• From left to right: Waugh, Eko, Susilawati, Reid and Mira Oaten in 2000

  • Reid (left) with Robert Kirsner (middle) and Henk Maier (right) in Reid's backyard in 2001

  • Reid in 2016

  • Reid returns to UCLA in 2018

  • Reid with Tong (left) and Juliana Wijaya, CSEAS Indonesian Studies Coordinator, in 2018

Professor Anthony Reid, founding director of UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, fondly remembers the early years of the center that he helped establish over 20 years ago.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)

"When you get old, you like to think that your babies are flourishing," shares Anthony Reid as he excitedly talks about the founding of the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies. He recently joined Nguyet Tong, current CSEAS assistant director, to discuss the beginnings of the center and future of area studies.

Tong: How did you come into your role as the founding director of UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies?

Reid: In the 1950s, the University of California used available funding to split up area studies programs among the universities. UC Berkeley established centers focused on Asia and UCLA launched the African Studies Center and Latin American Institute.

But with the increasing population of Asian and Asian American students in Southern California, we had to do something to address the lack of representation and visibility for Southeast Asian studies at UCLA. At the same time, the Luce Foundation was pushing for more Southeast Asian studies at universities.

In 1997, I received a letter from Scott Waugh, the UCLA Dean of Social Sciences at the time. He asked for my advice on what to do for Southeast Asian studies. When I was in Los Angeles for another commitment, I went in for a meeting at UCLA as well. I didn’t think they were talking about a job for me!

I encouraged them to set up a proper institution with a designated Southeast Asian studies librarian, language instructors and at least five faculty appointments.

Surprisingly, UCLA agreed to everything. We had a few more discussions after this initial meeting and eventually, I was offered the position as director of the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

Tong: What were the early years of CSEAS like?

Reid: When we were planning to launch the center in October 1999 at the Fowler Museum, we enlisted the help of Professor Judy Mitoma in ethnomusicology because of her expertise on music and performance from the region. She invited Sophiline Shapiro and Eko Supriyanto, both Southeast Asian choreographers and dancers, and they performed brilliantly.

When I had to give my welcome speech, I thought, “How do I get everybody’s attention?” Judy said, “Leave it to Eko.” Sure enough, Eko gave this loud, electrifying chant that instantly attracted everyone’s eyes and ears. It was a fun celebration and the first of many wonderful social events.

Getting the Title VI grant was a real rush! It was exciting and we enjoyed working closely with the Center for Southeast Asia Studies at UC Berkeley, our consortium partner for the grant.

I probably got the most amount of grey hairs that year, but there was a huge buzz for starting something new. We began to bring in faculty like Michael Ross, George Dutton and Thu-hương Nguyễn-võ. And we hired Barbara Gaerlan as the assistant director, thanks to a recommendation by Michael Salman.

Tong: I’ve heard so much about the camaraderie between the students and faculty, especially when you were there. Where were some of your favorite moments?

Anthony: When I came to UCLA, I arrived as an Indonesian studies scholar. It was important for me to strengthen Vietnamese studies on campus, especially because of our proximity to Little Saigon in Orange County. I was happy to appoint George Dutton and Thu-hương Nguyễn-võ to teach about Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora.

I also loved teaching my first graduate class. The students were so sharp, well-read and eager. One student, Nhung Tran, who is now a professor at the University of Toronto, even served as a student representative on our hiring committee and gave suggestions throughout the process.

Tong: What have you worked on since leaving UCLA?

Reid: In 2002, I helped establish the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, which was incredibly exciting. Since my retirement from NUS in 2009, I have been in Canberra as Professor Emeritus at Australian National University. I wrote A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads, which provides a comprehensive history of Southeast Asia, focusing on factors such as the environment, religion, society, culture, and demography. I finally felt like I didn’t owe anything more to the field of Southeast Asian history.

I also recently published a fictional novel, Mataram: A Novel of Love, Faith and Power In Early Java. I returned to UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies in October 2018 for a soft launch of the novel.

Tong: As we celebrate our 20th year anniversary, what do you hope to see in the next 20 years?

Reid: We need to strengthen the humanities side of Southeast Asian studies. There are fewer spaces for a Southeast Asian historian or anthropologist now that traditional departments are shrinking.

I hope that eventually we don’t have to be put in these special silos. We could have joint programs that, say, combine Asian studies and economics. In this way, students could imagine themselves as an engineer or a lawyer, but operate effectively in Indonesia because they have studied Indonesian.

In a globalized world, we shouldn’t educate students to only know about their country or be monolingual. There’s no excuse. We must prepare students to be global scholars and creators.

You will still need a center, language classes and study abroad programs, but if these things can be married to other fields, students will be infinitely adaptable.

Tong: Thank you so much for your time and insight, Anthony. We appreciate all the work you’ve done.

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Published: Wednesday, June 10, 2020