Hanna Holborn Gray Fellow Saiqian Xiao '23

November 15, 2022 Alex Kelly '23
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The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. We're highlighting the research of this year's fellows in a series of online profiles.

Saiqian Xiao ’23, Growth and Structure of Cities
"From Local to Global: Reinterpretation of Food System in Philadelphia Chinatown"


Abstract: This research investigates an immigrant enclavePhiladelphia Chinatownunder the lens of food study and analyzes the adaptation of its food system at urban and regional scales. Even as
the core of Chinatown's commerce, culture, and renown, its food is often concealed under spatial connections and overlooked by many urban policymakers. This study analyzes the structure and operation of the Philadelphia Chinatown food supply chain and distribution models for Asian food ingredients. Through doing systematic archival and library research and conducting field trips and interviews, the study uncovers interactions among the food supply chain, various stakeholders, and their spaces. Based on existing data, the food networks of Philadelphia Chinatown include three types of food suppliers on the consumer-end. The discussion of wholesalers is limited by a lack of primary and secondary data. Meanwhile, the  dichotomy of the mainstream system and the alternative one needs to be reconsidered given recent development.


Was there anything surprising about the work you did?

I had been conducting fieldwork in Philadelphia Chinatown throughout this summer. My focus on the food supply chain required me to talk with wholesalers and trace their social relationships. However, during my field trips, I instead ran across more street vendors and food purchasers, learning about their personal connections with Chinatown’s food system and observing norms within this neighborhood. One of the poultry vendors even invited me to visit their self-owned farm in New Jersey. Through this process, my research topic had been refined following the ethnography experience and each individual I encountered. Also, my original research design intended to use a snowballing strategy to recruit more interviewees. Nevertheless, it turned out that reaching out to the wholesalers respectively also worked well. I was pleasantly surprised when the wholesalers talked about their business passionately to me since I visited their warehouses without any communications or notices in advance.

How will you use your research in future studies?

I am currently developing my Cities senior thesis, “The Alternative Food System of An Urban Ethnic Enclave: Interpreting the Food Supply Network and Assets in Philadelphia Chinatown,” based on the findings through the summer. The connections I built and the bibliography I developed allowed me to focus more on chapter writing than data collection in this period.

How did you choose your topic?

I had always been intrigued by discussions related to the food system and its stakeholders since I took Introduction to Environmental Studies in my sophomore year. The idea of connecting it to Chinatown expanded last fall during the Research Method of Social Sciences course offered by the Cities Department, where I proposed to examine how the direct-to-consumer models in the urban food system would influence the community development of Chinatown. As a core of Chinese identity and Chinatown economics, food also provides a network of often concealed connections, places, and agents that bring Chinese greens, live fish, sauce, and rice, among other ingredients to homes and restaurants. Thus, I proposed to further interpret the role of food in Chinatown of the United States and to figure out potential food strategies for this community


The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. Each summer, Bryn Mawr College awards up to 15 students a summer fellowship of $4,500 to undertake an independent research project in the humanities or humanistic social sciences.  The research may either be the beginning of the senior thesis or a project that stands alone, but is relevant to their intellectual interests and must be supported by a faculty advisor.

Hanna Holborn Gray Undergraduate Research Fellowships

Growth and Structure of Cities