In September 1987 Vũ Thanh Điệp comes to Werdau to work in the Saxon textile industry. At that time, many Vietnamese contract workers are already employed in the various textile and garment factories in the city.
In the textile industry
Vũ Thanh Điệp has no clear concept of what awaits her in the GDR. All she knows is that they are looking for workers. After studying the labor contract, she is confident that she can manage the work. After all, she is young. Before their departure from Vietnam the future contract workers receive a suitcase full of clothes. After landing at Schönefeld Airport, they take a bus to Werdau. Where, upon arrival, they get another suitcase full of clothes. Everyone receives the same red winter jacket from the plant. The women are accommodated in a residential home in the small town, while their workplace is an hour’s commute away in Treuen. They work in two shifts. The bus driver wakes up the sleeping women when they arrive at work.
On a Saturday in late July 1988 — Vũ Thanh Điệp is now three quarters of a year in the GDR — a small series of pictures is taken One picture shows her with a colleague at the latter’s birthday party. Two other photos show Điệp alone with a roommate’s guitar. She captions the photo of her sitting on a bed with a message for her family: “This is where I sleep. The picture was taken on a weekend when I was missing the warmth of you, my parents and my two siblings. Lonely Saturday afternoon, 30.7.88.” On a later visit to Hanoi, she takes the photo back to Saxony. She fears it will get moldy in Vietnam due to the high humidity.
... when I was missing the warmth of you, my parents and my two siblings.Vu Thanh Diep an die Eltern, Werdau, 1988
Birthday and Tết
Birthday parties and Tết celebrations are important distractions in the everyday life of Vietnamese contract workers, which is dominated by work. According to the bilateral agreement between Vietnam and the GDR, the contract workers receive one day of paid leave for the Tết celebrations. Vũ Thanh Điệp’s plant organizes a celebration, there is music, awards for outstanding work and commitment, followed by dancing. Điệp gives a speech of thanks at the first Tết she celebrates in the GDR, which is translated by the plant interpreter. She is also the go-to person for her colleagues when it comes to social problems.
Fall of the wall and early contract end
With the change of regime, the lives of Vũ Thanh Điệp and her colleagues also change radically. Many of Điệp’s colleagues lose their jobs, are pressured by the employers to return to Vietnam. Điệp stays, but now she is on her own. She bids farewell to many of her friends, accompanies them to Schönefeld Airport, and says a sad goodbye.
Each has chosen her own life and had to accept it.Vu Thanh Diep, Werdau, 2022
Today Vũ Thanh Điệp lives in Werdau.
Nguyễn Phương Thanh conducted the interview in Werdau in 2021.
Text: Isabel Enzenbach
Research and research protocol photos: Nguyễn Phương Thanh