Berlin’s kitschy and flavourful Little Vietnam
Full up from lunch, I set off to explore the market further. I met Mr Dong, 43, in his shop, sprawled in a chair behind the counter, smoking a cigarette and watching Vietnamese satellite television. The sign above the door promises gute Qualität -- good quality -- and his wares include outsized cigarette lighters, hip flasks embossed with Lenin’s face and statues of the Buddah clad in mirrored tiles, like a disco ball.
Relaxed and friendly, Dong speaks in clipped German punctuated by frequent chuckles, although there is real hardship in his story. He came to East Germany in 1988, in the last gasps of the regime which collapsed the following year. He worked in a chemical plant in Leipzig, 190km southwest of Berlin, and lived in a Wohnheim, a sort of segregated dormitory for guest workers. He was not encouraged to learn any more than the most essential language skills for the workplace, and friendly interactions with his German brothers in socialism were rare.
When Dong’s employer ceased to exist, he became a fruit and vegetable seller at an outdoor market in Leipzig, and he and his family moved to Berlin in 2004. When I asked how his business was going, Dong replied with German directness: "Not good." It was better before the global economic downturn, he said, though like all good businessmen, he seemed unphased by cycles of boom and bust. He is proud of his little shop and makes enough selling to wholesalers and passing foot traffic.
For the market as a whole however, business is booming. The first hall opened its doors in 2005, and it has been expanding steadily since; there are now nine buildings and more are planned. In 2010, Nguyen van Hien, the director of the Dong Xuan Center, told the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper that its role models were the great Chinatowns of the US, Canada and Australia.
In all its chaos and devil-may-care sloppiness, the Dong Xuan Center is distinctly un-German. It is the most exotic of the GDR’s legacies in Berlin, and there is an irony at its heart. The GDR sought to produce only what it needed -- and in most cases failed to make as much as that. It brought thousands of Vietnamese migrants to Germany and, for all its songs about internationalism and the brotherhood of man, it kept them separate and tried to erase their traditional culture. Now, in its former industrial heartland, hundreds are growing rich -- or trying to -- selling some of the most useless excesses of the consumer society.
In a country with a past as mad as Germany’s, the tides of history wash up the strangest things.