Ba Lan: The Story of the Vietnamese Diaspora in Poland

Zula Rabikowska



Ba Lan means “Poland” in Vietnamese and this project focuses on the story of the Vietnamese diaspora in Poland. Since 2015, Poland has been ruled by a conservative and anti-immigration political party. Poland is a largely mono-ethnic country and its migrant population is seldom depicted by the media or the arts. Instead, slogans such as “Today’s immigrants are tomorrow terrorists” have been increasingly seen in public spaces since 2015.

"Ba Lan" developed from a place of frustration with the way immigrants are perceived. As a Polish immigrant the UK, I worked closely with the Vietnamese community in Warsaw to better understand how this group of people reconciles their identity in a country which largely believes that nationality is rooted in ethnic origin.

In contrast with the Vietnamese diaspora in the US, who are often of refugee origin, the Vietnamese communities in Poland formed because of student exchanges. The Vietnamese community in Poland started to form in the 1950s and has experienced discrimination and racism, which has determined its social and economic mobility. The Vietnamese community is the biggest non-European migrant community living in Poland, with an estimated population of 50-80,000.

Poland’s Communist past and the relationship between Poland and Vietnam is central to the project. It is for this reason that I chose to incorporate archival imagery directly into the photographs that I had taken. As a result, the “preserved” state history is intertwined with personal stories. The juxtaposition of the colour portraits with mainly black and white images subverts the one-dimensional narrative, which is normally present in a still photograph, and hints at a larger, more complex approach towards the subject.

Duality is at the forefront of each photograph, and I explore the multiplicity of identities, imposed norms and expectations that are part of immigrant life in Poland. Each image I made was influenced by conversation, and each location of the portrait was chosen by the person I photographed. I made strong use of mirrors, reflections, geometric lines and jarring images to aesthetically bare the feeling of conflicting identities and belonging of the Vietnamese-Polish community. I collaborated with the Vietnamese community in Warsaw and the text that accompanies the portraits was edited by the participants themselves.

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  • Ola against a backdrop of images from the National State Archive in Warsaw that show members of the Vietnamese government in Poland. Ola came to Poland with her family as a child and went to school in Warsaw. She was brought up in a traditional Vietnamese household and learnt to cook at a young age whilst helping her mum out in the kitchen. In 2018 she won the Polish edition of MasterChef. She says that feels Polish and Vietnamese and in Poland has decided to use the name “Ola” as it helps her establish a closeness with the Polish society.

  • A woman walks in front of an "Asia Foods" shop. The participants of the projects frequently highlight that they dislike how in Poland their identity is reduced to the adjective “Asian” and that they see it way more complex than that. In the window is a photograph from 9th November 1968, which depicts a Delegation representing the Vietnamese Workers’ Party who arrived in Warsaw for the fifth Congregation of the Polish United Workers’ Party. The participants of the "Ba Lan" project often expressed frustration with the way that a complex community is often reduced to two most frequently used adjectives: “Asian” and “Oriental.”

  • There is a new wave of economically motivated migrants from Vietnam and Mrs Hien is one of such people. She came to Warsaw a couple of years ago with her husband. Unfortunately, they were both denied visas and he had to return. Mrs Hien is in her 60s and has just started her first degree in Poland.

    She works seven days a week and she also studies for her undergraduate degree. She works in a shoe shop and also in a restaurant kitchen and lives in university accommodation so save money. She says that “Poland is the only country where so many Vietnamese people have been so successful, and I am learning Polish so that I can get a better job”.

    In the sky is visible an agreement outlining a plan regarding Cultural Collaboration for the year of 1969, which was signed between Poland and Vietnam in Warsaw.

  • Mai shopping for Vietnamese ingredients in the Polish capital, against a backdrop of press images from 1960s-80s that evidence the Polish-Vietnamese history and collaboration.
    Mai came to Poland seven years ago and works in finance, although she was on maternity leave at the time of the portrait and did not want her full identity to be revealed. Her partner is Italian, and together they’ve recently had a baby, Sofia. She is learning Vietnamese, Polish, Italian and English.
    Most of Mai’s friends are international and she likes to spend time with the expat community in Warsaw. She is friends with my neighbour, but overall, she finds it difficult to connect with Polish people. Her contact with the Vietnamese community is also limited and she is really interested in finding out how other Vietnamese people live and seeing what their lives are like. She doesn’t have many Vietnamese friends in Warsaw and came to Poland because she was working too much in Vietnam.
    Poland was the first foreign country she visited, and it was a big culture shock. Mai has had comments such as “Go to London and ask Polish people to come back to Poland,” or heard complete strangers say “Vietnamese people are occupying Poland”. She says that “It wasn’t easy to hear, especially that my life is here, and I don’t want to go back to Vietnam”.

