Marian Ryan visits Lichtenberg’s Dong Xuan Center and takes a closer look at Berlin’s Vietnamese community…
To any casual visitor, it’s obvious: Berlin, in many ways, is a mess. Despite 20 years of rebuilding and gentrification, of whitewash and polish, you’ll find prairie-size empty tracts just west of shiny new Potsdamer Platz and grimy, windowless buildings in Prenzlauer Berg. Decay and regeneration, subtle processes in most places, are here are on brazen display.
This layering of past and future, loss and hope, is thrown into sharp relief at the derelict former East German industrial site in north-western Lichtenberg, where the Dong Xuan Center has sprung up over the past six years. Forged by the former East Berlin Vietnamese community, itself largely discarded and neglected by governments both old and new, the centre opened its first hall in 2005 and has expanded ever since.
Today’s complex includes four main sheet-metal, hangar-style shopping halls (roofs jauntily topped by rows of wing-like solar panels), an administration building, and several satellite spaces in darker, semi-derelict edifices left over from the industrial estate. The overall effect is visually confusing, the parking area studded with mini-billboards, dirt-tracked in parts, bright indoor shops embedded in a landscape strewn with defunct factory buildings and discarded pallet racking as well as an obligatory-for-Berlin fake beach.
More than 12,000 Vietnamese live in Berlin – comprising the city’s second-largest minority – including about 5,000 naturalized citizens. Some 9,000 Vietnamese live in the eastern districts, with 4,000 in Lichtenberg alone. The Berlin diaspora is divided between those who emigrated to two different countries, a legacy of Cold War alliances, particularly in the Vietnam War between the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese and the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese. From the 1950s on, the GDR accepted North Vietnamese guest workers and students, typically on five-year contracts. Meanwhile West Germany accepted some 30,000 South Vietnamese asylum seekers after the fall of Saigon, many of them ethnic Chinese, so-called ‘boat people.’
The contract workers in the East were kept structurally isolated from society and had little knowledge of the German language, whereas West Germany provided advantages that helped its immigrant group to integrate well into mainstream society. After reunification, the situation for the North Vietnamese in the east was bleak. Their jobs in industry were gone, and they had few options for earning an income.
Some turned to the black market, particularly to the sale of smuggled cigarettes, which continues today. And despite repeated government efforts to return this group to Vietnam, few went back, preferring to become self-employed—running flower shops and small groceries, mainly—in order to qualify for residency.
The same economic pressures on the North Vietnamese migrant group eventually helped to create the Dong Xuan Center—named for a market in Hanoi, whose name means ‘Spring Meadow’—which, six years on, has grown into a vibrant hub of commerce and community for the Vietnamese of the former East Berlin. The centre is as close to Little Saigon as it gets in Berlin. Adverts and personal notices taped to the walls flutter just inside the doors. The four main halls host retail and wholesale traders whose wares include textiles and clothing, leather goods and shoes, jewellery, gifts, toys, books, beauty-salon supplies, and groceries, plus hair and nail salons, travel agencies, and restaurants.
The administration building houses Vietnamese legal and medical practices, business and tax consultants, interpreters, and driving schools. Altogether the complex provides income and employment for about 800 people, with about 250 business owners, predominantly Vietnamese.
Families travel here on the weekends to buy gifts and groceries, raucous groups sing karaoke into the evenings. Men gather around large tables to share a meal, drinking beer and spirits, while clusters of mothers spoon phô into their children’s mouths.
Weekends can be hot and crowded, though. The crush of the crowd can make it all a bit overwhelming: the humid, synthetic smell, buyers shouldering through the narrow, concrete-floored passages bulging with bins of cheap shoes, knock-off toys, ‘designer’ toilet seats, and racks of plastic bathmats touted as having ‘fresh taste.’
Weekdays make for a mellower visit. On a warm June day a few friends and I settle in at Duc Anh Restaurant, at the front of Hall 3, at an outdoor table shaded by a marquee and bordered by potted trees.
We order Saigon beer with our meal, while ogling the juicy-looking orange cocktails popular at neighbouring tables. Two of us are vegetarian, a species not devoutly catered to here, and we eat passable stir-fries of tofu and vegetables, a touch oily and with no distinguishing flavours or notes.
The success story of the table is bun cha nuong than, grilled, marinated pork belly in broth, served with a plate of pure-white rice noodles, herbs, salad, lime, and a handful of daintily sliced but deadly chilli peppers for the brave to sprinkle on top.
We spend a pleasant breezy hour on the ‘terrace,’ ending with sweet mugs of Vietnamese coffee as we enjoy a view of the ‘beach’ in the distance: an ocean scene has been painted on a brick wall and sand has been dumped there, along with beach chairs and umbrellas. After lunch we hit the shops in Hall 3, bypassing rubber-chicken squeak toys, red pleather cowboy hats, polyester formalwear, and €2 plastic clogs to check out flouncy cotton dresses and peasant-style tops comparable to the stock at high-street shops like H&M, and a shade lower-priced.
Between us we snap up a few pretty patterned scarves, and in one shop, one of us makes a beeline for the sequined red mini-dress of her dreams, navigating piles of summery blouses and dresses stacked on the floor. On special for €10, the spaghetti-strap sundresses are tempting, and we make plans for a future visit to delve further into the selection. It’s turned into a surprisingly girly outing.
A good last stop is Hall 3’s Asia Supermarkt, an impressive space well-stocked with a foodie’s dreamscape of Asian greens, fruit, and vegetables fresh off the plane – baby pak choi, spiky durian and jackfruit, mountains of packaged herbs, delicate, thumb-sized mini aubergines, plus woolly, coconut-like eddoes, green cherimoya fruit, and deep purple mangosteen. The market also stocks legions of noodles, rice, frozen shrimp and fish, woks, steamers, dozens of varieties of dried mushroom, and a meat case heavy on pig and not for the squeamish: pork belly, trotters, pig’s ears and hearts glisten beneath the glass. The Vietnamese grocers here all sell homemade Bánh rán – deep-fried rice-flour balls filled with a paste of mung beans and coconut milk and rolled in sesame seeds – a tasty, sweet take-home snack.
In the rear of the lot, the foundation is being laid for a new building, as the Dong Xuan Center continues to expand. Yet in another few years, the centre could have a very different personality. District regulations specify this former industrial estate as a wholesale and distribution zone, and Dong Xuan’s mixed use is in violation. If the centre is restructured to allow only wholesale operations, many traders will be out of work and a vital source of goods and community connection will be lost.
In opposition is the very different concept put forward by the centre’s developer: continued expansion over the next ten years to feature cultural, recreational, health, and educational institutions as part of an ‘Asia town,’ including apartments, a hotel, and a pagoda. This plan would create up to one thousand new jobs. But with the pace of decision and change in the city famously slow, the centre may continue on its own idiosyncratic path for some years before the community, city, and developers come to an agreement. In the meantime, the stubborn shards of industrial decline and the upstart, prefab, solar-panelled halls of the Dong Xuan Center will coexist, a perfectly imperfect Berlin tableau.
Dong Xuan Center
S: Storkower Straße
Open: Mon–Sunday 9–21; Closed: Tuesday