Lichtenberg’s Dong Xuan Center consists of 6 hangars, stocked tightly with all the things one might come to miss living far away from a place, where a broth of cardamom and ginger is paired with any meat imaginable and the most delicate of noodles; where a certain kind of manufacturing can turn out plastic and fabric wares for all sizes and ages in bulk; where sweet things might come packaged in banana leaves, wrapped around sticky mango rice like presents.
Or this is the impression one might get of Vietnam, when visiting Dong Xuan – a Mecca in the middle of former East Berlin, little Hanoi amidst not so little Plattenbauten.
There is no one Vietnamese community in Berlin, just as there is no singular American community of expats. There are diverse and diffuse overlapping relationships, preferences, habits, and often a common language. Being Vietnamese in Berlin is a situation-dependent assortment of elements: oft stigmatized for a generation of non-German speakers and black market-dealers, yet praised for being Tiger mothers and turning out the most successful of Germany’s 2nd or even 1st generation of immigrant young people. For reasons stretching back to the Berlin Wall and the divisions in migration statuses it allowed for, i.e. so-called Eastern Vertragsarbeiter (contract workers) and Western “boat people”, there is little unity between traditional East and West.
The Vertragsarbeiter were said to activate cross-border smuggling of highly taxable goods such as cigarettes, while Western refugees were able to integrate into the official job market more effectively with Bonn’s pledge of support to communism’s defectors. In the East, there were Asian fast-food stands with cheap beer on the menu; in the West there were the beginnings of the successful entrepreneurial ventures we enjoy today, such as the 4.90 curry specials in establishments with swanky lighting and signature plates. The successful Dong Xuan Center was founded by a Vertragsarbeiter, a textile salesman from Potsdam. A blend of both strands seems to be the winning recipe.
However, there are stereotypes, and then there are impressions.
A visit to Dong Xuan gives an impression of ambition, of making things happen (finding ways to get exotic fish and fake iPhones into the local marketplace, for example), as well as a sense of mutual back-scratching, as demonstrated by the women carrying trays of soup to fellow merchants or the frequent conversations happening at the register. This place seems founded on a need to reclaim or maintain those connections and goods that had been left behind – by recreating them.
Walking through Dong Xuan is moving through an extensive network of imports and reconstituted experience. Factory fresh button-downs displayed warehouse-style, synthetic-fibered leggings, and strange plastic toys recreate a Costco journey, minus the samples.
Lichtenberg public officials complain of loitering youth fresh off the plane, mothers abusing the social welfare system on behalf of children fathered by ghost German nationals, or a lack of German language acquisition due to the close-knit nature of the East Berlin Vietnamese. But all of these are broad strokes with a pigment that is in reality quite fractured, diffuse, even elusive.
There are 5,000 Vietnamese residents of Lichtenberg, making up the largest group of non-German born in the district – 5,000 out of the 13,600 Vietnamese in all of Berlin. In Lichtenberg, there is now a Vietnamese-German kindergarten, even Vietnamese books in the local library. A ‘silent minority‘ it is no more, and more than Dong Xuan it is also.
Slowly, fellow Lichtenberg residents or even those from further afield have come to sit in Dong Xuan’s “authentic Hanoi street food restaurant” or in the barber chair of a salon full of chatty, pink-nailed women. The slightly kitschy set-up of the part establishment part warehouse compartment suggests the difference between the swanky curries of the West and the raw presentation of this Eastern depot, but it is raw in a way that excites and smells delicious.
As the subheading to an article in the prominent German weekly paper die Zeit reads, “Here the Vietnamese sell what they prefer, without worrying about what the Germans might like. But the Germans come anyway to find out what Pho really tastes like, the national soup of Vietnam.” Of course, it is unlikely the Germans put as much chili in their soup as the Vietnamese, or that they enjoy additions such as pig ear, for that matter. But walking through the supermarket, one meets the curious non-Vietnamese shoppers, carefully examining the 25 different kinds of rice noodle for the right density, or those laboriously trying to read the ingredients on the jars of chili paste that line the wall, just beneath a row of meat cleavers and unbelievably heavy woks.
I was one of them, feeling like I was experiencing something similar to Hanoi amidst the oppressively ugly architecture of Berlin’s residential East, no matter how overwhelming at times. It was like being somehow closer to the Vietnamese in Berlin (or in Lichtenberg, anyhow).
But in the end, there might only be the Viet of Dong Xuan Center, a non-representative micocrosm of what it is like to be Vietnamese in Berlin for its members – thriving businesses and recreated community. Don Xuan, by the way, means “prosperous meadow”.
– By Kelly Miller
Dong Xuan Center can be visited at Herzbergstraße 128-139 every day except for Tuesday from 10am to 8pm. More information on the diverse Vietnamese community in Berlin: Reistrommel e.V., Deutsch-Vietnamesische Gesellschaft. More on the GDR’s Vietnamese Vertragsarbeiter: Amadeu-Antonio-Foundation, der Tagesspiegel, die Zeit *in German.
All photos unless otherwise cited were take by the wonderful photographer, Juri Gottschau.