Insights through Asia Challenge

Woman stands at a podium with screen in the background

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
  • Expected time commitment is no more than 50 hours

Check back in late fall 2022 for details on how to apply for the 2022-23 program

The 2022 challenge projects

Cities of Sand: Tracing contingency in concrete

Leader: Professor Tong Lam

Project description

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. In Tkaronto/Toronto, another city of sand, the dynamics of extraction and production overlay with the forms Khalili has traced internationally, but the distinctions also reveal specific local histories and ongoing practices of coloniality.

Through this project, we will focus on the material-temporal-social relationships inscribed in and perpetuated by the sand-based built environment of Toronto. Beginning with scholar and artist Natalie Loveless’ premise that the way we tell time shapes our possibilities for living together, and extending it through anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow’s assertion that the freedom to reimagine how we live together is critical to changing our future, we will consider how sand holds contradiction and contingency, offering potential frameworks for changing the future by unsettling (seemingly) concrete histories.

With an interdisciplinary approach spanning history, architecture, urban studies, geography, and art, we will investigate the use of sand in sites adjacent to U of T campus through a literature review, archival research, interviews with subject-matter experts, and site visits. We will build from Jon Johnson’s scholarship on urban land-based Indigenous knowledge in Toronto, especially the obfuscated history of the Sandhill burial site of the Wendat and Mississauga Peoples at Bloor and Yonge Streets. Returning to Khalili’s research as well as Geographer Kathryn Yusoff’s work on racial geo-logics, we will compare and contrast the dynamics of extraction and consumption across select Asian sites and Toronto. Students with an interest in built form, materiality, critical-geologies, and artistic practice, and those with a desire to work in archives (and especially in the gaps left in the wake of the “Archive”) will enjoy this project most.

Professor Tong Lam’s biography

Tong Lam is Associate Professor in the Department of Historical Studies and the Graduate Department of History. He has previously directed the Global Taiwan Program at the Asian Institute. His research is on the modern and contemporary history of China, with emphases on empire and nation, knowledge-production, infrastructure, and urban space. His first book, A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900-1949 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), analyzes the profound consequences of the emergence of the technologies of the “social fact” and social survey research in modern China. His current book-length study examines the politics and poetics of China’s special zones in the socialist and postsocialist eras. Meanwhile, as a visual artist, he has been using lens-based works to reveal hidden evidence of state- and capital-precipitated violence—fast and slow—in a variety of contexts. His most recent project focuses especially on the material evidence of Cold War mobilizations globally and their environmental and social consequences.

Indian revolutionary Rash Behari Bose, Manuscript Assistant

Leader: Dr. Joseph McQuade

Project description

Dr. McQuade is seeking Research Assistants to help with tasks related to the completion of his book manuscript, a biography of the early twentieth century Indian revolutionary Rash Behari Bose. The Research Assistant will contribute to Dr. McQuade’s forthcoming book project by assisting with the compiling of the book’s index and helping to locate historical photographs and maps for inclusion in the manuscript. The RA will work with Dr. McQuade to identify potential images for inclusion in his book and will be tasked with researching the relevant policies to ensure reproduction of the images conforms to local and international copyright laws. Some knowledge of 20th century South Asian history or experience with digital archives would be an asset, but is not necessary.

Joseph McQuade’s biography

Joseph McQuade is the Richard Charles Lee Postdoctoral Fellow in the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and a former SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for South Asian Studies. He is also Editor-in-Chief at the NATO Association of Canada and Associate Editor of the Munk School’s blog, Transformations: Downstream Effects of the BRI. Dr. McQuade is a research affiliate at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, the Queen’s University Global History Initiative, and with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society. He is currently a Managing Editor of the Journal of Indian Ocean World Studies.

Dr. McQuade completed his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge as a Gates Scholar, with a dissertation that examined the origins of terrorism in colonial India from an international perspective. This research forms the basis of his first book, A Genealogy of Terrorism: Colonial Law and the Origins of an Idea, recently published by Cambridge University Press. His current project examines counter-insurgency in pre-colonial and early colonial India and Burma, from the mid-eighteenth century to circa 1900. His broader research and teaching interests include critical genealogies of terrorism and insurgency, colonialism in Asia, and transnational connections in the Indian Ocean world.

