The most astonishing places are often the most hidden ones. Isolated from their surrounding, one has to know about these spots, otherwise it’s highly unlikely to suddenly stumble over them. That’s certainly true for treasure chests, but also for Dong Xuan Center – a place, that I, who grew up only a short tramride away, always considered as as exotic as Berlin can be.
Dong Xuan Center is undoubtedly an unusual treasure chest: It’s the one-of-a-kind Asian central market, that extends over seemingly endless aisles and aisles, lined up with all sorts of stores crammed in cubicles, which in turn, are also crammed with all sorts of goods far beyond imagination. It’s the center of the East-Berlin Asian community, where mostly Vietnamese and a small fraction of Sri Lankans and Thais gather to both buy products for their stores and their private shopping pleasure, to meet colleagues and friends, and whilst there, why not get a new haircut, shiny new nails and the honey-caramelised roast duck that tastes like grandma’s?
However, getting there is somehow an adventure. At least from the perspective of someone outside the Asian community, who has always approached Dong Xuan Center with an almost quirky amount of respect and astonishment. I remember a typical situation, which, after all these years, still proves to take place on a regular basis: The only way to reach Dong Xuan Center by public transport is the tram line M8: After leaving Marzahn’s densely populated areas, it passes a heat and power station, ill-conditioned office complexes, and later on enters an industrial area that is over the hill for a long time now. Being in a desperate condition, where many businesses lie idle, this neighbourhood is to be crossed without ever someone getting off or on – except for one stop: “Herzbergstraße/Industriegebiet”. As untempting as it sounds, as astonishing it is to see the tram basically exchanging their Asian passengers there. In the middle of the near-to-abandoned industrial area twenty, thirty people cause a stir unheard of.
However, on this day, Maria, Thomas and I decided to join them in order to explore the realm of Dong Xuan Center. We were excited. Awestruck. I remembered the last time I went there, easily ten or more years ago, when I got lost in the huge halls. I heard that the center grew massively over the time. Admitted, I was a bit frightened, too. We decided to skip the first hall we saw – “hall 8” – , instead to start from the beginning and simply follow the masses.
We were flushed away by the manifold impressions. Struck by a thunder of Vietnamese chatter, a lightning of flashing LEDs. The odours were overwhelming as well: spices, fruits and most of all: plastic. Polyamide fabrics and polyvinyl chloride pleather, polyurethane jewellery, polyester household items and polypropylene bric-a-brac, all stacked and packed in polyethylene foils, wraps and bags. Everything is poly in plastic kingdom. In quality and, most of all, also in quantity.
Every demand, every need and every desire was supplied. The exotic fruits you enjoyed in that Thai beach bar, the cheap rummage that they had at this bad taste party and that vintage Bollywood DVD you were so desperately looking for: name it, they got it. You can even catch your very own live carp, give it a lovely pet name and then have it filleted for you. They sell them in sizes from “a nice family dinner” to “even auntie Mildred whom I never met is flying in to celebrate”. Don’t get me wrong: those fish might not be your average lunch break meal, yet it’s compelling to watch a father pick the biggest fish as his daughters joyfully watch tonight’s dinner being cut in neat slices.
However, our appetite for seafood was low. We came to be overwhelmed and we were surely not disappointed. Both the extent and the cheapness were astonishing. I wondered if some of the shops were connected to any kind of crime, maybe tax evasion or other black market businesses. Nobody bothered us, though, when I took my camera, often the shop owners became uneasy and asked me to not take any pictures. Someone involuntarily gave me a hint, assuring they would only sell to business people, not private customers. If that was all they had to hide, I would be relaxed. I still felt as an intruder into their realm. Not only the shop owners, but also the customers seemed to have formed their very own universe there. Once, when I was going for a picture of a hair salon, a small, obese boy approached and me curiously asked a lot of things, all in Polish, as if he wasn’t used to Germans being there. I decided it was best to move on and finally find some of this ridiculous kitsch I came hunting for. After all, there were still halls two to eight ahead of us.