In a grey and drab
corner of East Berlin, bordered by deserted factories and crumbling concrete
tower blocks, there is a little piece of southeast Asia.
The Dong Xuan Center is an
Asian market on an industrial scale, housed in a series of vast warehouses in
the working class neighbourhood of Lichtenberg. The Brandenburg Gate is only 10km
to the west, but visitors alighting from the M8 tram at Herzbergstr/Industriegebiet
step out of the remnants of the Eastern Bloc, and into the Far East.
Inside the hangar-like halls, the air is thick with
burning incense, the pungent odours of durian fruit and fresh herbs, and the
rubbery, plastic smell of a thousand useless trinkets. There are Hawaiian leis
in the colours of the German flag, life-size porcelain dogs and alarm clocks
topped with pole-dancing dolls.
Packed tightly on the groaning shelves and stacked on
the floor around them are electrified Madonnas with blinking lights, waving
Chinese cats with motorised arms and novelty toilet seat covers that run the
gamut from seahorses and starfish to topless biker babes.
The best word to describe the whole joyful, synthetic
mess is one the English language borrows from German: kitsch.
There is more to the Dong Xuan Center though than
cheap and gaudy finery -- it is the commercial heart of Berlin’s 20,000-strong
Vietnamese community. In the 1970s, Vietnamese people came to both East and
West Germany in large numbers. The West took in refugees from the country’s
south who were fleeing the Vietnam War and its aftermath, and when the conflict
ended, the East brought over thousands from the “socialist brotherland” of the
reunified Vietnam to work at menial jobs in its state-run industries.
Just as West Germany imported thousands of Turkish,
Greek and Italian migrants to power its economic miracle, the German Democratic
Republic (GDR) on the eastern side sought to bolster its workforce with
unskilled Gastarbeiter, or “guest workers”, to help build
socialism on German soil.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, thousands
of Vietnamese guest workers lost their jobs during the sell-off of the GDR’s industrial
base and returned to Vietnam, aided by a policy of the newly-reunified German
government offering free airfares. But the vast majority chose to remain and
many flocked from the former manufacturing centres of Leipzig, Rostock and Chemnitz
to Berlin’s eastern neighbourhoods like Lichtenberg and Marzahn.
People of Vietnamese background now comprise 10% of the inhabitants in the
borough of Marzahn-Hellendorf.
And those who have stayed have taken to capitalism
with gusto. In the Dong Xuan Center, wholesale outlets sell everything you need
to kit out a Chinese restaurant, bubble tea stand or nail bar -- industries
that Berlin’s Vietnamese dominate. Syrupy Asian pop music bleeds out from
hairdressing and beauty salons dotted between the knick-knack merchants and
textile sellers. There are head massages for 10 euros and hair gel for 1.
For those not seeking a manicure or hundreds of
shrink-wrapped chopsticks, the food is the main attraction. Berlin has many
excellent Vietnamese restaurants, from the trendy Monsieur Vuong in Mitte’s upmarket
Alte Schönhauser Strasse, to the cheap and cheerful Hamy Cafe, just a few yards from the punks and tramps on
the Hermannplatz. But the dishes in many have been toned down to suit German
tastes and lack the real aroma of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
In the Dong Xuan Center, the lunchtime diners are
primarily Vietnamese but the restaurants are also popular with students,
hipsters and bargain-hunting wholesalers. The food is authentic north
Vietnamese fare. There are classic dishes that can be found all over Berlin --
steaming bowls of Phô beef noodle soup and Bún Cha, sliced
grilled pork in fish sauce, served with rice noodles and fresh herbs --
but the dishes here are saltier, spicier and more flavoursome. There are also
rarer specialties like Bánh Rán, rice balls rolled in sesame seeds and
filled with sweetened mung bean paste, and seafood options including squid,
crab and grilled eel. Three courses can set you back as little as 12 euros.
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.
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