The Vietnamese constitute a large minority group in Berlin, presumably the largest after the Turkish. This year marks twenty years since the reunification of Germany, but it also marks twenty years since the another reunification, the almost forgotten and very strange reunification between the North and South Vietnamese in Berlin.
The Vietnam War between the US-backed South Vietnamese and the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese has left a curious relic in Berlin. The German Democratic Republic was by proxy a supporter of the North Vietnamese and accepted guest workers as well as students since the 1950’s. These were admitted on five year contracts, after which they were supposed to return to Vietnam. The Federal Republic of Germany on their part were by proxy supporters of the South Vietnamese, and in the wake of the fall of Saigon in the middle of the 1970’s accepted approximately 30 000 Vietnamese asylum seekers. Many of these were Chinese-Vietnamese so-called boatpeople, who would have had a very rough time in the reunited Vietnam as the Vietnamese are very suspicious of their Chinese neighbour.
The reunification of Germany meant a reunification of their respective Vietnamese communities, halfway across the world from their home country. The South Vietnamese had in the meantime integrated rather well in the Federal Republic, while their North Vietnamese counterparts had been isolated from the East German society and had hardly any knowledge of the language. It was a reluctant reunification with a lot of suspicion on both sides. The only thing that united them was an unwillingness to return to Vietnam.
After reunification, the North Vietnamese faced a tough situation. Their jobs within the East German industry were gone, and they had little means of supporting themselves. Some turned to crime, and Vietnamese gangs started to generate incomes by any means available. The primary racket was, and still is, selling smuggled cigarettes. They are still visible on street corners in many parts of Berlin despite harassment from the Police.
Reunited Germany had little sympathy for the Vietnamese, and offered them plane tickets back to Vietnam, and substantial grants for the Vietnamese government to accept their Diaspora’s return. In the end however, few went back and many became self-employed as means of support were mandatory in order to receive residency permits. This has created a great abundance of flower shops and small grocery shops run by the Vietnamese.
It has also helped to create the Dong Xuan Center in Lichtenberg – a run-down industrial area in East Berlin. The name is taken from a famous marketplace in Hanoi, but Berlin’s Dong Xuan Center is an Asian marketplace in a German setting. It consists of four huge structures, each with a central corridor lined with small shops selling any- and everything remotely Asian. It is like a small Hong Kong in the unlikely setting of a derelict industrial estate. Although it is primarily Vietnamese, the place is a conglomeration of traders and importers from across Asia. It looks exactly as you would imagine a weird and wonderful combination of German order and South East Asian vibrant mercantilism, if you can. The image above does absolutely no justice to the place as it was taken shortly before closing time.
It is not a place without controversy, and arson has been known to be used on occasion as a way to stifle competition in the fierce economical climate. A number of gang related incidents have furthermore caused the Berlin Police Department to set up a taskforce targeting organised Vietnamese crime syndicates.
The Dong Xuan Center is as close to Little Saigon as it gets in Berlin. It is, in a sense, the centre of the Vietnamese community in Berlin; notice boards with classified ads and personals fill the walls inside the market. Although the Vietnamese community is one of the largest minority groups in Berlin, they are mostly invisible apart from the cigarette vendors and the city’s many Vietnamese restaurants. It is here, in an abandoned industrial estate that you find the centre of a forgotten minority group. And the centre of a forgotten parallel reunification. The Dong Xuan Center is a parallel little universe, far removed from the German community of which it is technically a part, a forgotten history that has created this very dynamic relic on an otherwise almost abandoned edge of Berlin.