After decades of struggle in both East and West, putting up with dislocation, economic hardship and racism, Berlin’s large, diverse Vietnamese community has gained acceptance as “model immigrants” – but now risks invisibility. Here are some of their stories…
It is a Sunday morning. In the far west of Berlin, a five-minute walk away from the Stresow S-Bahn station, prayer time begins at the Linh Thuu Pagoda. Through the gate, past the charming garden with plentiful statues of animals and deities, a miniature bridge and a fish pond, the upstairs room fills with the smell of fragrant sandalwood incense and the singing of nuns. Large gold Buddhas with LED halos sit above majestic table arrangements of bright flowers, fruit and candy. After prayers there is a donation only simple Vietnamese lunch of rice, tofu, vegetables and chè dau (sweet syrup and beans).
Meanwhile, at nearly the exact opposite end of the city, it’s peak hour at the Dong Xuan Center. Exempt from Sunday shopping regulations because of its status as a wholesale market, the Lichtenberg warehouse complex is a chaotic hive of activity as Berliners pack into its halls to order restaurant supplies, rifle through endless rows of colourful polyester jackets, eat steaming bowls of beef noodle soup and browse the Vietnamese language job notices papering the entrance, many for nail salons and sushi restaurants.
Somewhere between those two extremes lies the reality of Berlin’s Vietnamese community, a diverse group of over 22,000 residents who, 39 years after Vietnam’s reunification and 24 years after Germany’s, still find themselves grappling with barriers between north, south, east and west.
Minh* came to Berlin in 1979 from Saigon. He was 12 when his parents put him on a wooden boat heading to Indonesia, among the many South Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing reunified, communist-controlled Vietnam.
His country, like Germany, had spent decades split in two: the socialist Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North (capital: Hanoi) and the capitalist Republic of Vietnam in the south (capital: Saigon, later renamed Ho Chi Minh City). With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the South Vietnamese, in addition to having lost work, homes and families, now found themselves subject to increasing repression from the new government. Over a million of them fled the country in the years after the war. “There were 600 of us on a boat just 27m long and three metres wide,” Minh remembers. The journey took seven days; five passengers died of exhaustion along the way. “We came through stormy weather, but the fisherwoman in charge of the boat managed to manoeuvre us out.”
In Indonesia, he spent two months in a refugee camp before being flown to Germany by the aid organisation Terre d’Asile. Between 1975 and 1986, 38,000 South Vietnamese found refuge in West Germany, where, acting as much out of anti- communist ideology as sympathy, the government gave them a warm welcome complete with host families, citizenship papers and help finding work and accommodation. The group of 150 children was split into three: one group went to Düsseldorf, one to Bremen and a third, Minh’s, to West Berlin. After a stay in a Heim, he was placed with a German host family. “We lived in Wannsee,” Minh laughs. “All the kids at school, when they heard where we lived, said ‘Wow, you must be so rich.’ It was a bit annoying really, because we came with nothing.” After six years, his parents and brother were allowed to join him under the government’s Familienzusammenführung (family reunion) programme. He studied administrative sciences at TU and eventually found work as a police administrator.
A soft-spoken man who visits the Linh Thuu Pagoda on weekends, Mihn, today 47, spends “as much time as I can” advocating for the rights of migrants and refugees, After three decades in Germany, he feels at home here as any German; at the same time, he says, “I’ll never be fully accepted. People are still surprised I can speak the language so well.”
Minh’s fate would suggest a near-ideal tale of foreign integration in Berlin, but there’s another side to the story. In 1980, an official agreement was signed between the GDR and communist Vietnam enabling thousands of guest workers (80 percent of whom came from northern Vietnam; 20 percent from the south) to come to East Germany. Small numbers of northern Vietnamese had already been coming to the GDR since the 1950s to study or complete traineeships, but this programme brought a massive influx: 59,000 workers by 1989. Hired under five-year contracts for primarily factory or construction jobs, they weren’t given the same language or career opportunities as their Western counterparts, and in fact were discouraged from fraternising with their German co-workers. In East Berlin, they were segregated in cramped Plattenbau dormitories in Marzahn and Lichtenberg, with as many as 20 people sharing a kitchen. Twelve percent of their earnings had to go to the Vietnamese government. And as written in their contracts, any woman who got pregnant had to leave the country or get an abortion, a stipulation that was only repealed in February 1989 – shortly before the GDR dissolved.
With their contracts suddenly null and void, the remaining guest workers in former East Berlin were offered a DM3000 bounty by the German government to return to Vietnam, with the first flights already departing in late 1989. However, thousands stayed, hoping for rosier futures here. Faced with unemployment, many expanded the sideline import/export businesses they’d already been cultivating in GDR times, or opened new ones. The early- to mid-1990s saw an explosion in Vietnamese flower and textile shops, as well as restaurants, nail salons and Berlin’s first Asian wholesale market.
