Lichtenberg is a 10-minute drive from Alexanderplatz, the former heart of old East Berlin. Here, in between bleak socialist architecture and ignored by most locals, there’s an entrance to an exotic world that stands in stark contrast to the greyish “Plattenbauten” or prefabricated high-rises surrounding it. After passing a sign saying Dong Xuan Center, visitors enter an industrial park with nine enormous warehouses. On the outside, colourful posters advertise nail salons, a tattoo parlour and even a driving school – and all of the signs feature Asian faces and are in Vietnamese as well as German.
Most of the customers entering the centre this morning are of Asian descent: well-dressed men stepping out of SUVs to talk business over iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk; women on their daily shopping tour to buy produce for the family restaurant; and hip youngsters sporting tight jeans and complicated hairstyles who seem to be here just to see and be seen.
Inside the warehouses, you forget that you are in Germany at all, let alone the former East. Viet-pop blares from televisions, while the smell of fresh coriander and incense sticks fill the air. Hairdressers sit alongside market stalls selling plastic toys, porcelain dogs and artificial flowers. Huge wholesale food markets offer row after row of ginger, dragonfruit and lemongrass.
The whole area covers 50,000 sq m, and growing, with a 10th warehouse currently being built. The centre was started in 2005 as a hub for the region’s Vietnamese community – an idea that proved to be a huge success. Dong Xuan is a gigantic and busy enactment of a typical Vietnamese market where you can find everything from furniture to perfume. Ironically, this showpiece of capitalist spirit is run by people who owe their living in Germany to the former socialist system.
Today about 80,000 Vietnamese live in Germany. Around 30,000 of these came to the country not as immigrants, or boat people, but as Vertragsarbeiter, or contract workers, who were originally sent to the GDR from its socialist sister country. Whereas in West Germany millions of Gastarbeiter (guest workers) from Italy, Greece and Turkey had been recruited as early as the 1950s, in the East foreign faces were virtually unknown until much later. Here, the first contract workers arrived in 1980 under a treaty between the GDR and Vietnam.
Integration into East German society was not something that the authorities desired: residency was to be temporary and the workers were deliberately kept separate from the locals. At about 60,000 people, Vietnamese formed the largest group of contract workers and a third of them simply stayed after the Wall came down. Another 30,000 communist-era contract workers came from Mozambique, Angola, Cuba, Mongolia, Algeria and China. Most of these left the country after reunification, and the few who remained are not that visible. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, today form a major part of many East German cities’ everyday culture – and nowhere as much as in the capital.
The first generation of Vietnamese were mostly craftspeople. As de facto refugees with an unclear status after reunification, they were not allowed to apply for proper jobs for many years. So they started making money by working as travelling merchants, later opening snack bars and cornershops. “We wanted to stay in Germany and we wanted to earn our own money,” says Nguyen Quoc Hung who arrived in 1987 to work in a GDR cement factory.
After reunification, he decided to open a textile shop with his wife and, since 2007, has run the Vietnamese Business Association of Brandenburg, representing 1,000 companies in his region. Across Germany, Hung estimates there are 10,000 Vietnamese-run businesses. “In the beginning, being self-employed was our only chance to work,” he says. “And we stuck with it.”Consequently, while in West Berlin you often buy your groceries at a shop run by Turkish owners and the typical snack will be a döner, in the East most grocery stores are Vietnamese-owned and you can find Asian takeaways on every corner. There are more than 1,000 Vietnamese restaurants in Berlin. Most are still small family operations, but some entrepreneurs have started to think big. Chains such as Asia Gourmet have rolled out across the country.
Yet only a few of the first generation of Vietnamese contract workers have managed to escape the everyday struggle of being shopkeepers and earning modest wages. Their children, however, have integrated much better. “With the Turkish, the next generation takes over their parents’ grocery store,” says Karin Weiss, who works for the state of Brandenburg on the integration of immigrants. “Vietnamese are much more ambitious. Shopkeepers’ children go on to become doctors and lawyers.”
Young Vietnamese are regularly rated as being among Germany’s smartest students. “At home the question never was, ‘will you attend college?’,” says Nguyen Anh Tuan, a gangly young man who speaks immaculate German. “My parents instead simply asked, ‘what are you going to study?’” He was eight when he came to Germany in 1989, following his contract-working mother. Anh Tuan chose to study computer sciences but now works for the family business: his parents run the Dong Xuan Center.
Anh Tuan has set up his own company, helping the merchants with import and customs paperwork. “But basically my job is to walk around the centre, talk to people and make sure nobody has a problem with pricing, merchandise or bureaucracy,” he says. Today he is sitting in the centre’s restaurant, nursing a bowl of pho soup and chatting to passersby. Asked whether it’s hard to keep up his native country’s culture in Germany, he replies, smiling: “Trading is our culture. Look at any city in Vietnam – there is not one building without a shop or service.”
Which makes it even more intriguing that these enthusiastic businessmen and women came to Germany as part of a deal between socialist countries. Officially the contract workers should have been trained in the advanced sister-country, the GDR, and then gone home with new skills. But often they were used as cheap labour for jobs the East Germans found too hard or dirty to do themselves.
So when Zefanias Makamo came to East Berlin in 1986, he found himself in a situation of almost Kafka-esque proportions. He had just left his home country of Mozambique – at that time shattered by civil war – by signing up as a contract worker. Makamo did not speak German and had no idea what was going to happen to him.
Just off the plane he found himself standing in a group of his fellow countrymen as two GDR officials fought over who should go to work in the one functionary’s mine and who would work in the other’s meat factory. “Nobody asked us what we would like to do or what we were good at,” remembers Makamo. “I didn’t understand a word but later I was told they had haggled over us like cattle.”
He ended up working in the meat factory – not the worst job, he says. He liked his colleagues, joined them for drinks at the end of the working day and does not remember any xenophobia. This changed after reunification, when East Germany was terrorised by a wave of neo-Nazi attacks on immigrants. “Those Nazis were already there in the GDR of course,” says Makamo, “but they were hiding.” His friend Augusto Chivindze nods knowingly and nurses his after-work beer. He came to Germany two years after Makamo to work in a factory producing TV sets.
When the Wall came down, both men were faced by the choice of going back to their still war-torn home country or staying in a rapidly changing situation. Both men now had families with German women so decided to take their chances and stay. “It was chaotic,” says Chivindze. “All this paperwork and the endless queues at the foreigners’ registration office.” He had to wait until 2001 to finally be granted an unlimited residency permit.
And then there was the money. Just like all contract workers Makamo and Chivindze received only 60 per cent of the payment for their jobs in the GDR. The rest was sent to their home government to be paid upon return. But to this day workers are still fighting to get their earnings back. In Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, former contract workers who did go back demonstrate in the streets waving GDR flags.
Chivindze and Makamo seem content with having stayed in Germany. They speak the language with all the idioms, they still have their German wives and children, and they both have jobs working as housekeepers for the church. They only go back to Mozambique for holidays. The two men are part of what is probably the most exotic and least-known heritage of the former GDR. But with the whole country growing together and thinking less and less in terms of East and West, they rarely ever get to tell their story.