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University of California Press
Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America / Edition 1

Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America / Edition 1

by Mark PadoongpattMark Padoongpatt
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With a uniquely balanced combination of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy flavors, Thai food burst onto Los Angeles’s and America’s culinary scene in the 1980s. Flavors of Empire examines the rise of Thai food and the way it shaped the racial and ethnic contours of Thai American identity and community. Full of vivid oral histories and new archival material, this book explores the factors that made foodways central to the Thai American experience. Starting with American Cold War intervention in Thailand, Mark Padoongpatt traces how informal empire allowed U.S. citizens to discover Thai cuisine abroad and introduce it inside the United States. When Thais arrived in Los Angeles, they reinvented and repackaged Thai food in various ways to meet the rising popularity of the cuisine in urban and suburban spaces. Padoongpatt opens up the history and politics of Thai food for the first time, all while demonstrating how race emerges in seemingly mundane and unexpected places.

Editorial Reviews

Journal of Asian American Studies

"Padoongpatt provides a much-needed narrative on Thai Americans in Los Angeles by focusing on Thai food and its connection to globalism, policy, immigration, race, notions of empire, and making place in Los Angeles."

Pacific Affairs

"I highly recommend this book; it is a feast of great flavours."


"An important contribution that not only illuminates the formation of the Thai American community but also offers a novel approach that takes foodways as a critical entry point to explore the entanglements of American empire, Thai migration and racialization."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520293748
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/19/2017
Series: American Crossroads , #45
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 624,655
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


"One Night in Bangkok"


IN 1965 MARIE WILSON PUBLISHED SIAMESE COOKERY, the first Thai cookbook in the United States. As a self-described homemaker from West Los Angeles, Wilson wrote and illustrated the cookbook to encourage fellow homemakers to cook Thai food in their own kitchens. She assured readers that while "there is nothing plain about Thai cooking," the dishes are "not difficult to prepare." Her cookbook included dozens of recipes collected over ten years of travel through Thailand. She also added a short memoir about her experiences with Thai people and culture. Her goal was simple and modest: "Thai food has found a permanent place in our home. I hope this little book will make it a happy addition to your household."

To understand how and why a white suburban housewife from West Los Angeles like Marie Wilson became an authority on Thai cuisine in the United States during this period requires a look into the everyday life of U.S. empire in Cold War Thailand. U.S. intervention allowed white American women to taste Thai food for the first time and then become experts in it. They used foodways to build knowledge about Thailand and Thai people and disseminated it within the formal boundaries of the United States, especially in Los Angeles. Amid the development of Thailand's tourist industry and infrastructure after World War II, foodways emerged as the key site for constructing Thais as an exotic neocolonial subject. Yet white American women's fascination with Thai cuisine, part of a larger appetite for "Oriental" cuisine among suburban American housewives in the 1960s, did much more than foster attitudes and feelings that justified U.S. involvement in Thailand. It also sustained the informal U.S. empire. These women's so-called discovery of Thai cooking practices, their role in transforming foods from sustenance to commodities, and their standardization of recipes in cookbooks all functioned as mechanisms of domination. Above all, U.S. neocolonialism in Thailand underpinned these intimate, complex encounters with Thai food culture and made their discoveries and representations of exotic Others possible.

The United States and Thailand enjoyed over a century of amicable relations before World War II, forging a positive, yet unequal, formal relationship primarily through commercial treaties and diplomatic, cultural, and educational exchanges. Official relations had begun with signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1833 (also known as the Roberts Treaty), the first ever agreement between the United States and an Asian nation. American missionaries served as the first U.S. diplomats in what was then called Siam, and several became traders and printers. Americans believed in the superiority of Anglo-Saxon technology, intellect, and culture as well as the economic and moral necessity of free trade. Even the most sympathetic of American officials expressed negative sentiments about the "barbaric laws and customs" and the "outlawry and demoralization prevailing" in Siam.

Of course, Siamese officials developed their own opinions about the West and Westerners based on interactions with Americans in Siam. King Mongkut of Siam and members of his royal court despised Christianity even as they accepted American missionary activity in the kingdom. They rejected Christianity as a "foolish religion" mainly because they considered it not nearly as rooted in a modern scientific, rational, and reasoned view of the world as Buddhist principles. In addition, Siamese leaders opposed the Western notion that material and moral progress were intertwined, at times openly debating with diplomats and missionaries and criticizing them in print.

In spite of these qualms, at the turn of the twentieth century Siamese leaders became more deeply committed to Anglo-Saxon ideas of progress as they fixated on becoming a "civilized" modern nation-state. They adopted modern geography and its "indispensible" new technology of mapping and map making to discursively construct Siam's territorial boundaries, values, and practices — its "geo-body"— and made it legible as a modern nation to the Western world. In addition, officials and various groups of elite in Siam embarked on a quest for siwilai, a transliteration of the English word civilized that expressed a desire to progress along Western lines in terms of material progress, etiquette, and everything in between.

