms of mobilization at play as a result of political exile.

Understanding female rural-urban migration in China
  • Saara Meghji (Political Science, Contemporary Asian Studies, and History)

This research project seeks to understand the factors motivating female rural-urban migration in China and the impacts of these processes. In particular, the project examines the scale and specific manifestations of migration including its gendered dimensions. The research considers why women often face increased barriers to migration (due, for example, to traditional gender roles in families and local communities), as well as why overcoming patriarchal and structural barriers in the form of the hukou system is often key for those who do migrate. Further, the project explores how some women are able to mobilize the notion of marriage as an “end goal” in their lives to effectively migrate with husbands, adopt better hukou, and thus access increased economic prosperity. Beyond this, the project concludes that when women migrate, they often face reduced economic opportunities and are more likely to occupy precarious employment in the informal sector. However, the increasing visibility of female migration has contributed to broader changes about women’s roles in China with the potential to continue shaping preference for male children and marriage dynamics.

Beginning to rethink Dharma like a feminist
  • Gauri Persad (Diaspora & Transnational Studies, English and Equity Studies)

“Beginning to Rethink Dharma like a Feminist” is a podcast designed to invite a critical feminist view of Dharma in the Bhagavad Gita (BVG). The Bhagavad Gita’s reading of Dharma usually provides uncomfortable expectations for women and lower-caste communities. In this project, I explore the standard and hegemonic, hetero-patriarchal, castest readings of Dharma that engulf our society. I attempt to develop the concept of Dharma as compatible with left-leaning, feminist social theory to create a working definition that captures Dharma in the Bhagavad Gita in a way that makes room for everyone, particularly women and minorities. I produced the project as a podcast to make it accessible to the working class, homemakers, and people who need Dharma to be rethought the most. Ultimately, this project concludes that it is possible to reframe Dharma in feminist terms to acknowledge that patriarchy and castism have tarnished potential.

Imagining God in the lockdown
  • Ariel Siagan (PhD Student, Theology)

My project aims to understand how God is imagined by religious leaders and service providers in the Philippines during the time of COVID-19 lockdowns. Using three different mechanisms to explore the topic, I first studied the documents issued by the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) during the period of the second lockdown, February to May 2021. Second, I analyzed the liturgies and speeches delivered on the Peace Summit organized by the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEPP) via Zoom. Finally, I organized a semi-structured focus group discussion with participants who are direct service providers of social and religious services to the people. Out of eight participants, half are ministers of a local congregation and the other half are ecumenical workers. My data-set suggests that at this critical time, the idea of God is mostly imagined as a concrete experience rather than an abstract idea, more immanent than transcendent. God is imagined as suffering along with the people rather than God at a remove, on the throne.

2020 ITAC Projects

Record Unavailable: Unsettling approaches to South Asian archives in the age of COVID-19
  • Henria Aton (PhD student, Faculty of Information and Centre for South Asian Studies)

The COVID-19 pandemic has swiftly and deeply changed the way scholars of South Asia can approach their research, particularly through limitations of access to archival sources. This ITAC project explores the current response of scholars of South Asia to the pandemic and its effects on the ways we carry out research, arguing that new interdisciplinary conversations must occur between scholars of South Asia and their colleagues in archival studies. Such collaborations, I argue, will bolster our understanding of archives, how they are constructed, and what materials and histories remain at the limits of our definitions of “archives” and the funding that enables digitization projects in the global south. Through intensive research across disciplines and platforms, and drawing from my own research with unconventional archives in South Asia, this project responds to the current moment and seeks to centre open collaboration between two fields that have rarely overlapped but that can provide critical new insights on archives and the digital world in South Asia. The outcomes of this research are twofold: first, I produced a “literature review” (an evolving document that will be frequently updated) that provides an overview, designed for graduate students, of how scholars of South Asia have responded to our current research crisis. Second, I am writing a longer, scholarly article that uses this research to demonstrate that scholarship drawing from both archival studies and South Asia studies can provide new, innovative avenues for research on archives in the region during COVID.

