Richard Charles Lee Insights through Asia Challenge

Call for Ideas 2019-20


Recent years have seen the rise of populism, mass mobilization, and the emergence of new social networks around the globe, especially throughout Asia. Yet the politics of mass protest and the contestation of shifting notions of belonging and exclusion have been central to Asia’s history for centuries. In 2019-20, ITAC invites students to propose research that focuses on one or more Asian sites to explore the theme: Protest and Belonging in Asia.

ITAC is an experiential learning program at the Asian Institute that invites original research proposals from students. The program encourages thoughtfully-conceived creative research outputs and supports awarded applicants through the complete trajectory of their research.

We call on all UofT students (undergraduate and graduate, across disciplines) who want to connect classroom learning to fieldwork in Asia or sites connected to Asia. We welcome proposals to create policy reports, journal articles, documentary films, large-scale events, or something else entirely.

Students prepare extensively for fieldwork through several workshops in which faculty, advisers, and peers provide feedback and guidance between January and April. From May to July, students have the opportunity to travel to conduct research for up to 21 days. In August students complete final written reports (following a report template provided by the Asian Institute) and produce their creative projects. The program culminates in September with public presentations by student awardees at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. 


We welcome applications from current undergraduate or graduate students (individuals or small teams) at any of the three University of Toronto Campuses). Priority will be given to applicants who are currently enrolled as students at the Asian Institute

*IMPORTANT NOTE: Fieldwork in a country or a 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 and can be found here:

2019-20 Timeline


Call for Ideas Posted December 12, 2019
Draft Application Deadline January 24, 2020
Information Session & Proposal Writing Workshop February 3, 2020
Final Application Deadline February 12, 2020
Awardees Announced March 12, 2020

PHASE 2 (For Awardees)

Project Management, Research Ethics & Planning Workshop March 26, 2020
Progress Review Meeting & Research Approval Deadline April 22, 2020
Field Research May – July, 2020
Check-in with Academic Mentor August, 2020
Produce Research Deliverables & Written Report August, 2020
Public Presentation September, 2020

Award Amounts

*Typically in the range of $2,000 – $6,000 (CAD)

how to apply?

Please email the following materials as a single PDF to:

Shannon Garden-Smith
Research Coordinator, Asian Institute
Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy
Rm. 103N-North House, 1 Devonshire Place
Toronto, ON M5S 3K7
Email: | Phone: 416.946.5372


    Available at the above link (Including: Project Summary, Applicant Information, Itinerary, Budget & Budget Justification)

    Approximately 5 pages, double spaced, 11 or 12 point font (Following the instructions on the application form, please include these sections: Abstract, Question/Overview, Methodology, Literature Review, Aims/Deliverables)
  • CVs of all team members

Please use the email subject line “Draft ITAC Application: Last Name_Student Number”

Submit all materials as a single PDF attachment titled: “Last Name_First Name_Draft ITAC Application” (when submitting as a team, please select one team member’s name for the purposes of titling).

*When submitting your final proposal please indicate “Final ITAC Application” instead of “Draft.”


Please don’t hesitate to reach out to

Shannon Garden-Smith
Research Coordinator, Asian Institute
Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy
Rm. 103N-North House, 1 Devonshire Place
Toronto, ON M5S 3K7
Email: | Phone: 416.946.5372


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.

Yujuan (Emmy) Fu and Jennifer Han conducting interviews in South Korea

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.

Amrita Kumar-Ratta conducting a workshop with 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. 

cityscape of Shenzhen, China

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.

evacuated "urban village" in Beijing, China

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.

"Contemporary Muslim Fashions' Exhibition" in Frankfurt, Germany


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?photo from field research in Israel

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.

Title image from "The Referendum"



  • 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.







  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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


  • 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.


  • 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.

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