World War II both tested and strengthened U.S.-Thai relations. Shortly after bombing Pearl Harbor, on December 8, 1941, Japanese troops invaded Thailand seeking safe passage to fight the British in Malaysia and Burma. Within a few weeks Thailand formed a military alliance with Japan. And on January 25, 1942, Thailand officially declared war on the United States and the Allied powers. Thailand was not a passive victim of Japanese coercion. Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram believed Thailand could help Japan bring an end to white Western colonialism in Asia, and to possibly create a new world in which Thais and other Asians would not be "little brown brothers." However, Seni Pramoj, the Thai minister in Washington, D.C., refused to deliver the declaration of war to President Franklin Roosevelt because he regarded it as illegal and against the wishes of Thai people. Pramoj, along with a group of Thai students in the United States, organized an underground "Free Thai" movement. In collaboration with the American Office of Strategic Services, the movement offered voluntary military support to the Allied powers, used political propaganda and public relations campaigns to persuade fellow Thai to resist Japanese forces, and performed damage control to reestablish good relations with the United States. After Japan's surrender on August 15, 1945, Thai officials also issued a peace proclamation stating that Thailand's declaration of war was unconstitutional and against the interests of Thailand and Thai people. The arguments convinced U.S. officials. U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes responded, "The American government has always believed that the declaration did not represent the will of the Thai people as it was under Japanese control. ... During the past four years we have regarded Thailand not as an enemy, but as a country to be liberated from the enemy. With that liberation now accomplished we look to the resumption by Thailand of its former place in the community of nations as a free, sovereign, and independent country." The end of World War II marked a watershed moment for U.S.-Thai relations: the start of Thailand's "American Era."


The informal postwar U.S. empire created the conditions for U.S. citizens to get to know and experience Thailand, Thai people, and Thai culture. The new farangs, a diverse group of Americans ranging from social scientists and military officials to exchange students and tourists, produced and circulated representations of Thailand that attempted to establish sentimental bonds between Americans and Thais. They developed knowledge of Thailand and its people through popular culture and face-to-face encounters. Members of each farang category certainly had unique individual experiences and therefore interpreted Thai people and culture subjectively. Collectively, however, U.S. citizens put forth a set of overlapping and, at times, competing narratives. They familiarized other Americans with the relatively unknown U.S. client state, depicting Thailand as open and adaptable to global changes, such as the intrusion of American-style capitalism and culture, and describing Thai people as lazy yet friendly and naturally subservient to hierarchies. They saw Thai society and culture operating on a path of least resistance embodied in the mai bpen rai attitude, a widely used Thai expression variously meaning, "you're welcome" and "no problem" or "do not worry, just enjoy life," when applied to bad or unpleasant situations. These narratives justified U.S. intervention.

Immediately after World War II, U.S. businessmen and companies helped form the idea that Thais and Americans shared commonalities, giving the impression that capitalist development was in the best interest of both nations. Thailand's American era witnessed only a modest investment of U.S. capital in mostly mining, petroleum, hotel, silk, and shipping companies. Thailand remained too remote and too risky an investment. Still, some companies and their executives sought to expand and capitalize on Thailand's trade relations and historical pro-Western stance. Among them was Jan van Oosten of San Marino, California. As an executive for a steamship line, he traveled to Bangkok for two months in 1949. A naturalized citizen from Holland, Van Oosten saw great similarities among Americans and "Thailanders," mainly because both championed freedom in "business and personal life" and had never been "conquered or exploited." "The Siamese intrigue me more than any other Oriental nationality," he observed. "They are adaptable and at the same time independent. Like Americans, they are democratic although the country is ruled by a king." Before leaving Bangkok, van Oosten told Thai government officials that he wanted "to do something for your country." Officials obliged by honoring Van Oosten as Consul General, the first from Los Angeles and the second from California.

Thailand became a prime potential base to combat alternative political economies deemed threatening to the United States's global free-market capitalist aspirations. U.S. state actors began referring to Thailand as a pro-Western bastion of anticommunism in Southeast Asia deserving of U.S. support. Edward F. Stanton, U.S. ambassador to Thailand from 1946–1953, described the country in a 1954 Foreign Affairs article as the "heart" and "citadel" of the region. In February 1954 the U.S.-initiated Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO), a security pact signed by eight countries to counter communist "aggression and subversion," was established and headquartered in Bangkok, which formalized American involvement in Southeast Asia as well as made clear Thailand's critical role in U.S. global communist containment. In addition to Thailand's strategic geographic location for security, the United States was also interested in the country's substantial resources and similar free-market enterprise system that offered ripe private investment opportunities for U.S. corporations.