Searching for Belonging: Sense of belonging as a protective factor against depression, PTSD, and distress amongst Uyghur refugees
  • Hala Bucheeri (Psychology and Neuroscience)
  • Shahd Fulath Khan (Psychology and Neuroscience)

More Uyghurs are fleeing their homes in Xinjiang due to oppression by the Chinese government, resulting in large numbers of refugees and diaspora communities around the world. While Uyghurs may face several challenges in their host countries, having a sense of belonging to their new home can be a protective factor against mental illness and distress. In this study, we hypothesized that a higher sense of belonging would be associated with lower incidences of distress. We used a mixed-method study consisting of interviews and questionnaires to investigate the research question. The questionnaire consisted of demographic questions, as well as the General Belongingness Scale (GBS), the Centre of Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D), PTSD Symptoms Scale (PSS), and Kessler’s Psychological Distress Scale (K10). Interviews were semi-structured and questions were centered around belongingness and wellbeing. We found that higher belongingness was associated with low scores on the depression, PTSD, and distress scales, demonstrating a moderate negative relationship. We also found that Uyghurs are facing a variety of challenges that deplete sense of belonging, such as absence of political support, lack of cultural programs, uncertainty about the status of loved ones, language barriers, and frequent cyber attacks by the Chinese government while they are abroad. These findings offer several suggestions for policymakers and social workers to implement in order to promote wellbeing among Uyghur communities in their host countries. Future studies should investigate identity issues and their relationship with belonging, especially among Uyghur youth.

“​Threads of a Past Life”: Kimono in the lives of Japanese-Canadian women
  • Bailey Irene Midori Hoy (History Specialist)
  • Wing Yan Sarina Wong (Peace, Conflict & Justice)

This research explores kitsuke (kimono and the art of wearing kimono) as a source of cultural knowledge, identity, and power amongst Japanese-Canadian/Nikkei women today. Focusing on women with ties in the Greater Toronto Area, we attempt to defetishize the idea that kimono and the people who wear them are “traditional” and “never-changing.” In examining the collective narratives that shape the history of many Nikkei women, we found that the highly visual and symbolic nature of the garment made the kimono a sort of “universal heirloom,” in which memories and culture are stored amongst our participants as an item that could be used to “perform” their cultural identities.

We conducted semi-structured interviews over the phone and Zoom video conferencing software with Japanese-Canadian women above the age of 18. Books, newspapers, digital museum archives and their curators, etc. helped consolidate the history of kimono and contextualize the interviews.

Belonging in Bollywood’s contemporary nation making culture
  • Yazmeen Kanji (Equity Studies, Peace Conflict & Justice Studies, and Cinema Studies)
  • Mayadevi Murthy (Religion Studies and Equity Studies)

Our research project examines the Indian Hindi film industry (Bollywood)’s shift towards the Hindu nationalist right by interviewing industry “newcomers” in order to explore the interplay between content production and the broader political landscape in which the industry exists today. We found these newcomers would either a) pursue the creation of content that would be lucrative regardless of how they contributed to perpetuating narrow perceptions of belonging within the nation-state, or b) consciously attempt to expose the viewing public to more progressive outlooks. In latter cases, progressive participants acknowledged a need to strategize around the threats of state censorship, violent public mobilization, and disinterested investors. These threats and other dimensions in today’s industry environment produce a cycle in which the audience primarily internalizes Hindu nationalist content. This reifies an ever-narrowing definition of “Indian” identity and, in turn increases demands and funding for such cinema. This ultimately drives the further proliferation and influence of films that propagate Hindu nationalist conceptions of “belonging.”

