“It’s the diversity that makes it so special here. Some products are completely shit, others are of very high quality" Anh Tuan Nguyen
"Germany can be very boring. In Vietnam the market is very lucrative, one day you are a millionaire, the next day you can lose it all." Anh Tuan Nguyen
In Berlin’s eastern suburb Lichtenberg, between the high-rise concrete buildings and empty factories of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), an oasis of Asian goods appears. It’s the Dong Xuan Centre: four enormous shopping halls filled with products from the far East. One of the people you can find walking around there everyday is Anh Tuan Nguyen (33), better known as ‘007’.
Anh Tuan, drinking a coffee in one of the many Vietnamese restaurants in the centre, knows almost all of the 400 tenants renting spaces in the halls. He laughs about his mysterious nickname. “I think I got the name because people come to me for a lot of things. I advice people, I can be a mediator when people have conflicts and I have some businesses myself.”
The Vietnamese businessman came to Berlin when he was eight years old – his mother was a guest worker in the GDR. Soon after he arrived, the Berlin Wall fell. For the Vietnamese guest workers it meant that they suddenly lost their jobs but also had the chance to stay in reunited Germany and start a better life. Anh Tuan: “Vietnamese are trading people, it’s in our blood. People started working for themselves, opened restaurants and small shops. We needed each other to survive in the bureaucracy of Germany. It was difficult for people who didn’t speak German so well.”
And that’s where Anh Tuan came in handy. Having studied informatics in Potsdam, he later worked for German companies in Vietnam and other Asian countries. “I could represent these companies and look for business opportunities and of course I knew the German mentality.” He gained experience this way and – more importantly – created a large network.
Anh Tuan used this network to start his own business and to help the small Asian retailers in Berlin to grow theirs. When the centre opened up in 2005, he was running around day and night, helping his friends and colleagues. “In the Asian cultures, you really need your network. As a retailer, you rely on your wholesaler. The centre was the place where everything could come together and where people could make use of each other’s presence. It’s modelled after the Dong Xuan Centre in Hanoi.”
The centre, now a well known shopping paradise for many Berliners, kept expanding. It is home to shops that sell products ranging from textile and toys to Asian delicacies and restaurants. “It’s the diversity that makes it so special here. Some products are completely shit, others are of very high quality,” he laughs. In the centre he is running a wholesale business, importing goods from Asia for the retailers. Outside of the centre he focuses on his restaurants and ice cream shops at Potsdamer Platz and Alexanderplatz.
Sounds like he has it all figured out. “But that stability in Germany is something I really don’t like! If you have a business that is running ok, it will be ok for the next thirty years, and if you have trouble, there are many systems to help you,” Anh Tuan says. “That can be really boring! In Vietnam the market is very lucrative, one day you are a millionaire, the next day you can lose it all. One day your products are worth diamonds, the next day it’s worth nothing. That’s the excitement I need.”
So to get his dose of business adrenaline, Anh Tuan still regularly travels to Asia. “Germans can learn a lot from the Asian mentality. Dare to take risks, for example. And if you lose your job, it is definitely not the end of the world. In Vietnam, people won’t even understand the word ‘jobless’; they will always find something to do. Get a moped and drive tourists around. Repair your friend’s car for some money. If one business doesn’t work, there will be billions of others that will work. Germans should be more open in that way.”
Anh Tuan finishes his coffee and has some business to attend to in the centre. His negotiating skills are wanted and he is working on plans to open up a Vietnamese Culture House next door. “It will be the place where people can come together outside of business, everybody can go there. We don’t want to create something like a Chinatown here. It should be open; to make sure that people can participate. The Vietnamese are very open people,” Anh Tuan smiles. And off he is, checking the next lucrative business opportunity.