Von Christiane Kühl
12.10.2009 / taz
The Vietnamese have given Helmut Kohl the astounding soubriquet "Father of the golden shower". It’s not a tribute to Frank Zappa, nor does it refer to the "golden shower" as such, but to the former Chancellor’s power. He was, after all, the man who made the ‘boxes’ history. Until 1989, Vietnamese workers in the GDR were allowed to send home a single one cubic-metre box packed with goods. After 1989 they sent money - West German Marks. The fall of the Berlin Wall was nice in other ways, too, but, to put it politely, it also made everything more complicated. From one day to the next, the foreign workers lost their residence status.
60,000 Vietnamese so-called ‘contract workers’ were living in the GDR at the end of the ‘80s, around 15,000 of them in Dresden. Four of them are currently on stage in a Rimini Protokoll production, together with three young Vietnamese who grew up in the Czech Republic and a German former colonel, who, in his own words "was for many years actively involved in maintaining the GDR border". The production, which after its premiere at the Staatsschauspiel Dresden will go on to the Nationaltheater Prague, is called "Vùng biên gió'i", or ‘border area’, although it’s actually about border areas in plural: between East and West Germany, between North and South Vietnam, between the FRG and the Czech Republic. It is of course also about crossing borders, about their insurmountable remains and about how much a person can endure in one lifetime.
Simeon Meier’s stage presents the audience with colourful plastic stools, porcelain bamboo, orchids, and two market stands with counterfeit US army uniforms. Directors Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel did their research at Vietnamese markets in the Berlin district of Lichtenberg and in Prague, where they also cast the young performers and where these prospective students work, helping their parents. As well as Vietnamese and Czech, they speak English and embarrassingly good German, which they’ve learnt from shopping tourists. They’re so skilled in the language that they can even use it with irony: "European dogs stink. But Vietnamese dogs: yummy, yummy!"
It’s obviously harder for the older men to present themselves and no wonder. For 30 years not a soul in this country was interested in them and now they’re on stage in the Staatstheater. As always, Rimini Protokoll works with ordinary people, presenting them as ‘experts in daily life’, yet this time their situation seems different because it’s not expertise in a profession, hobby or field of knowledge that qualifies them to be protagonists, but their biographies. The war in Vietnam, being sent to the GDR, working in state-run VEB factories, becoming self-employed, legally or illegally.
This piece is not about a single part that can be shown as such, rather, it’s all about the whole. That takes great emotional effort, especially because this whole has to be reduced to extracts for one evening’s theatre. In formal terms, this is not always entirely successful. A quiz with questions such as "Who has seen the most bombs?" for example, seems somewhat awkward. When the protagonists save the situation by singing Vietnamese folk songs however, the audience can vividly imagine a completely different life.
This project’s strength lies in presenting the history of ‘the other’ as part of our own history. Even now, amid the ‘89 We-made-it’ euphoria, it makes us aware that there’s something wrong with the term “our history”. Phung Hang Thanh also marched in the Monday demonstrations that helped end the GDR. And what did they say to Nguyen Van Loi at the checkpoint, when, like everybody else, he wanted to go from East to West Berlin on the 9th of November? "Not you." Such contradictions are apparently still too delicate to be brought up now, because even in "Vùng biên gió'i" the former colonel, who later took over the supervision of foreign workers in the state-run ‘VEB Herrenmode Dresden’ clothing factory, is allowed to talk about "our Vietnamese" who "were soon completely integrated, due to their hard work and outstanding manual dexterity". And nobody contradicts him, although they were not integrated, because their integration was blocked from above and they were hated from below for causing wage dumping.
"I’m writing a novel. Two or three pages at a time. It’s like hiding contraband" confesses Nguyen Van Loi towards the end of the evening, after we have heard that he was handcuffed for four hours to a fence in the outer Berlin suburb of Buch one winter because of seven cartons of cigarettes. Literature as contraband. There are still real treasures that have to be discovered.