Hieu L.: A Foreigner Worker’s Life in the GDR, Pt. 1

In my former job as the Coordinator of the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University I supervised a number of German students in Canada on exchange who were assigned to our office as student assistants. For the first few years I was at York, the students I worked with were all white, had “German” family names and could trace their connection to Germany back over many, many generations. But in more recent years this began to change and our German students often came with family names betraying a variety of ethnic and cultural heritages. I greeted this development as a reflection of the fact that the German academy had begun – finally – to reflect the multicultural reality of the society around it.

That said, I was more than a little surprised when one year the C.V. belonging to our new German student bore a distinctly Vietnamese name. I immediately wondered whether Minh L. was from the family of a former East German guest worker as this was the provenance of many people of Vietnamese background in the united Germany. Reading on, the dates and locations suggested that this might be the case.

Vietnamese guest workers from "Banner of Peace" shoe factory march in the 1988 May Day parade in Weissenfels (photo: courtesy of Minh and Diu L.).

Vietnamese guest workers from “Banner of Peace” shoe factory march in the 1988 May Day parade in Weissenfels (photo: courtesy of Minh and Diu L.).

However, this remarkable aspect was quickly overshadowed by an entry in the C.V. which showed that from 1993 to 1999, Minh had attended elementary school in that most notorious of eastern German towns, Hoyerswerda! (For more on Hoy, click here for my earlier post on this subject) This was only two short years after German authorities had caved to several days of anti-foreigner pogroms by neo-Nazis and their sympathizers and removed all former-GDR guests workers and refugee seekers from the town. Neo-Nazis subsequently declared Hoy a “national liberated zone” (German: national befreite Zone) and the town became synonymous with the wave of xenophobia and violence that surfaced in the early years after German unification.

The mind boggled.

How had Minh’s family landed in Hoy in 1993? What, I wondered, could it possibly have been like to grow up in such a place? How did her family survive in what I assumed must have been a very hostile environment? When Minh arrived at York, I quickly found her to be a remarkably capable, intelligent young woman and it didn’t take me long to start exploring these issues with her. The answers she gave to my questions were wonderful as they both challenged and confirmed a number of widely held assumptions about the place of visible minorities within East Germany and unified German societies,

I recently reconnected with Minh, now a PhD candidate in Psychology at a German university, to talk about her family’s experiences and over the next two posts I’ll detail their remarkable history.

Sadly, Minh’s father Hieu passed away more than fifteen years ago, so this left her mother Diu as the primary source of the family story. Before speaking with me, Minh sat down with her mother to go over the family’s past as she was anxious to get this right. I was gratified when Minh told me that this had been “a really beautiful opportunity to talk with my Mum about my Dad again and also listen to her perspective, to hear how her experience was.” Their talk, Minh related, had revealed that her version of the family’s past had “mixed a few things up” and “was a construction of [her] own.” Not a surprise given how young she was in the early years of her “herstory”, but another example for me of what a multifaceted construct our memories are.

Socialist Solidarity: Hieu’s Studies in GDR
Minh's father Hieu in the boiler room of the "Banner of Peace" shoe factory in Weissenfels, GDR (photo: courtesy of Diu and Minh).

Minh’s father Hieu in the boiler room of the “Banner of Peace” shoe factory in Weissenfels, GDR (photo: courtesy of Diu and Minh).

We began by discussing how her family had ended up in the GDR in the first place. It turned out that Minh’s father Hieu had been part of socialist solidarity project that saw the GDR provide training to select citizens of the socialist North Vietnam, something that had been going on since the late 1950s. She related:

“My Mum said that my Dad was chosen as one of the students to come to East Germany to study. So he was in one of the first groups of [Vietnamese] students who had the opportunity to come and study. They arrived in the early 70s and stayed to the late 70s. First of all they came to Leipzig to study the German language and then he went to Illmenau to study engineering for medical instruments.”

Vietnamese "guest students" learn German at Leipzig's Herder Institute in 1970, the same school where Hieu would have studied (photo: Bundesarchiv 183-J0911-0018-01).

Vietnamese “guest students” learn German at Leipzig’s Herder Institute in 1970, the same school where Hieu would have studied (photo: Bundesarchiv 183-J0911-0018-01).

The details of Hieu’s experiences in the East during those early years are few, but there are some limited indications that he managed to overcome, if only in part, the marked distance to the local population that is a recurring theme in the recollections of many foreign students and workers who studies or worked in the GDR. While completing an internship at the end of his engineering studies, Hieu met Peter, a fellow engineer employed at a research institute. The two men began a friendship that would continue over the years, and Minh told me some of her earliest memories of Germany involve Peter and his wife Irene: “I somehow consider them to be my German grandparents.”

Return to the GDR as a Guest Worker

After returning to Vietnam in the late 70s, Hieu worked for several years as a university lecturer and it was during this period that he also met Diu, his future wife and Minh’s mother. Then in the mid-80s Hieu was presented with the opportunity to return to the GDR, this time as a translator for Vietnamese “contract workers” employed there. Compared to the career path open to him in Vietnam, the chance to to return to the GDR in such capacity was an attractive one for Hieu. As a result, he returned to East Germany in 1987. Doing so did not come without considerable hardship, as Hieu had to leave both his wife Diu and two-year old daughter Minh behind, a common situation for many foreign students and guest workers in the GDR.