Others turned to Schwarzarbeit – under-the-table work. Ngo Thai Son is a first-generation Vietnamese Berliner from Hanoi whose father, a former journalist, was working in a furniture factory in East Germany when the Wall fell. In 1991 a young Ngo and his mother, previously a chemistry professor, came to Germany to join him. “We first arrived in Moscow and got a flight to Czechoslovakia and then a bus to the German border, but we were caught and sent back to Moscow. The second time, we succeeded and my father was waiting for us on the other side to pick us up.” Unable to legally work in Germany, Ngo’s parents at first sold roses and laboured in fields in Baden-Württemberg, getting state assistance in the form of rent money and food packages. It took three years before they were granted permission to stay and work in the country. They moved to Berlin, where they lived in a dirty, cockroach-infested home in a block of Vietnamese-only flats on Allee der Kosmonauten in Lichtenberg. The government paid their rent, and they were enrolled in German lessons by the Jobcenter. Still, says Ngo, “Even after my parents were allowed to work, they continued making money by illegally selling VHS tapes and sandwiches. They earned more money this way than they could have doing whatever job they would get with their limited German.”
With welfare and residence permits, the family was fortunate compared to some of their neighbours. Ngo saw people sleeping in the basement where they lived, who begged him not to tell anyone: “They felt lucky to be staying there.” These illegal residents were part of a flood of Vietnamese asylum seekers who came to Berlin in the early- to mid-1990s, both former contract workers from Poland and the Czech Republic who fled to Germany after the fall of the Wall and newcomers from northern and central Vietnam seeking better economic prospects. Unable to work legally, some began selling contraband cigarettes smuggled in from eastern Europe, on the streets. Over time this activity came to be controlled by gangs, the so-called “cigarette mafia”.
This rise in criminality, compounded the already existing problem of police and neo-Nazi brutality towards the Vietnamese in former East Berlin. There was a weekly Vietnamese food market outside Ngo’s Lichtenberg flat, and once a month, police would come to stop them trading, as they were doing so illegally. “One time, a Vietnamese man stood up to them. No one saw exactly what happened, but the next minute he fell to the floor, unconscious. Then there was chaos, with people throwing things from their windows at the police. One hundred officers showed up, and used tear gas against us. My mother and I had to climb down the drainpipe to get out. For three months, people continued to live there without water, electricity or heating, but soon after, they made everyone leave those flats. They’re still abandoned today.”
His family found a new place in Hellersdorf, also paid for by the state, sharing a small room with eight “cigarette mafia” members. “The main issue, aside from our co-inhabitants, was the neo-Nazis. Skinheads would tell me to cross the street, calling me ‘Fidschi’. I would try to stand up for myself, but ended up getting beaten up.”
The violence and mistrust simmering in Marzahn-Lichtenberg culminated in a series of highly sensationalised gang-related murders in the mid-1990s – which happened to coincide with the negotiations of a 1995 treaty between the German and Vietnamese governments to deport 40,000 Vietnamese back to their homeland. “Vietnam was stalling, they were supposed to be taking back all these people but they couldn’t feed their own,” says Pipo Bui, a Vietnamese American who at the time was in Berlin working on her PhD thesis, which would become the book Envisioning Vietnamese Migrants in Germany. “So while these negotiations were happening, it was in the interest of the German government to say ‘These people are criminals’.
I tried not to talk about my parents and their job situation. I didn’t want pity from people in school. I just wanted to be better than them.”
By the end of the 1990s, thanks to a special task force, the Berlin police had managed to arrest many of the “cigarette mafia” kingpins and crack down on illegal cigarette selling. Though the media firestorm had calmed, a great deal of stigma remained. “That was when you saw a lot of Vietnamese people taking over Chinese restaurants,” says Bui. “Why do you think there were all these Asia Bistro, China-Pfanne places opening up? You couldn’t deny the fact that you were Asian, but by pretending you were Chinese, you could do this kind of partial masking.” Ngo would hide his background from people for a long time: “I tried not to talk about my parents and their job situation. I didn’t want pity from people in school. I just wanted to be better than them. I know I won’t be 100 percent accepted here, but I’ve learnt a lot about creating good from bad situations.”
Today, those prejudices have largely disappeared, to the point where none other than right-wing anti-immigration firebrand Thilo Sarrazin cited Germany’s Vietnamese population as a model of proper integration. Yet difficulties still persist, which often get swept under the rug due to this ‘model minority’ narrative. Few outspoken activists exist within Berlin’s Vietnamese community (a notable exception being Kien Nghi Ha, the Humboldt sociology professor who co-curated HAU’s Dong Xuan Festival in 2010), and funding for Reistrommel, a 21-year-old nonprofit that provides counselling, legal aid and integration courses for Vietnamese Berliners, is constantly insufficient.
There aren’t as many cigarette sellers these days, but there’s prostitution and Schwarzarbeit.”
