Oh poor poor blog! I haven’t written properly for an age. Coming back to college after such a long break was actually quite a challenge, and immediately it was Easter. Coming back after a wonderful sunny Easter, everything began in earnest, and I had four projects to start chomping on. The first was a trip with two others (from German class) to investigate the Dong Xuan Centre, a huge Vietnamese market on the East side of Berlin. The other three were to a) research the meaning of Our Lady of Guadaloupe in Mexico City (for Ethnography), b) Research the Mersey sound and the beginning of the Beatles in Liverpool (for “Contemporary Britain”) and c) choose a topic for investigative research in Anthropology based in Berlin – myself and two others started out with the Vietnamese community (seeing as how I’d have done some research already).

 
The Dong Xuan Centre turned out to be 5 enormous sheds, like airplane hangars, with a long corridor running the length of them, divided into dozens of small shops and businesses. Both retail and wholesale, they sold the tackiest of toys, handbags, dowdy and/or glitzy clothes, mobile phones, fake flowers, and had a lot of nail parlours/hairdressers. There were also supermarkets selling great Asian food, and restaurants with Phö, traditional Vietnamese noodle soup. We went twice, first time on a busy weekend, when it was mostly local Vietnamese who were buying, second time Tuesday morning, when it was just German shoppers. The locality is Lichtenberg, which is working class, and an area with social problems, and it’s reflected in the shoppers, who are much more, well, ordinary-looking than the usual picture we have of cool Berliners.

 
Turns out there are actually two Vietnamese communities in Berlin, who don’t associate with one another. The ones on the West side are what we used to refer to as “Boat People”, who came to West Berlin as refugees from South Vietnam in the late 1970’s. Those on the East side came over from North Vietnam. They were invited in the 1980’s by the then-East Germany as “gästarbeiter” to work and train as fellow communists. When the Wall came down, many Vietnamese took advantage of the generous payment made by German government for repatriation, but others replaced them (from former East Bloc countries). Today there are officially around 30,000 Vietnamese living in Berlin, though there could be another 10,000 or so living illegally here.

 
Trying to interview people at the Centre was quite a challenge. The Vietnamese we met weren’t really friendly, you could see them wondering if we were some sort of officials or snoopers. You really can’t blame them, probably there are quite a few people who aren’t strictly legal, or may be off the books – and indeed the Vietnamese have been associated with organised crime over the years. The Centre itself isn’t strictly legal, since it’s officially zoned an Industrial Park, and they have retail outlets, but Berlin turns a blind eye to a successful market that not only makes money but bonds the community nicely. All around the Centre, there are derelict buildings with scutch grass sprouting out everywhere, but the founder, Nguyen Van Hien, has plans to expand it into a sort of Chinatown, with culture, leisure, health and education interests incorporated in a complex, including apartments, a hotel and a pagoda. You would wonder if they’ll have some sort of temple too – lots of the shops had shrines to a Buddha of sorts. One woman explained that it was to the God of Prosperity, they put fruit and flowers and drinks as offerings to attract wealth, often up high, whereas the shrines down low were to the God of the Earth, for success in business (though she said they weren’t really religious shrines, more cultural, just for luck).

 

In the end, we got out interviews, and had our Phö noodle soup (delicious), and wrote up our first project for the German class. However, in the Anthropology class research, all three of us decided to take a different tack (rather than sticking with the Vietnamese theme), so will each be researching a different community. I have chosen the Turkish community, as I have much more access to them living in Neukölln, and they feel familiar. They are around 200,000 people in the Turkish community in Berlin, and they have been settled here for 50 years or so. I’m delighted with the opportunity to get to know more about them.

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