Hyperlocal Histories: Libraries and community media centres in immigrant communities

Leader: Professor Aditi Mehta

Project description

Hyperlocal institutions that produce and disseminate local knowledge such as public branch libraries and neighbourhood media centers are diagnostic windows into society reflecting the social, economic, and political contexts of time and place. 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. What are the various roles that these hyperlocal information-sharing institutions play in community development throughout time, specifically in areas with immigrant and diasporic populations? And presently, how have these organizations served their constituents during the Covid-19 pandemic? This project will build upon, as well as compare and contrast existing research from two case studies in Boston’s Chinatown and Toronto’s Regent Park, respectively.

Chinatown Branch of the Boston Public Library

From 2008-2010, through archival research and interviews with city officials, library administrators, community members, and other stakeholders, I documented the 100-year history of a movement for a branch library in Boston’s Chinatown. In 1896, the Boston Public Library (BPL) opened a reading room on Tyler Street in between the immigrant neighbourhoods of Chinatown and the South End. In 1956, the City of Boston demolished the Tyler Street Branch Library and since 2000, community groups in Chinatown had been advocating for their own branch of the BPL. At first, the addition or removal of the library in Chinatown was largely an extension of city policy, and eventually the presence of a library in the neighbourhood became an extension of grassroots community movements. While reflecting on this chronology, I theorized that Boston’s Chinatown Library has six purposes: 1) Assimilation Processing Center; 2) Gathering Place; 3) Economic Training Ground; 4) Ethnic Identity Assertion; 5) Turf Defense; and 6) Political Clout Building.

In 2018, the City finally re-opened the Chinatown Branch of the Boston Public Library. I would like to update my research with the last decade’s current events as well as complement this case study with similar branch library movements in other North American Chinatowns or Asian diasporic communities. Furthermore, I plan to document the changing roles of these neighbourhood institutions during the pandemic.

Regent Park’s Focus Media Arts Centre

Since 2018, I have partnered with the non-profit organization Focus Media Arts (FOCUS) in Toronto’s Regent Park, to better understand the lived experience of gentrification for the area’s South Asian and North African Muslim residents. Specifically, I am investigating how young religious and racial minorities reimagine and repurpose city infrastructures to support their communities despite conditions of disinterest and neglect by policymakers. The FOCUS Media Arts Centre is a community media organization that serves the diverse neighbourhood of Regent Park in East Toronto. The organization teaches residents how to produce their own media from print journalism to television and film to radio, and also teaches critical media literacy skills. FOCUS has historically fought against “neighbour-hoodism” which is defined as prejudice against certain neighbourhoods that are perceived to be low income and occupied by a concentration of racial/ethnic minorities.

“Neighbour-hoodism” has re-emerged as an important issue in the wake of Covid-19 where communities of color and populations are often criminalized for having higher rates of the disease. Such interpretations ignore the perspectives and lived experiences of minority populations. This inaccurate data intensifies the adverse effects of an outbreak, hinders the ability of policymakers to effectively address the crisis, and diminishes the capacity of community members to stay healthy.

I will document the history of this important hyperlocal institution and theorize its purposes throughout time in the community. I plan to develop a multi-dimensional understanding of pandemics within the neighbourhood’s dynamic history of immigration and housing development. Ultimately, the organization can utilize this history to develop pertinent programming for the current crisis.

Aditi Mehta’s biography

Aditi Mehta, PhD (MIT) is an assistant professor, teaching stream, in the Urban Studies Program at Innis College. Aditi earned her masters in city planning and her PhD at MIT. Her research interests include technology and civic engagement, participatory planning, community development, and issues surrounding racial and ethnic diversity. Aditi’s work bridges academics with community involvement and facilitates the exchange of ideas between the two.

