Vietnamese life in Berlin

Half Prussian, half Vietnamese.

And nowhere really at home. Berlin – Prenzlauer Berg. Everyday I go for bread or milk to the supermarket just around the corner. I see the sombre looking man standing next to the supermarket’s entrance. As you approach him he always turns his body a little bit to silently advertise the goods he holds in his hand: cigarettes, untaxed. Even though what he does is strictly forbidden, you can easily track most of his operations. At times you see him getting new stuff from his hidden reserves which lay under some packets of potting compost which the supermarket stores next to its entrance, at other times he meets some dark skinned men who just brought along new supplies.

The only thing you will rarely see in public is the core of his business. Since the German state authorities changed their strategy from punishing dealers to punishing their clients, his customers are very careful not to be seen by anyone. The dark skinned dealer is a Vietnamese. He might belong to the group of around 12,000 (out of formerly 60.000) Vietnamese "contract workers", who were not sent back to their country of origin after the end of the GDR.

In socialist times Vietnamese contract workers were employed in the industry of the ‘seventh strongest economic power in the world’, as the GDR claimed to be. The state-owned factories strictly regulated the life of the Vietnamese guest workers. Since they were to leave the country after five years, there were no attempts to integrate them into society. Today many of them live in the eastern districts of Berlin. They make up the largest group within the Berlin Vietnamese community which is said to have up to 10,000 members.

The dark skinned dealer might also have come to the town as an asylum-seeker. Some of the asylum-seekers were living as contract workers in other countries in the communist bloc, others paid a lot of money to smugglers to make the long journey from Vietnam to this town at the other end of the world. Almost none of the asylum-seekers were accepted. But since for many years Vietnam treated asylum-seekers as traitors and refused to take them back, many found ways to stay. Of those who did not, many went on further to the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia or Hungary.

Second to the contract workers, West Berlin’s ‘boat people’ are the next largest group inside the Vietnamese ethnic community. They came in the mid-Seventies from South-Vietnam, escaping from communist rule. The relationship between West Berlin’s boat-people and the ‘contract workers’ in the eastern districts is far from good. The small Vietnamese community’s sharp division into these two groups mirrors the still-noticeable differences between Berliners of western and eastern backgrounds. But to explain why the division inside Berlin’s small Vietnamese Diaspora seems even harder to overcome than the one between the two parts of the town you need to know about the historical ba

ckground: until today in communist Vietnam ‘boat people’ are seen as American agents and collaborators. The official propaganda accuses them of being the "ones who were not fighting with us in the war." Mr. Do Minh Qang, who himself came as a student to the GDR and tries to bring both groups together, describes it like this: "One side accuses the other, that they simply fled. And the others counter this with, you were ‘sons of communists’." Not only political but also social differences determine the problematic relationship: Most of the ‘boat people’ were well educated members of the South Vietnamese intelligentsia. Since the logic of the Cold War declared them to be allies, they were open-heartedly welcomed in Western Europe.

In West-Germany the state and many private organisations offered help for their successful integration. The attitude towards the contract workers was the opposite: from the beginning these less educated people were seen as an unpleasant legacy of communism which the united Germany should get rid off as fast as possible. Most of the contract workers accepted the offer to go back to Vietnam for a compensation of 30,000 Deutschmarks. Some refused to go and after long political struggles around 12,000 received the permit to stay indefinitely.

In comparison to other ethnic groups in Berlin, the Vietnamese community with its 10,000 members is small. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese are very visible, especially in some of the Eastern districts. This is true not only because of the different colour of their faces, but also because of their involvement in many economic activities. Most people in Berlin associate Vietnamese with illegal and semi-legal street trade, by which many Vietnamese are trying to struggle through their lives in Germany.

Shootings and homocides among competing Vietnamese gangs, which control the market for untaxed cigarettes, have supported the emergence of negative stereotypes. But, in fact, the street trade is only one part of the much more complex puzzle of Vietnamese life in Berlin. More and more Vietnamese, who might have made their start in capitalism as street dealers, opened small shops for vegetables and fruits. They fill the gap left by the gradual displacement of the classic "Tante-Emma-Laden" (German idiom for small grocery shop) by large supermarkets. Others opened fast-food restaurants, laundries and other kinds of small enterprises.

Photo by Katrin Janka, Berlin

The most important economic junction in Berlin’s Vietnamese geography is the "Vietnam Handelszentrum"
(‘Vietnam commercial centre’). It flourishes in obscurity in an industrial area of Marzahn, one of the city’s most eastern outskirts. In socialist times one of the mass accommodations for Vietnamese contract workers was situated just a few houses down the street. Whitewashed walls, about three meters high, divide the large industrial hall into many tiny rooms. Each of them is rented by one of more than fifty small business enterprises. Walking around it one could be far, far away from Berlin: no German face, no German sound. Instead: Asian music and the aroma of Vietnamese cuisine.

