The Monterey Bay region has a long and vibrant culinary and cultural history. This is particularly true when we look at the region’s connections to Asia-Pacific. From the early migrations of Chinese and Japanese fishers and abalone harvesters in the nineteenth century, to FIlipino agriculturalists in the twentieth century, to later migrations that were tied to U.S. empire in Asia and Fort Ord, the region serves as a microcosm of the west coast’s Asia-Pacific migrations, communities, and histories. Asian food cultures are reflected not only in our local communities but throughout California.
In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic struck the restaurant industry particularly hard, with many businesses forced to close their doors or reduce staff. Some food markets, which often serve home cooks, have actually been able to expand business, while those that typically supplied small restaurants have faced challenges. The result is that many people whose livelihoods are tied to global foodways, economically precarious even in the best of times, have struggled.
Another result of the pandemic has been an increase of anti-Asian violence, including racist rhetoric around the origins of the Covid-19 (so-called “China virus”). Throughout California, incidents of violence against Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders have shocked many and yet have also reminded us of the ways in which historical racism against these communities lingers. Indeed, racism against Asians in California is as old as the state itself.
While economic pressures and social injustices may have informed the experiences of many people working in the food industry, as these interviews make clear, it does not define them as business owners and members of the community. Many Asian restaurants and markets are family businesses with deep ties to their communities, sites of celebration, leisure, and for some, exploration. These interviews reflect the complicated histories of Asian and Asian American families, with their circuitous migration experiences, and the ways in which Asian diasporas shape and are shaped by the cities and towns they call home. These lived experiences are reflected in the foods and culinary cultures that our interviewees share through their restaurants and markets.
“Pacific Food Empires” is an ethnic studies course taught by Professor Dustin Wright at California State University, Monterey Bay. The course focuses on the foods and histories of the peoples of Asia-Pacific. Throughout the spring of 2021, students interviewed people who have experience working within this diverse and vibrant community of cooks, chefs, business owners and their families. These interviews will be recorded and archived at the CSUMB Digital Commons.