Circuits of Labour: Southeast Asian care worker migrations

Leader: Professor Rachel Silvey

Project description

This project seeks 3-4 highly motivated graduate or undergraduate students with interest in research on gender and migrant labour from Indonesia. The project develops 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 are: i) the migrant rights groups (interstate organizations [ISOs] and non-governmental organizations [NGOs]) working for migrants’ labour rights. The research focuses 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 develops understanding of place-specific mediations of transnational migration politics. In addition, in that it centers on the socially produced meanings of gender, religion, and rights among migrant workers, the research develops insight into the historic and geographic specificities of these processes. Students who have language facility in Bahasa Indonesia and Arabic are especially encouraged to apply.

[1] Human Rights Watch (HRW), the United Nations International Labor Organization, the Coalition for Migrants Rights (CMR), Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA), the Asian Migrant Centre (AMC), Alliance of Progressive Labor (APL), UNIFEM and ILO.

[2] The Center for Indonesian Migrant Women [CIMW], Migrant Care, and KOPBUMI (Consortium of Indonesian Migrant Workers Advocacy/ Konsorsium Pembela Buruh Migran Indonesia).

Rachel Silvey’s biography

Rachel Silvey is Richard Charles Lee Director of the Asian Institute and Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning. She is a Faculty Affiliate in CDTS, WGSI, and the Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies Program. She received her Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Washington, Seattle, and a dual B.A. from the University of California at Santa Cruz in Environmental Studies and Southeast Asian Studies.

Professor Silvey is best known for her research on women’s labour and migration in Indonesia. She has published widely in the fields of migration studies, cultural and political geography, gender studies, and critical development. Her major funded research projects have focused on migration, gender, social networks, and economic development in Indonesia; immigration and employment among Southeast Asian-Americans; migration and marginalization in Bangladesh and Indonesia; and religion, rights and Indonesian migrant women workers in Saudi Arabia.

Building alternative archives of China’s Maoist past

Leader: Professor Yiching Wu


Project description

Primary sources about the tumultuous Maoist past are limited and scattered, as numerous sources have remained locked in state archives and 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.

I seek 2-3 interested and dedicated students to work closely with me on a project that aims to  develop innovative and collaborative ways to preserve, curate, and share valuable historical sources. It builds on our large—and continuously expanding— collection of sources including archival documents, pamphlets, correspondences and diaries, Red Guard publications, and etc. Student assistants will participate in works including, but not limited to, (1) organizing and cataloguing documents, (2) constructing digital database, (3) developing and maintaining data websites, (4)  identifying and acquiring new source materials,  and (5) building connections and working with other researchers and collectors. Preferred backgrounds and skills include: (1) interests in historical research and scholarship, (2) strong bilingual proficiency in Chinese and English (ability to read traditional Chinese scripts a plus), (3) strong computer skills (experience with web and database applications such as PHP and SQL a strong plus), and (4) interests in information-related fields (archival management, digital curation, etc.) a strong plus.

Yiching Wu’s biography

Yiching Wu received his PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago. Before joining the faculty of the University of Toronto, he was Junior Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows and Assistant Professor of Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on the history, society, and politics of Mao’s China (1949-1976), and in particular the history and memory of the Cultural Revolution era (1966-1976). His main scholarly interests include historical anthropology, popular social and political movement, modern Chinese history, Chinese socialism and transition to post-socialism, and the politics of historical knowledge. He is the author of The Cultural Revolution at the Margins: Chinese Socialism in Crisis (Harvard University Press, 2014), which won the President’s Book Award from the Social Science History Association (USA) and was also shortlisted for the Wallace K. Ferguson Book Prize (for “the outstanding scholarly book in a field of history other than Canadian history”) from the Canadian Historical Association. He is currently working on a book that investigates the tortuous path that led up to the Cultural Revolution and its opening crises tentatively titled The Coming of Mao’s Last Revolution. He is also actively involved in work to gather and preserve Cultural Revolution and Mao-era primary sources and to develop a digital-based cooperative for preserving and sharing historical documents.

Areas of focus - Victor Dementiev/Unsplash


Research Coordinator, Asian Institute