Untangling the causative web behind farmer suicides in India
  • Deep Leekha (International Relations, Contemporary Asian Studies, and History)

Between 1995 and 2015 more than 300,000 farmers committed suicide in India. The consensus among most agrarian scholars and government officials is that the ​prima facie​ reason for this ongoing epidemic is farmer indebtedness. However, as scholars like Nagaraj have argued monocausal explanations of suicide like the one being proffered in the Indian instance “reduce suicide to blaming the victim while ignoring larger socio-economic conditions.” Indeed, there is a web of socio-economic conditions and environmental circumstances which engender indebtedness. I produced my research as an article which seeks to dissect the monocausal explanation and better understand the web of factors which contribute to indebtedness, and consequently, to suicides. My research shows that indebtedness needs to be understood not purely as an economic condition but also a social one. Accounts of suicides and indebtedness throughout India shed light on a ‘causative web’. This web explains how cultural phenomena such as losing face in society and dowry payments along with arability changes due to the vicissitudes of global warming put added pressure on individual farmers. This work also draws upon the frameworks of critical theorists like Althusser, Gramsci, and Beck, among others, to examine and underscore the socio-political forces at work which essentially sever extant ties between farming communities, thereby further individualizing and isolating farmers. It concludes by arguing for a reimagining of rural spaces and once again integrating farmers into agrarian communities and, consequently, into support systems.

Caught Between and Left Behind: Analyzing Chinese taxi driver’s moral idioms in the time of platform capitalism
  • Yang Liu (PhD student, Anthropology)

This project explores the echoes of old moral economic discourses in taxi drivers’ struggles against the rise of the platform economy. By analyzing the posts and comments from a WeChat account dedicated to taxi drivers and taxi related news, I studied traditional taxi drivers’ reliance on moral economic sensibilities. I show how these taxi drivers maintain a sense of belonging in an increasingly precarious working condition. When traditional taxi drivers’ sense of belonging is replaced with and swept away by new developments in technology and the economy, they fall back to the discourse of moral values and virtues, seeking a sense of belonging in an already lost world. As such, this project not only demonstrates the frustration traditional taxi drivers are experiencing but also highlights their strategic and moral responses to the threat of disruptive technologies.

Punk! In the Nation, Redux: Complicating punk identities of political resistance and community resilience in the “frictions” of the Indonesian nation-state
  • Rushay Naik (MSc Candidate in Health Services Research; BSc, Hons. Human Biology-Global Health and Peace, Conflict & Justice)
  • Mariah Stewart (B.A., Hons. Political Science, Contemporary Asian Studies and Mathematics)

Media interpretations have been the source of most perspectives on Indonesian punk music as a subcultural force of uniform resistance in Indonesia. Though some scholars and commentators have challenged these boundaries, perceptions of Indonesian punk scenes often adopt fixed, hybrid identities that oversimplify the relationships between punk and global and local historical events. We argue that the role of punk in Indonesia as a cultural phenomenon is “frictional,” existing as a complex and interactive force within the contexts of unbounded, diffuse aspects of political, economic, and social factors. These instances of “friction” take on forms of community and belonging, as well as resistance at multiple levels of social and governance structures. We find that, through the prism of reaching punk narratives “where they are” with the use of virtual research interviews and media analysis, we are able to situate their constituent philosophies of DIYism –“what they do”– and materiality –“what they have”– in broader socioeconomic forces, political violence, and cultural transitions in Indonesian history. Thus, this paper abandons more traditional dialectics of understanding Indonesian punk, such as the ‘global/local’ or ‘commercial/underground,’ and instead bridges these different narratives to understand “friction” within Indonesian punk more holistically. We utilize anthropologist Anna Tsing’s definition of “friction” in concert with the above research methodology to frame Indonesian punk for ‘what it is,’ a process based in awkward and creative interconnectivity.

The Search for Belonging: Digital protest of North Korean “defector-creators”
  • Hyunji (Hillary) Song (International Relations, Contemporary Asian Studies, and History)

The exponential increase in the User-Generated Content (UGC) creation within the North Korean defector YouTubers, termed defector-creators, is a clear indicator of the development of soft power by these individuals who have newly acquired the freedom of expression. This project aims to investigate the impact of the production of digital content on the North Korean defectors’ ability to manufacture a sense of belonging and civic engagement in the South Korean society. Through a case study of five videos produced by the defector-creators, this project analyzed the content of the videos and their implications. My research draws the conclusion that the creation of digital content enables the defector-creators to manufacture a sense of community through a dynamic contestation and discussion of the South Korean society, through providing a platform for them to claim self-determination, autonomy, and ownership over their productions. Furthermore, my research examines the impact of the production of UGC on the levels of civic engagement of the North Korean defectors and concludes that the defector-creators experience a psychological empowerment and a rehabilitation of their political agency by transitioning from a muted group to an active voice of protest against discrimination and human rights violations. These developments call for new theoretical frameworks that can account for the processes of soft power construction of the marginalized refugee groups who emerge from precarity.

