Sung Tieu

May 16 - June 13, 2015



In light of a severe labor shortage, the German Democratic Republic initiated its Gastarbeiter program in the 1960s. Cooperating with other Soviet-allied countries, formal agreements were drawn to temporarily import workers and students from the Eastern Bloc as well as Cuba, Mozambique, Angola, North Korea and Vietnam (mostly from the north). While the program was initially touted to embody the spirit of international solidarity among communist countries as a form of development aid and industrial training, the living conditions of the guest-workers were grossly inferior to that of the rest of the population. Vietnamese workers were segregated and mingling with Germans was strongly discouraged, even punishable.

Meanwhile, West Germany was welcoming South Vietnamese, mostly Christian, refugees who were fleeing the war (and the spread of communism), and as these immigrants had no option to return to Vietnam they received social benefits and job-placement assistance, successfully integrating to the point where the Vietnamese were often used by the government and media as a shining example of the “good immigrant”.

When Germany reunified in 1990, Eastern guest workers were left in a legal grey-zone. Faced with deportation, many had set up a life for themselves in Germany and were unwilling to leave despite losing their contracts. Germany offered a fee of DM3,000 to return to Vietnam, a deal to which thousands agreed, yet when news got back to those still in Germany that many repatriation volunteers hadn't received the promised payment, there was further reluctance to leave. Left with no other options, it was in this context that Germany's Vietnamese community began to self-organize. A common practice was the selling of cigarettes (mostly smuggled from Poland) outside of grocery stores, which was increasingly controlled and protected through a mafia system. Many Vietnamese eventually established small businesses with low start-up costs such as flower shops, as well as make-shift markets temporarily set up in empty buildings for which vendors began pedaling grey- and black-market items, displayed on impromptu metal pegboards.

This period saw a rise in xenophobic violence, epitomized by the Rostock-Lichtenhagen riots of 1992 in which a mob of hundreds of right-wing hooligans attacked an apartment block housing asylum-seekers as a crowd of several thousand neighbors looked on and applauded.

In 1995 Germany paid the Vietnamese government $140million to amend their policy to allow for the forced repatriation (without payment) of illegal immigrants which continues today.


Perspex Boxes

A grey market is the trade of commodities whose distribution is legal but unofficial or unauthorized by the manufacturer, most commonly taking the form of the resale of imported goods. The legal grey-zone of the Vietnamese guest-workers after Reunification was mirrored in the utilization of the grey market within their community. Just as people were imported to benefit Germany's economy yet went on to live lives of their own, grey market imports found new lives for themselves.

The Dong Xuan Center opened in the Lichtenberg district of Berlin in 2003, and today has expanded to six large hangars filled with restaurants, shops and salons, largely (though not exclusively) run by North Vietnamese immigrants and their families. The Center is a hub of import and export, a bustling artery of consumer and wholesale transactions, and also something of a community center. Named after Chợ Đồng Xuân, a well-known wholesale market in Hanoi, the center also makes visible a lingering North/South Vietnam and East/West German divide, the Hanoi reference standing in contrast to the many West Berlin Vietnamese restaurants which use 'Saigon' (officially known as Ho Chi Minh City since 1976) in their name.



Among the sprawling rows of shops within the Dong Xuan Center is Binh & Hoa Import/Export. Carrying thousands of products ranging from perfumes to electronics, flags of every nation to kitchen items, Binh's best-selling items are German door plaques, often humorous, sexy, and East German-themed. Also popular are imitation perfume lines which mimic designer brands, but are just different enough to enter again into a legal grey-zone. Sung Tieu has used his inventory of perfumes and door plaques and with them composed two inventory poems, displayed on custom LED signs built by another shop within the Dong Xuan Center.

The absurdity of the East German door plaques, their popularity in Lichtenberg, and their being sold by a Vietnamese importer who perhaps doesn't relate to their content, points to a larger social disconnect. The notion of “Real Germans” vs. “Strangers” (Das Fremde) implies a hierarchy of authenticity akin to that of “real” perfume and “fake” perfume, all subjective designations based on social codes. As poetry, Tieu reclaims both tiers of authenticity, pointing to an alternative cultural evolution beyond the apparent trickle-down of “first world” consumerism into the second and third worlds.


Subnational MP3
[17 minutes 5 seconds]

Subnational MP3 was a satellite event on May 30, 2015 accompanying the exhibition Subnational Enterprise.

Available exclusively at Binh & Hoa Import/Export, Subnational MP3 is a rebranded counterfeit MP3 player edition which comes preprogramed with a sound work created by Tieu. By blending the sound of the Đàn bầu, a traditional Vietnamese stringed instrument, with field recordings of shopping ambiance at KaDeWe and product-placement sequences from movies, the soundwalk second-guesses notions of cultural sophistication, ancient expertise and high-end salesmanship.

Sourcing sounds from Vietnamese traditional musicians such as Pham Duc Thanh and Nguyen Thanh Thuy, Tieu layers their sensitive plucking with self-made recordings of her inquiring in English about designer bags and perfumes at the high-end German shopping center KaDeWe, entering into discussions about the specifics of classic fragrances and handbag designs. By transposing these sounds onto the scene of a bustling Saturday at the Dong Xuan Center, the listener is left in limbo between authentic experiences, wandering along to the pleasant ambiance of a wobbling zither while overhearing conversations and overlapping murmur both through the headphones and in real life. The 'shopping experience' is rounded out by the sound of luxury product-placements from films such as The Devil Wears Prada, Sex and the City, and Breakfast at Tiffany's juxtaposed onto the viewer's browsing of knock-off perfumes and grey market products.

The MP3 player is purchasable for 20 Euro, Edition of 50.
Graphic Design: Per Törnberg Sound Mixing: Ville Haimala

Also on view at the Dong Xuan Center is an intervention by Tieu at CECO LED in Hall 8, Room 823. Here she has reprogrammed an arrangement of LED screens to scroll through relevant dates and countries related to international guest-worker and legal alien agreements.

Kreuzbergstraße 42e, 10965 Berlin