“The Vietnamese here are pflegeleicht, undemanding – and the way the system works, only the people who shout the loudest get heard,” says Tamara Hentschel, a German woman who founded the organisation after working as a supervisor in a dorm for Vietnamese guest workers in the late 1980s. Once dedicated to aiding out-of-work Vertragsarbeiter, Reistrommel now primarily finds itself dealing with asylum seekers, many of whom now come from natural-disaster-stricken agricultural regions of central Vietnam. As non-war refugees, this group receives little help from the German government and zero access to resources like language classes. “Nobody should be shut out of integration opportunities, language lessons or work possibilities,” says Hentschel. “Otherwise they have to turn to criminal activity – there aren’t as many cigarette sellers these days, but there’s prostitution and Schwarzarbeit.”
There are still an estimated 8000 to 10,000 undocumented Vietnamese people in Berlin. “It costs them $10,000 to $20,000, paid to traffickers, for their ticket and forged visa, as well as help when they arrive in eastern Europe to cross the border into Germany,” says Minh. “If they get caught, they apply for citizenship, but in the meantime they work illegally. The application is invariably denied at the Ausländerbehörde, and the officials try to deport them. However, for this to happen, the Vietnamese embassy has to confirm they are Vietnamese, and some pay up to €10,000 for them to say no. They then use stalling tactics to delay the decision on their situation even further.”
German filmmaker Lisa Violetta Gaß directed last year’s A Promised Rose Garden, a film about a young Vietnamese couple who must work illegally to pay for forged immigration papers. The actor who played her male protagonist, Duc, had been in such a situation himself – arriving in Germany from central Vietnam two years ago he became involved in a cigarette selling gang. Arrested, tried and released, he now lives here illegally; Gaß’ next film will be a documentary about his fate. “The central Vietnamese see Germany as nutritious earth,” she says. “They don’t realise it’s hard to exist here, with police violence, German racism and so on. I suppose they think it’s better to be here than in Vietnam, even though this fucking shit is happening.”
“It’s better than what they are running away from as political and economic refugees,” points out Minh. The money they can make here in a year is the same as they would make in 30 years in Vietnam.”
Although the old South-North conflict continues to define portrayals of Germany’s Vietnamese community, in reality the divide is not as vast as it’s made out to be. “My northern Vietnamese friends and I even talk politics together,” says Thien*, a war refugee from Saigon. “These people are probably never going to be my best friends; too many prejudices still remain, but we respect each other’s opinions.”
“These days, most people realise we’re all in the same situation;” says Ngo. “Everyone lost a lot to communism. As a result of socialism, my mother’s parents had their businesses and properties taken away from them,” says Ngo. “My grandmother went from being Grand Dame to a worker in the factory she used to own.” Now working in human resources at DaWanda, it’s his dream to own his own company, “in order to bring my family back to their social and financial status before the war.”
Ngo’s father is now a supervisor at an Asian market in Marzahn and his mother is a housewife, arranging and investing the family’s finances; like many first-generation Northern Vietnamese immigrants, they tend to stick to all-Vietnamese circles. “They are sociable people and have always focused on making connections here, but it’s been hard making and keeping German friends.”
Among younger Vietnamese Berliners, boundaries between south and north, east and west and Vietnamese and German are rapidly vanishing. “I’ve never had difficulties integrating – I’ve always felt at home here,” says 27-year-old actress Trang Le Hong. Born in Hanoi but raised in East Berlin, she stars in next year’s film Wir sind jung. Wir sind stark., an examination of the 1992 Rostock-Lichtenhagen anti-immigration riots, alongside Aaron Le, raised in West Germany by South Vietnamese parents. “I’m sharing and family-oriented like Vietnamese, and I’m fluent in the language via my mum,” she says. “But when I visit my grandparents in Vietnam, they see me as this Western girl.”
Lisa Violetta Gaß’ A PROMISED ROSE GARDEN (2014, photo), featuring an all-amateur cast of Vietnamese actors from the North, South and central Vietnamese communities in Berlin, tells the story of Bien and Thien, a young couple who are forced to work illegally for their older relatives, Nga and Nam. The response to the film has been mixed, says Gaß: “Central and northern people like that they’re finally the main subject of a film. But the south Vietnamese community is afraid of a compromised reputation.”
SUNDAY MENU (2011) is a film by Berlinbased Vietnamese American artist/filmmaker Alisa Anh Kotmair, who has been researching and working on issues related to the Vietnamese diaspora since 1995 and living in Berlin since 1994. Based loosely on a story by Berlinbased Vietnamese author Pham Thi Hoai, the Berlinale-premiered short stars Hong Berghof as a Vietnamese-German teen girl who bonds with her grandmother, a former GDR contract worker, through food.
Journalist Marina Mai leads occasional German-language BIKE TOURS OF VIETNAMESE EAST BERLIN , stopping by former Asian wholesale markets, a refugee centre and a former dorm for GDR guest workers and ending at the Dong Xuan Center. Check www.naturfreunde.de for dates.
Originally published in issue #132, November 2014