  • Many Vietnamese shops in Warsaw use traditional beer fridges to store their produces. This is an example of many such uses in Bakalarska Market, which is an area of Warsaw with a high concentration of Vietnamese restaurants and shops. In the fridge door is an archive image taken on 6th December 1975 of a Delegation of the Vietnamese Workers’ Party, which arrived in Warsaw for the seventh Congregation of the Polish United Workers’ Party with the members of the Politburo.

  • Son Thanh Nguyen has been in Poland since 1991and feels closer to Poland than to Vietnam. He works for Dan Chim Viet, which was the first journal in Eastern Europe to oppose the Vietnamese government. His life has been underpinned by phone threats and the idea of visiting Vietnam is practically impossible. Son's wife is Polish and together they have two children who don't speak much Vietnamese. In the background where the door is open is a photograph of President Ho Chi Minh greeting the residents of Warsaw who welcome him as he drives through the city.

  • Bartek in his favourite shisha bar in Warsaw Bartek’s parents met in Poland, and he grew up in the Polish capital, and feels more Polish than Vietnamese, he says that his Vietnamese family also calls him “Bartek”. Bartek works as a designed and illustrator, but says that most Vietnamese people in Poland don’t have creative jobs and many still work in trade.

    When he visited Vietnam as a child, he often felt like a complete outsider: “I was conscious of my badly spoken Vietnamese and how different my clothes were to everyone around me. Growing up in Poland wasn’t always easy either, since racism in a monoethnic country is normal. People look at me and instantly put me in an Asian “box” or just reduce my identity to “that Vietnamese guy.” He is now engaged to a Polish woman, and it’s more likely to be a wedding filled with Polish, rather than Vietnamese, traditions.

    Through the window is an archival image which reads “Let the alliance, friendship and cooperation between the two nations, Poland and Vietnam, bloom.”

  • Vietnamese communities in Poland started to form due to student exchanges. Visible through the window is a selection of student ID cards from the National State archive in Poland from 70s and 80s. This hairdresser salon is located in Wolka Kosowska, which is one of the biggest wholesale trade centres in Europe where many Vietnamese people in Poland continue to work.

  • Hien doesn’t see himself as Vietnamese, or Polish, but as a creative soul. He was born in Poland, but was raised by in a traditional Vietnamese family. Hien says that they “forced him to attend the Vietnamese school in Warsaw”. He studied finance, later became a model and a photographer. He travels a lot internationally and wants to move to Singapore so he can work as a photographer there.

    Many Vietnamese families migrated to Poland due to the educational programmes between Vietnam and Poland. Visible in Hien’s reflection is a selection of archival photos and letters, which document that relationship.

  • Kim is the only Vietnamese drag queen in Poland. He is half Korean and half Vietnamese, and says that his life is Poland. There are only around thirty drag queens in Poland, and they already have a hard time being demonised by the government. Kim highlights that there are two main stereotypical representations of a Vietnamese person in Poland: “You are either depicted as the mafia, or a bazaar trader on the old football stadium, which was a big trading hot spot in the 90s. There is no representation of artists or performers. Polish society doesn’t let us be seen outside stereotypes that it has created, and there is a mutual lack of contact between Vietnamese and Polish communities.” In the background the archival imagery is that of a Polish-Vietnamese statement, signed at the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party. It was signed by the Central Committee Secretary, Edward Gierek, and the Central Committee Secretary of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Le Duan.

  • Giang is 22 years old and was born in Warsaw. He says that he didn’t go to the Vietnamese language school in Warsaw because his parents taught me the language. With his sister he prefers to speak in Polish, but his parents insist on speaking Vietnamese at home. He says that “I only experienced Polish culture in school, and I don’t feel like know it as well as I would like to. When I was younger, kids used to laugh at me and pretended, I was Chinese and make nasty remarks.” As a child, he used to go to Vietnam, but hasn’t been for ten years. He feels there is too much pressure and expectations from his Vietnamese family: “There are all of these cultural rules that you are expected to know and I haven’t learnt them. I don’t know where I would like to live in the future, but Poland feels like home.”

    In the background is visible Mr. Korczyński, the Vice-Chairman of the SDRN (National Assembly), who bids farewell to the chief of the Vietnamese delegation from Hanoi, Dr Tran Duy Hung, in Gdańsk train station.

  • There are two pagodas in Warsaw, Chua Thien Phuc and Nhan Hoa. They are both located on the outskirts of the capital, close to Wólka Kosowska - one of the biggest wholesale trading areas in Eastern Europe and a place where a significant number of Vietnamese people continue to work. Some people have rejected the pagodas for their alignment with the Vietnamese government and propaganda, whereas others choose to attend for worship and cultural reasons.
    Traditional Vietnamese pagoda on the outskirts of Warsaw is visible in the forefront and an official letter from the department of foreign affairs from 1984 between Poland and Vietnam in the background.