Smart, Green, or in between: Smart city and eco-town programs in Singapore and Toronto
  • Elizabeth Shaw (Contemporary Asian Studies, Peace, Conflict & Justice Studies, and Political Science)
  • Michelle Zhang (Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies, Urban Studies, and Geography)

In recent years, innovation based movements like smart cities and eco towns have become trademarks of the way forward in urban planning. This paper uses Sidewalk Toronto’s now-abandoned Quayside project and Singapore’s Treelodge@Punggol to examine the role of innovation in our urban futures. Through a series of in-depth interviews with academics, scholars, and practitioners from both cities, we examine how local-global, private-public, and digital attitudes shape the reception and practical outcomes of these futuristic development projects. Singapore findings include: state-led rhetoric surrounding the ideologies of national progress and success; techno solutionism as a means to achieve these goals; and sustainability as a performative but unconstructive act. In Toronto, we find deeply rooted public distrust and suspicion toward corporate high-tech and outsiders that found an outlet in Sidewalk Labs’ smart city, but far less hostility directed towards the broader aspiration of a digitally innovative city.

Urban Village under China’s Rapid Urbanization: The challenge of rural migrant workers in Guangzhou and Shenzhen
  • Yang (Tiffany) Zhou (Contemporary Asian Studies and Political Science)

Urbanization is driving economic development and creating problems of environmental sustainability in China. The space of a city is not only shared by the government, real estate developers, urban residents, but also residents in urban villages, who constitute a remarkable social feature of the city landscape. When villagers in urban villages continue to transform into urban residents, they change from working on labor-cultivated farms to another spatial production unit: rural migrant workers in a self-built urban village in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, thus changing existing urban spatial relations. This paper attempts to compare the living conditions and state policy towards rural migrant workers in Guangzhou and Shenzhen in terms of redevelopment plans, land-use rights, and government subsidies. Rural migrants were major tenants of Chengzhongcun. They were economically and politically powerless, but these tenants inhabit geographically shifting disordered spaces. In general, my project aims to contextualize rural migrant workers’ living conditions and the changes they have been undergoing since the 1980s, focusing on how their living conditions in Guangzhou and Shenzhen have changed in the year, 2020—the year in which Shenzhen marked the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the special Economic Zone. For this project, I conducted interviews with urban villagers, real estate agency managers, and organizations with migration-related projects in Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

2019 ITAC Projects

Sites of (Un)Belonging: Spaces/Faces of Honjok Youth in Seoul, South Korea
  • Yujuan (Emmy) Fu (Ethics, Society & Law; Literature & Critical Theory)
  • Jennifer Han (Peace, Conflict & Justice and Political Science)

The purpose of our three-weeks of fieldwork in Seoul was to uncover the nuanced identity narratives of honjok (혼족, roughly translated as “alone-tribe”) youth, focusing on their mobilities in public space and the sociocultural forces driving Seoul’s rising solo-consumer economy. After undertaking an extensive literature review in Toronto, we conducted interviews in Seoul with 19 subjects, classified into one of three categories: honjok youth, academics of youth-related studies, and organizers of youth-oriented community spaces. Through these interviews we learned of wide variances in honjok lifestyle, which point to the tightening embrace of a neoliberal ethos among youth in Seoul. Unexpectedly, our research also led us to discover a growing number of communal spaces created to specifically combat the isolation of youth in Seoul. Our final photo-essay aims to facilitate the exploration of the honjok phenomenon beyond its prototypical news-media romanticization (as in treatments by Vogue, Vice, and CNN). We analyze the changes brought about by honjok mobilities and the value-shifts accompanying a solo-consumer economy. Finally, we believe our research lends itself to fruitful cross-cultural analyses with the hikikomori population in Japan from sociopolitical, psychological, and economic stances.