Guest workers became commonplace in the GDR in the 1970s and 80s in reaction to chronic shortages in the East German labour market. The GDR concluded labour mobility agreements with several socialist bloc countries including Angola, Mozambique, Cuba and Vietnam. By 1989, more than 85,000 contract workers (53,000 of whom were from Vietnam) were employed in the country, often but not exclusively in blue collar positions unattractive to most East Germans. In terms of the place of these workers in East German society, journalist Jan-Hendrik Wulf sums it up as follows: “Foreigners in the GDR were consistently perceived of as existing outside of and apart from everyday East German life” (Jan-Hendrik Wulf, “Kampf in der Kinderkonfektion”, Berliner Zeitung, 17-18.01.2004)

Concretely this meant that in GDR workplaces, the “contract workers” typically worked together as a group, often separately from the local workers. Off the job, the foreign workers were housed in dorm-like conditions in workers’ residences, again often physically separated from the locals. (Website: Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, accessed on Nov. 13, 2014: http://www.amadeu-antonio-stiftung.de/projektfoerderung).  This segregation along with the fact that the “contract workers” often received access to consumer goods in short supply as part of their contracts also helped stoke resentment among some East Germans towards the “Fijis” (GDR slang for Vietnamese people; Fidschis in German).

Taken from a scrapbook created for Hieu by his German colleagues at the shoe factory, this page relates the vietnamese workers' keen interest in acquiring East German bicycles to ship back home (photo: courtesy of Diu and Minh).

Taken from a scrapbook created for Hieu by his German colleagues at the shoe factory, this page relates the vietnamese workers’ keen interest in acquiring East German bicycles to ship back home (photo: courtesy of Diu and Minh).

Upon his return to the GDR in 1987, Hieu was assigned to support a group of Vietnamese countrymen working at the People’s Own “Banner of Peace” Shoe Factory in Weissenfels, a city in the southwest of the country. Minh told me that her impression was that as the Vietnamese labourers were largely unskilled, they were simply moved about as needed. Initially, Hieu worked with a brigade of workers being trained to do painting and roofing work, but after some time, he was tasked with translating for a group of skilled Vietnamese workers who were to take on responsibilities in the factory’s heating plant.

I asked Minh about her father’s interactions with the local workers and she told me that, before speaking with her mother, she had “integrated this narrative [of guest workers’ separation] into my understanding. ‘Oh, all those Vietnamese were just separated from the Germans or German colleagues.'” However, her conversation with her mother had produced a very different impression of the situation her father had faced. Diu had stated that Hieu “was considered a really good colleague in his workplace.” He had, Minh stated, “been integrated, he seems to have been a bridge between the cultures.”

Minh - Banner factory Weissenfels

To illustrate her claims, Diu produced a photo album that Hieu had received from his German colleagues and leafing through it Minh found herself surprised by what she saw:

“I guess for most Vietnamese guest workers, when you look at their working and living conditions, it was totally true [that they were set apart and not integrated in any real way].

But this photo album was made with so much love and attention to detail that it really showed how [his colleagues] considered him to be an equal and really appreciated the cultural exchange.

It showed that people were interested [in other cultures]! When I read [in the photo album], ‘We celebrated Tết fest, Vietnamese New Year’s fest, in the GDR.’ They did Easter egg hunts with the guest workers and there were [photos of] Vietnamese guest workers holding eggs in their hands and also one of a wedding between two Vietnamese guest workers. There were incidents of common interest and cultural exchange and I think that it’s important we remember this too.”

Indeed, examining the photo album one certainly gets a strong impression that Hieu and his colleagues experienced what Minh calls “a lot of friendliness and hospitality in their workplace.” (Minh, email on Jan. 17, 2015). Evidence of warm interactions are many in this document. For example, on one page Hieu’s supervisor writes,

“And if there comes a time where you don’t know where to turn, know that you are always welcome in our home.” (“Und wenn du mal gar nicht weisst wohin – Dein Besuch ist bei uns jederzeit willkommen“, note use of familiar Du)

My experiences tell me that in the German context language such as this, both in terms of form and content, would truly be reserved for friends. To see it used between local and guest workers here truly flies in the face of the accepted wisdom regarding relations between East Germans and foreign guest workers. While Hieu’s experience was but one of thousands, I am grateful to Minh and Diu L. for sharing his story so that we might be reminded, once again, of the fact that history is rarely black and white but rather composed of myriad shades of grey.

Minh - Kaffee und KuchenMinh - egg hunting


Minh - visit in WeissenfelsMinh - wedding

Here a report on a celebration of the guest workers’ marking of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Based on its format and tone, I am guessing that this may have been taken from the journal of one of the shoe factory’s “socialist bridges” (for an earlier post of mine on this subject, click here) . . .


“The 16th of February 1988 was a special day for you. Many of the German colleagues
called on Wallendorf (ed. the location of the guest workers’ dormitories).
When we arrived at 3:30 pm there was a bustle of activity throughout all the rooms. The
table had been set for a feast, the room had been decorated and cooking smells wafted
from the kitchen.
Many colleagues were busy preparing the meal. They cooked, roasted the meats and
prepared the vegetables.
At 5:30 pm we all gathered around the festively prepared table. Your colleagues were
presented with the certificates for their German language course. Almost all of them
finished with grades of “good” or “very good”. This was also a success for the work you
had done.
At exactly 6:00 pm Comrade Otto, the Director for Labour and Social Policy, opened the
real highpoint of the day. The occasion was
the Tet Festival,
the begin of the “Year of the Dragon”.
The New Year was welcomed with firecrackers, although for the first time far from your
home and your families. We toasted the New Year with beer and wine and began our feast.
However, your thoughts were often with your loved ones far away. Despite this, our Tết
Festival was celebrated in a relaxed atmosphere.

For the New Year – the Year of the Dragon – we wish you


Minh - cultural exchange

 Next week: A World Turned Upside Down –
the Wende, its aftermath and the family lands in Hoyerswerda

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