Getting to the Dong Xuan Center means seeing how big and diverse Berlin can be. Taking the M8 tram line out to a lone stop, Herzbergstr./Industriegebiet, means passing the great housing projects of the Communist East, through a neighbourhood with a reputation for monocultural and unwelcoming toughness (the kind that some feel only the former GDR can do so well). How counterintuitive and gratifying it is, then, to debunk those assumptions, and descend from a tram packed with Vietnamese-Germans into one of the most diverse places of the city: a Spartan series of warehouses packed inside with plastic flowers, cheap clothing, Phở restaurants, nail salons, baggy underwear, barbers where you can get a cut for 7 Euros, and produce halls selling jackfruit, guava and cilantro.
East Germany is often imagined as having been a closed ship, caulked against the flows of international migration with Communist restrictions on travel. But this was not the case: one of the most intriguing stories of migration to Germany is that of intra-Communist arrivals to the GDR. Meet someone with a background from Mozambique, Cuba, Angola or Vietnam in Berlin, and it’s quite likely that their families arrived here in Communist times. Look around the Dong Xuan Center, the centre of Berlin’s Vietnamese community, and all about you observe the legacy of that migration.
The Vietnamese first arrived in the 1950s with educational exchanges, but it was in the 1970s that their number really began to increase, with approximately 10 000 arriving to study. Workers, on contracts limited to five years, flowed in with the 80s. Most arrive in the years immediately preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall, at which time approximately 60 000 Vietnamese were in the GDR.
(West Berlin had its Vietnamese community too, half the numbers of those in the East. They had come as ‘boat people’ during the Vietnam War. The fall of the Wall in Berlin thus brought about a reunification of a divided Vietnamese population. But loyalty to the former North and South is still visible: restaurants in the West, along Kantstraße, have names like ‘Saigon Green’, while the Center in Lichtenberg gets its name from the wholesale market Chợ Đồng Xuân located in the Northern capital, Hanoi.)
The period of reunification was not an easy time for the GDR Vietnamese community. A highly educated population, given the opportunity to study abroad, was nonetheless considered temporary. Discouraged from integrating (to the extent that those who found themselves pregnant were given forced abortions), most did not have the basic language skills to find employment in the new Germany. Although they were actively encouraged to leave the country (in fact, many were paid to do so), most remained, despite a post-reunification environment of xenophobia epitomized by the 1992 attacks on a Vietnamese asylum-home in Rostock. Unemployment forced some, in the 90s, into cigarette smuggling rings and gang activity, damaging the community’s public profile.
It was in this environment that the Dong Xuan market opened, with the important role of providing employment to Berlin’s vulnerable community in the East through the sale of wholesale goods, often via Poland. Approximately 10% of Lichtenberg is Vietnamese, and the Dong Xuan Center is certainly its rejuvenated centre, now employing approximately 1000 people in 300 businesses.
It moved to its current location in 2006, and has increased its halls from 3 to 6 to 8 in number since that time. (An interesting, and sobering, side note is that the land belonged to Siemens from 1872 to 1945, where forced labourers, including young children, were put to work during WW2. In the GDR, an industrial installation producing graphite, VEB Elektrokohle Lichtenberg, dominated the site).
The Dong Xuan Center’s success reflects the wider success of Berlin’s Vietnamese, whose numbers now reach approximately 40 000, the capital’s largest Asian population. In the last two decades, the formerly negative image of the community has changed greatly, with plenty of news reports on how well Vietnamese children perform in school (these, however, are often cited to make a negative comparison to the children of Turkish migrants, who perform poorly statistically). Even a German of Vietnamese ancestry, Philipp Rösler, became Germany’s first cabinet minister of Asian origin, representing the now essentially defunct FDP party.
I am at the Center with a South American friend who lived two years in Hong Kong. Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs: we ordered too many soups, too many spring and summer rolls. He says, ‘I can’t believe it took me so long to finally come here. It reminds me Berlin is an international city after all. I can’t tell you how reassuring this place is’. I agree: here there is the promise of a multicultural metropole. And, how strange to have to travel to the edge of the city’s former East to find this connection to the diversity of the wider world. Much stranger, and more difficult, of course, is the road that brought these expatriates, these new Germans, to a reunited Berlin.