Shades of Brown Girl: The Many Colours of Transnational South Asian Femininity
  • Amrita Kumar-Ratta (MGA, PhD Student, Department of Geography and Planning)

This project involved the development and execution of nine creative storytelling workshops that engaged approximately 90 South Asian women in the Greater Toronto Area, the Metro Vancouver Area, and Chandigarh and Bangalore, India around themes of race, gender, and identity through performance and narrative storytelling. The workshops explored the theme of colour in depth, seeking to unpack the symbols and stories that various shades of brown can elicit vis-à-vis South Asian femininity. Some initial conclusions can be drawn from this pilot project; for instance, many participants expressed that they often do not feel seen, heard, or represented (e.g., in the media, in public spaces, among colleagues, family and/or friends) and they find it immensely valuable to be part of a collaborative and creative space, often describing it as “safe” and “therapeutic.” Additionally, as many conversations and personal stories revealed throughout the process, South Asian femininity is indeed complex and intersectional and cannot be reduced to simplistic narratives that exoticize women on the one hand and strip them of their agency on the other. Finally, the creative research methods employed throughout the project were seen—by both the participants and the researcher/artist/facilitator—as deeply transformative elements of qualitative research with important implications for future ethnographic and/or participatory studies that seek to center the stories of marginalized women across geographies. Throughout these workshops, I recorded some preliminary photography and videography and collected a number of personal stories. I evaluated each workshop using consistent criteria and regularly documented through field notes. Currently I am curating a photo-journal in collaboration with a number of workshop participants.

Moving In and Moving Out: Understanding the Effects of Social Exclusion on the Mental Health of Rural-Urban Migrants in Shenzhen
  • Katie Kwang (Psychology; Economics)
  • Benita Leong (History; Political Science, UTM)
  • Hui Wen Zheng (Contemporary Asian Studies; Peace, Conflict, and Justice)

Since the 1970s, a widespread and rapid process of rural-urban migration has helped drive growth in China, raising concerns about the mental health of migrants who face a litany of social, economic and broadly, structural, challenges. Existing literature on the topic overwhelmingly relies on qualitative psychometric tools, leaving questions as to what the specific risk factors are and how they interact with each other to affect an individual’s mental state. Using the framework of social exclusion, this project explores how psychosocial factors including housing, gender, labour issues, migration policy, development and competition, and social expectations affect mental health. We collected data through interviews with service providers and subject experts, migrants, and through ethnographic fieldwork in Shenzhen’s rural-urban villages and worksites. Ultimately, we found that the experience of social exclusion is profoundly mediated by factors such as living conditions, industry, gender, class, and age—leading to a diversity of outcomes. We posit that the widening gap between expectation and reality for migrants is a unique contributing factor to mental health concerns.

Explore Katie, Benita, and Hui Wen’s multi-media, interactive photo essay here. The essay follows the narrative format of a ‘typical workday,’ featuring aggregated data the team collected during 6 different visits to industrial areas and urban villages in Shenzhen at different points in the day.

Rural Land Marketization, The Displacement of The Urban Poor and the Neoliberalizing Developmental State in Beijing
  • Zixian Liu, PhD Candidate, Department of History

In 2017, a series of state-initiated demolition and evacuation campaigns in Beijing, targeting “urban villages” (legally categorized rural land within cities) and migrant workers, elicited a widespread public outcry. Known as the “Beijing Purge Campaign,” these actions aimed at “purging low-end populations.” While most criticisms focus on the violence of the campaigns, my research argues that the Purge was driven by a new wave of marketization of rural land within cities as part of the exacerbation of the neoliberalization of urban planning in China. Based on “developmental state” theory, I trace how the marketization of rural land comes hand in hand with the qualitative turn in the discourse of development in China, and the neoliberalizing of the Chinese developmental state. My research suggests it is important to examine how the global rise of neoliberalism works in the specific Chinese context. In the Chinese case, a strong development state is the driving force creating a freer market and eliminating undesirable obstacles, even if these barriers constitute some of the most important and symbolic heritage of the revolution—the collective and egalitarian ownership of rural land.