Children moving on scooters and bikes through the long corridors, colliding twice with this curious journalist. The atmosphere is relaxed and quite informal. Children are almost everywhere, but also women in elegant dresses, businessmen in suits and some men looking like the cigarette guys. Most of the shops in the hall function as suppliers for Vietnamese-owned shops and restaurants in the city. Since many of the shop owners maintain close contacts to producers in Vietnam and import directly from there, the Vietnam-Handelszentrum functions as an important link between Vietnam and the distributors.

Some shops directly serve the needs of the Vietnamese community: Vietnamese newspapers, books, videos and CDs, about four Vietnamese hairdressers, two restaurants with Vietnamese food (and not that kind of food, which is sold as Vietnamese or Asian food to the Germans in town!) and even – on a second floor – a karaoke-room can be found. For Vietnamese living in the Eastern districts, the Handelszentrum has not only an economic, but also a social function. It is an important place of communication for a small and widespread community at the edges of the German society.

"The Vietnamese community is a very young community. That’s why the Vietnamese infrastructure in Berlin is not very well developed yet. But our people are starving for culture." Mr. Do Minh Qang sits in the large Vietnamese restaurant of his newly-opened "Kulturzentrum Vietnam" (‘Culture Centre Vietnam’) in Berlin-Lichtenberg. Its location on a hidden road in one of East Berlin’s Plattenbau (low-rise) quarters is very unusual for a centre which represents the national culture of a state.

"I know that it is not ideal. But at least the rent is cheaper here than in the centre. And here we are in the middle of East Berlin’s Vietnamese community. Many of our people live in the surrounding blocks." In 1980, Mr. Do Minh Qang came to Leipzig as a student. Studying agricultural engineering, working for the Vietnamese Ministry of Ecology and being a consultant for Vietnamese refugees in the federal state of Brandenburg were three important steps in his career. "I could have had a calm life. But I am a mad man." The mission of the mad man’s project "Kulturzentrum Vietnam" is not only to organise cultural events for the Vietnamese community, but also to give Germans and other minorities an impression of Vietnamese culture.

"I want the Germans to recognise that Vietnamese are not only members of the cigarette gangs." He manages the first task successfully. The second seems more complicated. "If we organise events on weekends, we have a full house all the time. But more than 80% of our guests are Vietnamese, Germans drop in only occasionally. We organise cultural evenings about Vietnamese culture and try to build bridges to other cultures. For example at Christmas, we invited Germans to tell our people about the Christmas story in the Bible. That evening more than 300 of our people came. They have been living here for ages, but they have had only few opportunities to come into contact with German culture." During the week, the restaurant should attract people. "People expect us to cook Chinese. But this is exactly what we don’t want to do." He smiles. "But if they try it, they are satisfied."

Mr. Do Minh Qang is an educated man who speaks German almost perfectly. But even for him, he says, life in Germany is bitter. "It is terrible here. Sometimes, I ask myself whether it wouldn’t be better to go home. The danger of being attacked by skinheads is not the worst thing. The real problem is that you can’t feel really at home here because people do not treat you as if you would belong here. And I miss the Vietnamese way of life. In Germany everything is well organised and disciplined. But sometimes a little bit of chaos would also be OK. But when I am in Vietnam, I recognise that I have adopted a lot of German culture. Now I am half Prussian, half Vietnamese. And nowhere really at home." He smiles sadly.

Back in my street. The cigarette dealer still stands on his usual place. Should I ask him? Where are you from? Do you have your family here in Berlin? What do you think about the people in Berlin? I am shy because I feel uncertain. Somehow I am afraid of him. Maybe I will ask him tomorrow.

The Berlin Vietnamese community is said to have up to 10,000 members. The book "Vietnamesen in Berlin" provides a usefull introduction into this interesting "parallel world". It is published by the "council for foreigners" of the Berlin city council. Die Ausl&auml:nderbeauftragte, Potsdamer Straße 65, 10 785 Berlin, tel: +49(0)30.2654 2351

Founded in 1983, the "Vietnam-Haus Berlin" in the Western district Kreuzberg belongs to the oldest Vietnamese institutions in the town: Vietnam-Haus Berlin e.V., Großbeerenstraße 70, 10 963 Berlin, tel: +49(0)30. 2515740, fax: 251 26 28

The most important economic junction inside the Vietnamese community is the "Handelszentrum Vietnam" (Vietnam Commercial Centre) in Berlin-Marzahn: Handelszentrum Vietnam, Rhinstraße 100, Berlin – Marzahn, +49(0)30. 54 39 85 21

An ambitious new project is the foundation of the "Kulturzentrum Vietnam" in the Eastern district Lichtenberg. It contains not only place for many cultural activities, but offers also delicious Vietnamese cuisine.
"Vietnam-Kulturzentrum", Alfred-Jung-Straße 14, Berlin – Lichtenberg, tel. +49. 30. 9760 6350.

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