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Opened in 1974, Los Angeles’s Wat Thai was the first and largest Thai Theravada Buddhist temple in the United States. It soon became the center of several suburban zoning disputes, as Tanachai Mark Padoongpatt documents.

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Initially called the Theravada Buddhist Center, Wat Thai functioned as a community space with a distinctly Thai ethnic and national identity. It quickly became known for weekend festivals that “blurred the line between piety and pleasure,” writes Padoongpatt, especially in the scores of food booths where women prepared and sold authentic dishes that patrons ate on the spot.

“Chefs were not afraid to use bold flavors and spiciness in dishes, many of which could not be found on restaurant menus,” he writes, adding that the festivals’ popularity with white visitors “reveals how Wat Thai functioned simultaneously as the center of Thai American life in Los Angeles and as a space for Thais to build relationships with non-Thais.”

But that bustling atmosphere also drew the ire of local residents in the early 1980s, as the Wat Thai community clashed with “a small grassroots committee of almost entirely white suburban homeowners” who complained to the authorities on the basis of alleged zoning code violations.

Core to the mission of the self-proclaimed “Neighborhood Committee” was the claim that festivals “caused parking problems, noise, and trash, which threatened their quality of life.” As such, the conflict was framed narrowly, along the lines of rule of law and the letter of the law.

“Among Thai Americans, the conflict was widely interpreted as a product of cultural differences between Thailand and United States,” Padoongpatt explains. Even though “it is hard not to suspect that racial animosity may have fueled the reaction to Wat Thai,” he also notes that some homeowners and officials took pains to downplay the significance of race, religion, and cultural differences in the dispute.

Padoongpatt argues that working- and lower-middle-class homeowners’ opposition to the festivals was influenced by the precariousness of their class and racial positions in the San Fernando Valley.

“A combination of class pressures and sitting on the ‘front lines’ of the Valley’s racial and ethnic demographic turn might have informed the exclusionary zoning stance of the homeowners,” he writes.

Similarly, the congregation’s response to the conflict also reflected the growing class divisions within the Thai community itself. An educated, middle-class temple leadership was becoming uneasy with both the arrival of younger working-class Thais to area and the presence of Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese visitors who they considered “low-class refugees.”

Yet Wat Thai succeeded in keeping its doors open, which Padoongpatt attributes to both the rise of ethnic-minority political power in Los Angeles in the 1980s and “the ability of Wat Thai and the Thai community to acquire influential support through the temple’s role as public space.”

The very temple festivals that had provoked so much suburban angst may have played a key role.

“They fostered a public sociability that went against dominant and even legal definitions of suburbia,” Padoongpatt writes. “The lesson is about the importance of public space, and the kind of public culture it generates in community mobilization to create social and political change.”

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Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Winter 2015), pp. 83–114
University of Illinois Press on behalf of the Immigration & Ethnic History Society