In an unremarkable room in a corner of UC Irvine’s main library, the little-known stories of Southeast Asian refugees are kept alive.
The room holds rare items from decades ago -- audio recordings of those recounting their journeys fleeing Vietnam by boat, letters written from refugee camps to families left behind and refugee orientation brochures they picked up upon arriving in Orange County.
Researchers and academics from across the country, even from as far as Japan and Germany, have come to dig through UC Irvine’s Southeast Asian Archive -- the only collection in the world that continues to document the transitions of refugees and immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to life in the United States.
But with the university facing severe budget cutbacks, some academics fear that the investment and legwork that kept the archive vibrant will suffer.
The university did not replace the full-time librarian when she retired; Anne Frank spent decades collecting materials from refugee communities. Instead, UC Irvine installed a research librarian who divides her time overseeing the research needs of other departments.
“This is part of a larger picture of public universities facing severe cutbacks,” said Linda Vo, head of UC Irvine’s Asian American Studies Department, who is also a member of the archive advisory board. “We are facing drastic cuts that are going to impact our libraries and collections in various ways.”
Not everyone agrees. Library officials say that despite budget difficulties, the university is committed to increasing the collection.
After the end of the Vietnam War and other area conflicts, nearly 1 million Southeast Asian refugees settled in the U.S. from 1975 to the early 1980s. Many found their way to Southern California. Today, Orange County is home to the largest population of Vietnamese Americans in the country. Most of the archive’s materials document Vietnamese refugees.
Vo and other archive enthusiasts are worried that with reduced staff and funding, the archive will no longer reflect the still-changing Vietnamese American experience.
“It is a very valuable collection, but it involves more than archiving and being there in the library,” she said. “It involves encouraging people to preserve the history of their community and family, as well as an important part of American history.”
Had it not been for the archive, Vo said, the beginning chapters of the Southeast Asian refugee experience in Southern California might have been lost forever. As Vietnamese refugees were beginning to settle around the bean and strawberry fields of Westminster in the late 1980s and open businesses, a former professor in Vietnam approached officials at UC Irvine about documenting the growing enclave.
The responsibility came to Frank, a university librarian who archived Orange County history. Frank didn’t know much about the county’s new residents, so she reached out to refugee groups, asking those she met to write their stories of escaping a homeland that had fallen to communist forces.
She collected letters written by families in Southeast Asia’s refugee camps to relatives in Orange County. She picked up Vietnamese-language publications. She asked for donations of books and correspondence from Vietnam, as well as unpublished theses related to Southeast Asian refugees from universities across the country. She clipped newspaper articles documenting milestones in Little Saigon: Tony Lam’s win in 1992 as the first Vietnamese American elected official; the 53-day protest against a merchant who displayed communist symbols in his store in 1999; President Bill Clinton’s historic visit to Vietnam in 2000.
She went to Vietnamese New Year Tet festivals and various community events, picking up brochures, programs and fliers. “It was the stuff people usually throw away,” Frank said. “If you keep it long enough, it becomes interesting. These things fade from people’s memories.”
At first, Frank stuffed the items into a small cabinet in her office. As the collection grew, the university library set aside some money and eventually it found a home in the small room on the third floor of the main library.
The archive’s rare finds include items donated by Project Ngoc, a student-led organization that sent volunteers to Southeast Asia in the 1980s to help refugees as they waited for resettlement. When the organization disbanded, it donated letters, official documents, photos and paintings created by Vietnamese refugees.
Quan Tran, a Yale graduate student, said the archive is a treasure for her research on the relationship between Vietnam and its overseas diaspora. “It is one of the very few places that document the different shifts in the [Vietnamese community], especially the cultural, political and social changes” inside and outside Orange County’s Little Saigon, Tran said.
Frank retired in 2007, and the archive’s advisory board lobbied the university to conduct a national search for her replacement. But library officials declined to do so, and the university later instituted a hiring freeze.
The library recently named Christina Woo, one of the university’s senior librarians, to head the archive. Woo also serves as a research librarian for the Women’s Studies Department and Chicano/Latino Studies Department and spends only part of her time at the archives. But library officials say they have restructured a team of librarians to help maintain the archives, including student employees.
“It’s no surprise that the University of California is taking a hit in the recent budget crisis, but we are definitely allocating resources to keep the archive open and maintaining the caliber of that collection,” said Michelle Light, the acting head of special collections and archives.
Woo said she and the advisory board are discussing which events in immigrant communities to attend to collect materials. “I can see no slowing down of the momentum for building the collections in the Southeast Asian archive,” she said.
Frank’s concern is that collecting materials for an archive that documents a constantly changing community can be difficult and takes time.
“If you are trying to document a community, you have to have someone who has knowledge, who is willing to go to community events, to meet people,” she said. “If they don’t replace me, that may die. What we have will be preserved, but I’m not sure if the collection will grow.”