Preserving History In Voices

Representatives of the Orange County Vietnamese-American community celebrated the launch of UC Irvine’s Vietnamese American Oral History Project’s (VAOHP) online website and resource center last Wednesday, Oct. 24 in Westminster.

A collaborative work between the UC Irvine Department of Asian American Studies, the UC Library’s Southeast Asian Archive, and the Vietnamese community in Southern California, the project aimed at recording and archiving the stories and experiences of Vietnamese, especially individuals of the first-generation, who have immigrated to America.

The celebration, which included catered home-cooked Vietnamese food as well as singers alongside key speakers representing sponsors and supporters of the program, drew a sizeable turnout. Many included community members as well as students and faculty from UC Irvine.

“Nothing like this has been created for our community before, for someone to build an archive for us,” Dr. Thuy Vo Dang, Postdoctoral Fellow and Director of the VAOHP at UCI, said. “We’re shifting towards the Americanization of the community, even in Little Saigon.

“Whenever you hear about Vietnam in the American media, it’s really in reference to an era that Americans want to forget. The Vietnamese refugees have been painted and represented in biased ways, so how I teach my students at UCI is to understand that history has a real current and significant purpose today.

“It’s in our best interest to be the ones to create our own history, to control the mechanism in which we tell our stories, and this oral history project is one way that we do that,” Vo Dang said.

The night began with speakers from academic faculty supporters of the program, including former Dean of the School of Humanities and Professor of History and Chicano/Latino Studies, Vicki Ruiz; Interim Dean of the School of Humanities and Professor of English Jim Steintrager; and Associate Professor and Chair of the Asian American Studies Department James Kyung-Jin Lee.

“This is a hugely important moment for the history of this community and for the history of the university,” Lee said. “I hope that people will see in these stories things that they may not have heard before, things that haven’t been officially written into history textbooks, and they come to recognize that in these stories, there are layers and layers of other histories that make the American experience all the more complex and all the more engaging.”

Informational booths by the various organizations involved with the creation of the VAOHP were on display at the celebration. Alongside computers available to test out of the project’s finalized website were tables displaying an archived binder of over 500 transcripts of interviews collected by projects under the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation. Nearby, running along the entire wall of the community hall, were art works commemorating Vietnamese familial heritage by the featured artist Trinh Mai, as well as an informational booth from the UCI Library’s Southeast Asian Archive, which had worked closely with the VAOHP in making the project a reality.

“One of the reasons this event is held in the community rather than at UCI is because it’s easier for the community to come here,” said Christina Woo, the Research Librarian of UCI’s Southeast Asian Archive. “What we do here is we collect and we preserve.”

UCI Associate Professor of Asian American Studies Linda Trinh Vo said one of the most important aspects of the project is that it employs new and modern technology to allow anyone to have electronic access to these sources of oral Vietnamese history collected over ten years.

“We recognize that many among the first generations are getting older, and they are passing away,” Vo said. “We want to do everything we can to try to capture their life stories now, so that we can learn more about our own life history and our own family’s history.”