Mr Vu Khanh Thanh, the former director of An Viet Foundation, was a philosophy lecturer in Saigon and upon coming to the UK he enrolled to do a PhD in Buddhist Archaeology at SOAS, University of London. He worked part-time as a cleaner to support himself and his family back in Vietnam whilst at the same time having to dedicate a lot of his time to support the ever-growing Vietnamese community - this meant that he was unable to finish his studies.
The support he offered, initially started in the early 1980s as an informal network to support growing numbers of Vietnamese refugees (including a large proportion of ethnic Chinese who had been in Vietnam for many generations) settling in East and North London. Over time this became formalised and thus became the An Viet Foundation (AVF).
The AVF became a home for the Vietnamese diaspora in the borough of Hackney and beyond. Throughout the many years, it has offered a variety of services to the community to deal with adapting to an ever-changing Britain.
The AVF provided support to its community members, as well as also pushing to increase wider public understanding of Vietnamese culture, language, and history. One means to achieve this was through the establishment of the ‘Institute of Vietnam and Southeast Asia Studies’.
Over the years, the ‘Institute of Vietnam and Southeast Asia Studies’ has accumulated over 2,000 books, hundreds of publications (including the self published An Viet magazine), research papers, and journal articles. The institute was able to support a dozen PhD students, as well as numerous Master’s students, by providing access to literature, guidance on reading material, or getting students in contact with the right groups/people. The Institute also contains film materials, photographs, educational materials from the Vietnamese classes and much more.
In 2017 the AVF formally wound up. With the An Viet building temporarily not in use. During this time opportune squatters broke into the building and stayed in situ for many months. During this time they caused considerable damage to the building and the contents stored in the building, which included materials from the ‘Institute of Vietnam and Southeast Asia Studies’ centre. Upon eviction of the squatters, members of the Hackney Chinese Community Services staff, management committee, and volunteers were given some time to collect materials before renovation work was started on the Old Bath House (now formerly An Viet House). Unfortunately, not all materials could be salvaged, many items were thrown onto the roof of the building and thus was exposed to many months of the outside elements.
Professional support and advice were offered by the Hackney Archives to try and preserve some of the materials from An Viet. A successful grant application to the Government’s Covid-19 Archives Fund, administered by The National Archives, for a short term project. The grant enabled meant that formal work could begin on providing emergency conservation treatment to damaged materials and as well as a detailed scoping report. A Steering Committee was formed with dedicated objectives to safeguard the AVF archive materials and to preserve the legacy of Mr Vu’s vision for the ‘Institute of Vietnam and Southeast Asia Studies’.
At the beginning of February, the Hackney Archives welcomed a visit from the Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville who was curious about the work being carried out and wanted to see some of the materials up close. He was welcomed by members of the Hackney Archives, volunteers (working on helping restore some of the books from the archive), HCCS staff and management committee members and the An Viet Archives Steering Panel. The Mayor inspected the AVF archive materials and was touched by the extensive collection of the AVF archive, which documented the journey of the many generations of Vietnamese who transitioned from refugees and migrants to settled citizens.
“This research centre is very important to me. I want An Viet to exist after my generation is gone. In the future, Vietnamese in the community won’t need specialist advice that is provided by An Việt foundation anymore. I want a place where the next generation can meet, as they themselves grow old. It was a focus point, a gathering place, for the Vietnamese community of the future. I hope the research centre will maintain the link, and maintain a connection between the young and the old generations of Vietnamese in the UK.” Vu Khanh Thanh
Photo credit: Hackney Archives