Southeast Asian Archive at UC Irvine preserves refugee history

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Sometimes, things we have around the house could be historically significant, without us even realizing it. That’s where the Southeast Asian Archive on the campus of UC Irvine comes in.

Boxes upon boxes of stories, journals, pictures and paintings line the shelves at the Southeast Asian Archive.

They tell the story of immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, as they made their way through refugee camps to the United States in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

Christina Woo is a research librarian at the archive, which has been around since 1987. She says it includes the letters, diaries and pictures you’d expect to find in an archive.

"But we also have documents that would ordinarily be discarded, not considered valuable," Woo says as she picks up what looks like a small phone book as an example. "This is the compact version of a business directory that’s published every year by this well-respected Vietnamese-American newspaper."

Woo says the archive has these books going back for years, helping to trace the growth of the Southeast Asian community in the U.S. and Southern California.

"Do you and I keep stuff like this? No, you get the new one and you pitch the old one, recycle it maybe," she says. "But when we can keep them for many, many years, we can document the size."

Woo flips through the book.

"Technically speaking, we could go, 'How many manicurists? How many restaurants? How many insurance brokers? How many landscapers? Etcetera,' because we have that going back in time," Woo says.

Woo turns to images of some paintings from the archive, which houses more than 100 paintings.

The artists were refugees who’d fled to Hong Kong from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Some of the paintings show the stark, cramped barracks at the refugee camps. Others express feelings about communism and the dangers of fleeing communist rule.

"This is clearly somebody escaping from the chains of communism in Vietnam," Woo says, pointing at a painting. "This is a SOS on a not-sturdy boat to cross the South China Sea to get real far. You can see the dark clouds. And this person wants to get to freedom. And you can see western flags here and escaping pirates and people who would want to pull this down. And sharks. Pretty grim, huh?"

Woo says the painters in the refugee camps used whatever they could to express themselves.

"Some of them are painted on just poster board. You look on the other side and you see an ad for cigarettes," she says. "And some of them are painted on fabric, but some are just on, I won’t say corrugated board, but just simple paper."

Woo says the paintings could have rotted away in hot attics or damp basements. Or they could have been thrown away once the families made it to the U.S. But the archive was able to save them.

Woo says the archive is about more than saving paintings and paperwork. She says it’s about saving history for the next generation.

"There may be parents in the Southeast Asian-American community who don’t want to talk about this. It’s too painful. It’s too depressing. They don’t want their children to know that this was part of their parents’ lives," Woo says. "So those stories don’t get shared. But those people can come to the archive and maybe this could be the beginning of a conversation."

It's a conversation that could lead to oral history passed from one generation to the next, sharing the struggles to get to the freedom of America and to not only survive, but thrive here.

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