Cultural producers also reinforced and distributed popular representations of Thailand as an adaptable nation in the service of U.S. intervention. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's 1951 musical The King and I was arguably the most far-reaching and influential narrative of Thai people and culture during the Cold War. The King and I opened on Broadway and played in New York through 1954 with Gertrude Lawrence starring as Anna and Yul Brynner as King Mongkut. After touring nationally and in London, the show was shaped into a Twentieth Century Fox film in 1956. It won six academy awards with a wildly popular soundtrack that stayed on the charts for 274 weeks. The musical delivered an epic tale about a real yet Americanized nineteenth-century British schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens, who is hired by King Mongkut of Siam to teach and guide Siam along Western lines to avoid colonization. Rodgers and Hammerstein depicted Thailand as backwards but, if trained properly, a candidate for joining the civilized First World. Through the figure of Anna, U.S. citizens were encouraged to see modernization projects as anticolonial struggles for self-determination rather than acts of colonial domination. The musical put forth the idea that racial Others like the Siamese, "rather than being exterminated, could be modernized through an intimate embrace." As Christina Klein has argued, The King and I functioned as a "spectacle of modernization" and captured the way the ideology of modernization extended beyond political officials and academics and became infused within middlebrow culture. In other words, the film offered an opportunity for the average American to participate in the Cold War by way of consumption.

U.S. social scientists were part of the first group to produce "intelligence" on Thailand in the early stages of the Cold War. As students and architects of modernization theory, these well-funded researchers became fascinated with the decolonizing world and its potential for social, political, and economic progress along Western lines. In 1947, the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University pioneered investigations on Thailand under the leadership of Lauriston Sharp and the initiation of the Cornell Thailand Project. Sharp, who had spent a year as assistant director of the Southeast Asia Division of the State Department in 1945, launched the project (and later expanded it with a Rockefeller Foundation Grant in 1950) because, as he told the Christian Science Monitor in 1952: "Americans are just becoming aware of the political importance of the area. Yet our understanding of its peoples and cultures is far from adequate. There is a dangerous shortage of experts, and there are great gaps in our knowledge of even the most elementary facts." The Cornell project, a hub of Thai Studies at the time, emphasized research, graduate education, and training students with a knowledge of the countries they will presumably work in via diplomatic corps and business. The Program disseminated this knowledge through the flagship "Data Paper Series," a collection that included social scientific studies on Thai culture, behavior, and social structure, focusing on political and ideological changes as well as "the social and psychological effects of technological change" in rural Thailand. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict produced a notable ethnographic study of Thai culture during World War II, published posthumously in 1952, in which she concluded that the lack of Thai parental authority and discipline toward infants and adolescents led to "Thai cheerfulness, easy conviviality, and non-violence" and could explain why Thais "gamble with pleasure, are indolent rather than hard-working and accept easily subordinate positions in a hierarchy." To be sure, the academic interest in Thais was minimal at the time, but the research did reflect the growth and legitimacy of area studies in the United States. With funding and support from a range of U.S. government agencies and programs — both overtly and covertly — the interdisciplinary field produced research that had intellectual value while also shaping global counterinsurgency and development programs to further America's Cold War policy objectives.

Social scientists were not the only educators in Thailand. The Agency for International Development's (AID) University Contract program offers a vivid example of how U.S. education, as it insinuated itself into everyday Thai society, produced knowledge about Thais not only through academic research but also via personal interactions. U.S. educational programs were among the most impactful mechanisms of cultural diplomacy in Thailand. On July 1, 1950, an educational exchange agreement was signed between the United States and Thailand that led to the development of the Fulbright Foundation, spearheaded by U.S. Senator William J. Fulbright. Shortly after, a number of American organizations, many private, began to appear, including the American University Alumni language center (AUA) in Bangkok funded by both the U.S. government and the private American University Alumni Association to help Thais develop English skills before leaving to study in the United States. Other organizations and programs included the Agency for International Development (AID), the Asia Foundation (TAF), the American Field Services (AFS), the Peace Corps, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

During the 1950s and 60s, professors from thirteen different American universities — including Indiana University, Wayne State University, Michigan State University, and the University of Texas at Austin — traveled to Thailand as participants in the AID University Contract program. The goal was to modernize Thai faculty practices and institutions of higher education along American lines. As advisers, U.S. educators carried out modernization and extended goodwill on the ground, working with Thai professors to bring American solutions to Thai "problems." The process consisted of eliminating "authoritarian patterns of instruction," restructuring laboratories and libraries, and introducing new textbooks. Advisers reported stumbling across numerous cultural barriers and difficulties in dealing with Thai cultural practices, specifically the Thai mai bpen rai attitude. From interactions at the College of Education in Bangkok, one frustrated counseling adviser from Indiana University believed that the Thai mai bpen rai attitude was a reflection of a deeply rooted Thai fatalistic approach to life that stood in stark contrast to American individualism. Other advisers took mai bpen rai to mean that Thais were much more leisurely than Americans and other "Orientals," evidenced by the way they did not take appointments, schedules, or planning seriously. U.S. educators also considered mai bpen rai to be a practice of avoiding confrontation and therefore saw the attitude as unthreatening.


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