Asian Modest Fashion in the Museum Space
  • Habiba Maher
  • Aliza Rahman

Our project explores the representation of the Modest Fashion industry, specifically examining the Contemporary Muslim Fashions’ exhibition presented in its first European venue at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt, Germany. Through this research, we consider how the museum space reveals the ways in which hijab is imbued with new meanings in Southeast Asia, evolved from its religious roots representing piety and modesty. Through the lens of the exhibition, the meaning of hijab was shown to now include an emphasis on choice, identity, and diversity among Muslim women choosing to wear hijab. We observed these new meanings of hijab in the ways tour guides spoke about the exhibition; the designers’ work included in the exhibit, and the museological didactics describing individual pieces. More so, the exhibit revealed how the hijab has become increasingly commodified in Southeast Asia, acting as a gateway for national development in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. The exhibition examined the increased support for the textiles industry in these countries as the Modest Fashion industry has grown quickly. We use Voloder’s (2015) work on Muslim consumerism to unpack how mass consumption of modest fashion and the hijab in Southeast Asia has become a means to communicate identity, as suggested by the exhibition. Lastly, we found that this exhibition on Southeast Asian Muslim Modest Fashion occurring in Frankfurt—a city experiencing rising Islamophobic sentiments—challenged the common misconception that Muslim women are oppressed by the hijab. However, not everyone accepted or understood this message, and instances occurred in which the exhibit was threatened with violence.

Unwanted Children
  • Minh Anh (Mia) Nguyen (Contemporary Asian Studies; Political Science)

This project explores Israel’s immigration regime and its socio-legal relationship with migrant workers, mainly through the lens of Filipino caregivers. When migrant caregivers get pregnant or give birth in Israel, their work visas are revoked, and their children do not receive residency status unless at least one of the parents is of Jewish-descent. The state’s ethno-nationalist identity continues to justify its exclusive migration policy framework, one that restricts the right to give birth and the right to belong to non-Jewish migrant workers in Israel. As Filipina caregivers bear children in the host land of Israel, they are confronted by two choices. They either have to leave Israel with their newborns or send their children back to their homeland to maintain legal work status. The project further approaches the theme of “mobilities” from a legal mobilisation perspective, examining strategies that activists have used to mobilise for Filipina caregivers’ rights. This aspect of the research questions the extent to which activists succeed and/or fall short in challenging the ethno-nationalist conception of citizenship to obtain reproductive rights for Filipino caregivers. Findings show that Israel’s current citizenship and residency regulations continue to prevent Filipino caregivers and other non-Jewish migrant workers from establishing permanent settlements in the country. However, the state’s increasing demand for migrant caregivers and their inconsistent implementation of residency laws create consequent repercussions for both migrant caregivers and their Israeli-born children. Where would Israel repatriate these children to, when Israel is the state in which they were born?

The Invisible Hand of South-South Globalization: A Study of Chinese Migrants in Tehran
  • Man (Angela) Xu (Sociology Department)

Media and academic debate on China’s emergence as a source of investment, aid, and migration in the Global South often foregrounds the geopolitical strategies of the PRC and the role and experiences of state-owned enterprises. This research contests this discourse through an investigation of the experiences of Chinese transnational migrants in Iran. My analysis shows the heterogeneity, disparity, and conflict within the Chinese community in Iran and the different relationships between Chinese overseas authorities and Chinese migrants in Iran. Furthermore, I show that the experiences of Chinese migrants reflects the intersections of privilege and precarity. On the one hand, Chinese migrants benefit from transnational connections; on the other hand, their minority and foreign status leads to certain precarity. Moreover, the extent to which migrants experience precarity varies depending on their relationship with the Chinese authority. Overall, I argue that the circulated migration between China and Iran represents new forms of marginal mobility within the Global South—the emergence of migration flows to “unlikely” places. These new forms of mobilities call for new theoretical frameworks that can account for the unique causes and processes of migration within the southern hemisphere.

