Why do Vietnamese look like Chinese

Where does the racism against Asians in Germany come from?

"Hey Asian, what are you doing here?" Student Zacky, who comes from Indonesia, was insulted several times on the street in Berlin. Once he was even jostled and beaten.

The student Puspa, also from Indonesia, also reports on racist experiences. On New Year's Eve, someone even threw a firework at her, she says. Based on previous experiences, she is "fairly certain" that this happened because she was wearing a hijab.

The Chinese documentary filmmaker and activist Popo Fan was confronted with racist attacks in the Berlin subway. In 2019, before the corona pandemic, someone yelled at him to "f *** back to China".

Seven or eight people were there when the incident occurred on the subway, he recalls. "Nobody helped me, nobody even looked. They all hung on their phones or turned their heads away."

Racism anchored in Germany

The corona pandemic has apparently increased the racism against people of Asian origin, as the virus is said to have its origin in the Chinese city of Wuhan - but there were prejudices against Asians in Germany even before that.

In the 1930s, for example, the National Socialists expelled the Chinese who were living in Germany. Some have even been sent to forced labor camps. But most cases of anti-Asian violence occurred decades later - after German-German reunification in 1990.

After the Second World War, thousands of Vietnamese students and contract workers came to the GDR

The main targets were people from Vietnam who had come to the GDR as part of the recruitment of workers from communist regimes. Almost 60,000 contract workers from the Southeast Asian country lived there before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.

Pogroms in Hoyerswerda and Rostock

Two years later, violent right-wing extremists attacked Vietnamese residents of a collective center in Hoyerswerda, Saxony. Applauded by residents and bystanders, a horde of neo-Nazis besieged the foreigners dormitory.

In 1992 there were also the worst xenophobic riots in Rostock-Lichterhagen in eastern Germany. Around 1,000 right-wing extremists attacked a block of flats with Vietnamese contract workers and set it on fire. Again there was applause from onlookers. The police, who arrived slowly in the course of the evening, turned out to be completely unprepared, poorly equipped and powerless.

The police intervened late in the attack on a block of flats with Vietnamese in Rostock-Lichtenhagen

"This event shaped many people who are fighting against racism in Germany today," says Ferat Ali Kocak, Berlin anti-racism activist. "It became clear to us that anti-Asian racism, even if it is not always visible, is firmly anchored in German society for various reasons."

Pandemic increases stigma

The outbreak of the corona pandemic has now made the prejudices increasingly visible. After the filmmaker Popo Fan was yelled at in the subway and the word "Corona" was hurled at him, he went to the police. "I told them they had to do something. But they didn't do anything. I asked them, 'What are you waiting for? For me to be shot?'" He recalls. Fan has not used public transport since the incident, the memory is too traumatic. An article by the Federal Agency for Civic Education historically locates the intensification of anti-Asian racism in the context of the corona pandemic. The emergence of epidemics and, more recently, infectious diseases such as Sars has been attributed to China since the 19th century. Media reports would also evoke prejudices from colonial times.

"You don't have COVID, do you?" A friend asked Michelle, a young Chinese woman living in Bonn. Although the remark could be meant in a racist way, Michelle understands people who behave this way. "It's human. It also means that the virus comes from China," she told DW. And she says that even in China, people from Hubei Province - where the first COVID-19 cases occurred - have been socially stigmatized and even locked in their homes.

Common prejudices in everyday culture

Popo Fan suspects that anti-Asian racism in Germany also has something to do with the fact that, for example, there are hardly any Asian actors and roles on German television. And when they did, they fulfilled the common stereotypes: as a "waitress for an Asian restaurant" or as a "young Asian girl who works in the massage parlor," he adds.

Even on gay online dating portals, Asians have to grapple with prejudices, so Fan. "Men wrote on Grindr that they would not get involved with Asians, they are slippery like dolphins during sex. How can you say such a mean. "

Matthias Matuschik, moderator of a Bavarian radio station, must also be accused of racism. After the popular K-pop group BTS had covered the song "Fix You" by the British band Coldplay, he compared it to the coronavirus. The boy band is just like a "shitty virus that hopefully there will be a vaccination soon." From his point of view, his criticism was based on the "sacrilege" of having defaced the song.

He added: "Nothing against South Korea, you can't accuse me of xenophobia just because this boy band is from South Korea." But by then it was already too late. There was criticism on the net worldwide. Especially at this time, when anti-Asian racism is rampant, Matuschik's statement is a call to hatred, wrote a user on Twitter.

And despite everything: Michelle, the young Chinese woman from Bonn, feels accepted in Germany. "For example, I am often asked for directions even though I look foreign," she says. At first, she sometimes felt discriminated against, but that also has something to do with cultural misunderstandings, she believes. "The Germans are very direct."

Youth protests against racism

Young people in Germany in particular are much more open today and are more interested in the issue of racism, says Frank Joung, the Korean founder and presenter of the "Halbe Katoffl" podcast, in which Germans with foreign roots have their say.


"They chat with people from all over the world, they are connected via apps, they listen to K-pop and they watch 'Black Panther'," said Young. "I think it's a very logical development for them. They no longer think about whether someone is black or white."

Anti-racism activist Kocak sees it similarly. "Something happened as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement and the anti-racist protests after Hanau," he says - in Hanau near Frankfurt am Main, a right-wing extremist murdered nine people of Turkish origin in a shisha bar in February 2020. "We live in an unjust world and we need a lot more solidarity," said Kocak. "The young people have recognized this and are taking to the streets for it."

Adaptation from English: Sabine Oelze, Suzanne Cords

This article was updated on March 23rd.