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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 February 2006, 00:04 GMT
Hard times for Vietnamese Germans

By Ray Furlong
BBC correspondent in Berlin

Vietnamese market trader
Times are tough for Vietnamese stallholders in Potsdam
A freezing wind blows over the market place, making the few customers grab their woolly hats as they negotiate the ice.

The cheap textiles jingle on their hangers and the Vietnamese traders hunch their shoulders against the cold.

The market in Potsdam is not a very cheerful place this winter. And the Vietnamese traders are not very happy.

"I'm self-employed and I live off whatever I can sell here. Before, customers bought more than they do now," says a 38-year-old woman who declines to give her name.

"It could be that people have less money now. We have fewer customers than before."

Another stallholder, a slightly older man, confirms that business is not what it used to be.

Cold War migration

Both traders came to East Germany as Vertragsarbeiter (contract workers) in the 1980s. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese took secure jobs in state-run industries - a different group from the "boat people" who came to West Germany as refugees.

Vietnamese New Year celebration
Vietnamese make a special effort to mark the lunar New Year
But ever since communism collapsed, they have struggled for economic survival - working 12- or 14-hour days, mostly selling cheap textiles from Asia.

"The Vertragsarbeiter only had residence permits for East Germany, so even after German reunification they could not go and work in the West," says Tamara Hentschel, who heads a non-governmental organisation helping the Vietnamese.

"They were stuck in the East, where unemployment was very high, so they had to start their own businesses."

But now, she says, they are feeling the pinch of Germany's faltering economy - and competition from large stores, which sell cheaper.

"Some are still doing well. But for the vast majority the situation is now critical. Thousands of them will go bust in the coming year."

Family tensions

Mrs Hentschel is speaking at a party in Berlin marking the beginning of Asia's Year of the Dog. The mood is relaxed as small traders wish each other "good fortune" over glasses of alcohol-free champagne.

But the problems are serious, she says.

Businessman Vu Duy Toan
Vu Duy Toan has seen his travel business prosper
"Many of them are trying to get through this depression by working even harder, and by cutting corners. Many of them have cancelled their health insurance, for example."

But the community is not only facing economic problems. Karin Weiss, a sociologist who has studied the Vertragsarbeiter says there are often problems within families caused by linguistic differences.

"Because these people had to work such long hours they put their children into German day-care institutions - so most of the Vietnamese children grew up with German language, socialisation and culture.

"While their parents had no time to learn German, for these children Vietnamese is a second language."

But Mrs Weiss stresses that there is also a Vietnamese success story. The children are very successful at school, responding to the traditional work ethic instilled by their parents.

And some of the former Vertragsarbeiter have flourishing businesses.

One of these is VDT Touristik, a travel agency owned by Vietnamese businessman Vu Duy Toan.

He came here in 1981 and gained a degree in chemistry from an East German university.

After German reunification he was unemployed, before he started working in a travel agency in 1992.

Since 1994 he has run his own one, and now has around 6,000 customers from across Germany.

"With five million unemployed people in Germany, the Vietnamese have almost no chance of getting a job, so they have to be self-employed, and when the consumer buying power goes down it's tough," he says.

"The same applies to travel agencies - but the Vietnamese have a strong bond to their parents and their homeland, so they have to fly home every three years or so."

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