The Referendum
  • Adam Zivokinovic (“Zivo”) (Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy)
  • Ji Chen (Tony) Yin (Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy)

The Referendum is a documentary about Taiwan’s 2018 referendum on marriage equality. Triggered by a constitutional court ruling that ordered the government to amend its marriage laws, the referendum saw voters reject marriage equality. This documentary explores how the referendum happened, who was involved, and what they believed. The documentary contextualizes the issue within a larger conversation on the global acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights. It consists of interviews cut with archival footage, news clips, TV clips, and b-roll footage shot in Taipei, and takes a sensitive and nuanced view of both sides of the debate.

Through our research, we found that the anti marriage equality groups have a much more nuanced approach to LGBTQ+ issues than we previously imagined. While their beliefs can be partially attributed to hostility to LGBTQ+ folks, their stance is complicated by underlying disagreements on the nature of government. We also observed that the spread of information through mass media and social media played a pivotal role in swaying the result of the referendum. Furthermore, we found that Taiwanese religious organizations played a vital role in the referendum, essentially forming the backbone of anti-LGBTQ+ groups.

2018 ITAC Projects

Searching for Space: Female (Im)Mobility in Urban Pakistan
  • Mashal Khan (Equity Studies, Sociology, Visual Studies)
  • Khalood Kibria (Political Science, Sociology, Human Geography)

Our research project initially intended to investigate the challenges, inequalities, and specifically gendered discrimination and violence that Pakistani women face in relation to their restricted mobility within public space in Pakistani cities—space that is often dominated by men. Our project evolved to also include non-binary and trans folks in Pakistani cities as our research would have remained incomplete without these crucial voices. Our goal was to highlight the diverse yet interconnected experiences of people whose mobility is restricted by similar social and structural barriers. We found that many of our predictions were accurate. Female, trans, and non-binary mobility is indeed restricted in Pakistani cities. However, mobility is also a very complex and layered topic which is constantly being shaped by internal dynamics in Pakistani cities, namely historical context, class, caste, religion, education level, age, the role of the state, and marital status, to name just a few. We were privileged to interview and spend time with numerous individuals, collectives, and organizations who talked to us very honestly about the barriers they face. They also exposed us to the numerous ways in which these barriers are being chipped away as people seek to reclaim their space and ultimately transform the social and spatial fabric of Pakistani cities.

The Colonial Present: (In)Securitization of New Delhi
  • Atif Khan (University of Toronto Graduate Student, Department of Geography and Planning with collaboration in South Asian Studies and Development Policy and Power; University of Toronto Alum: Contemporary Asian Studies)
  • Kana Shishikura (University of Toronto Alum: Peace, Conflict, Justice Studies and Contemporary Asian Studies)

This project seeks to visualize securitization moving beyond the framework of textual analysis in order to unpack the dialogue of securitization of public spaces. Our project revealed the importance of our positionality as researchers embedded within the very logics of security as well as the need to understand the urban landscape as a living archive that cannot account for the state driven narratives present in the national archives within a specific building. Through our fieldwork in London and Paris, the difficulty of capturing the living urban landscape became evident. Our initial focus on academic sites such as Oxford University, Cambridge University and the University of London (SOAS, LSE) could not account or attest to the present conditions of securitizations of a metropolis. We conclude that securitization is a living and present condition that must be historicized along transnational and critical border studies.

The Combined Response to the Physical Health Needs of Rohingya Refugees in Malaysia
  • Braden Kenny (Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, University of Toronto; University of Toronto Alum: Global Health and Equity Studies)
  • Terra Morel (Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Alberta; University of Toronto Alum: Global Health and Immunology)

Due to the persecution and economic deprivation of the Rohingya peoples in Mynamar, thousands have been forced to flee to nearby countries including Malaysia—a country that lacks the physical and financial infrastructure to support their physical health needs. In this study, we interviewed various actors including non-governmental organizations and clinical researchers to understand the current response to the physical health needs and recommendations to address these gaps in service delivery. Our findings illuminated the need for international bodies to take a more active role in assisting the Malaysian government with the intake of Rohingya refugees as well as introducing a centralized body to facilitate discussion and collaboration between non-governmental organizations and clinical researchers.

Women on the Move: Intersections of Statelessness, Dehumanization, and Sexual and Gender Based Violence
  • Kassandra Neranjan (International Relations, Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies)
  • Sakshi Shetty (Health & Disease, Immunology)

The 1.5 million Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar remain a nationally unrecognized ethnic group who have been systematically discriminated against, forcing many to flee and many more to be internally displaced within Myanmar. Women in this context are very susceptible to severe violence and trauma due to intersections of their statelessness and a process of dehumanisation in Burmese society. Thousands of survivors of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh as refugees. This project aims to analyze how gender is mainstreamed in humanitarian aid in the Rohingya context. We conducted semi-structured interviews with key actors in the field to analyze the process of rehumanisation through implemented structures that are catering to the needs of Rohingya women. Ultimately we will produce policy recommendations to help create programs of sustainable empowerment for refugee women. We drew several conclusions including the need to advocate for policy that is inclusive of adolescent girls, addressing legal obligations per international norms, increased security through hygiene and sanitation architecture, and more.

View and download the policy report here.

Looking into the Intergenerational Relationship Between LGBTQ Youth and their Families in Post-One-Child-Policy China
  • Yujia (Jade) Shi (Political Science; Collaborative Program in East and Southeast Asian Studies)

This project looks into the intergenerational relationship between LGBTQ youth and their parents in the context of intentional relocation of young LGBTQ as migrant workers in Beijing. I examine two subjects in the research. First, I explore the theme “mobilities” through the case study of two young gay men who are from small towns in China, both of whom have relocated to Beijing. Second, I examine the intergenerational relationship between parents and their same-sex-attracted children through the experience of these two young gay men in their relationships with their family. The outcome of the research is a short documentary, a thesis, and a report. On a large scale, I have observed how the contemporary discourses on (homo) sexuality in China are influenced by both studies of sexuality and activism in Euro-North America as well as multi-faceted changes within China. On a small scale, I observe how the relocation of the young couple is both influenced by unequal urbanization and development in China and their drives for freedom and better financial conditions. In particular, the case study will provide empirical research material on the tension and intimacy between the child and their parents in post-one-child-policy families.

Access Yujia (Jade) Shi’s documentary here. *Please note this content is password protected to preserve the privacy of interviewees. To request access please reach out to

Road to Colombo: Documentary Film on Climate Migration in Sri Lanka
  • Ben Sprenger (Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, Mechanical Engineering)
  • Jillian Sprenger (Faculty of Arts and Science, Global Health)

The purpose of this project was to gain insight into the experiences of climate migrants (including the challenges they face pre- and post-migration), in order to better understand how migration may or may not be an effective mechanism for coping with a rapidly changing climate. Following an extensive literature review, we conducted field research through interviews in Sri Lanka with subject matter experts (researchers, NGO leaders, and environmental activists) and with individuals who have migrated or who have had a family member migrate due to climatic events. The interviews, particularly those with the climate migrants and their families, revealed a complex reality with significant challenges associated with migration and with building climate resilience at the community level. Our research may have implications for determining how to prioritize investment to best support populations vulnerable to climate change. Our research findings are disseminated through the documentary film embedded below.

Rethinking Intimacies Between Filipina Migrant Domestic Workers
  • Wei Si Nicole Yiu (PhD Student in Gender Studies, University of California Los Angeles; former University of Toronto collaborative PhD student in Geography and Gender Studies)

My project is a paper analyzing queer sociality in the space of migrant women’s organizing in Hong Kong. During my three-month fieldwork in Hong Kong, I had the pleasure of meeting Cynthia who is a key migrant activist in Hong Kong for migrant domestic workers’ rights. Through Cynthia, I was able to establish contact with multiple migrant workers’ organizations. I participated in over fifteen gatherings and conducted interviews with five migrant Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong. All five interviews were over an hour long and provided me with great insights about migrant women’s intimate relationships with other migrant women. Using information I have learned during my fieldwork and interviews with migrant women, I aim to engage with Black feminist literature on self-care to theorize the ways in which migrant women are caring for each other as queering ‘proper’ intimacies.

Areas of focus - Victor Dementiev/Unsplash



Research Coordinator, Asian Institute