“Now that I am far from her, perhaps forever, I catch myself wondering whether Prague really exists or whether she is not an imaginary land like the Poland of King Ubu. Yet every night in my dreams I feel the pavement of the Old Town Square underfoot, stone by stone. I often go to Germany and gaze from afar, like the student Anselmus from Dresden, on the serrated mountain ranges of Bohemia. “Mein Herr, das alte Prag ist verschwunden.” [My Sir, the old Prague has disappeared.]
—Angelo Ripellino, Magic Prague
It is Angelo Ripellino’s lament, written in the dark days of Czechoslovakia’s “Normalization”, that characterizes a generation’s understanding of the city of Prague—as the Golden City, the Magic City, city of ghosts and golems and ancient history. A city whose essence lies somewhere in an imagined past, whose spirit suffocated under the weight of totalitarianism. It is this image of Prague that is marketed, in ways subtle and not, to the millions of tourists who fill the city’s streets each year.
Literary scholars and historians have spent decades debating just what Ripellino meant and whether, in helping to construct the image of the magic city, he unfairly maligned the Bohemian capital, which by their estimation was infinitely more complicated and always changing. Despite their best efforts, “Magic Prague” makes for good postcards and keychains; thus, it persists.
I can sympathize with his detractors—I am from Los Angeles, a city frequently placed into a romantic box by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. I can appreciate that what makes Prague look terrific on a postcard is mostly fantasy. That Prague is the “City of a Hundred Spires” is perhaps more tangible than the “City of Angels”; still, the name seems to me Prague’s least interesting quality. I know tinsel when I see it.
But I also know that any city so contested—any reputation so contested—offers more than meets the eye.
I never experienced the Prague of Ripellino’s time. I witnessed neither the conflicts that closed Prague off from the West nor the struggle that opened it back up. I do not remember the Communists or the dissidents; I don’t remember what happened in Wenceslas Square that night in November 1989.
I am an outsider who grew up a world away hearing stories of the Eastern Bloc under Communist rule at Polish Christmas in La Crescenta: of rows of bland beans in the grocery store and the composer’s friend’s feet battered with a metal pipe by the secret police for some small transgression.
But when I first arrived in Prague, age nineteen, alighting the train Hungaria at Prague Main Station, I knew nothing of the place. I walked around the city without perspective, seeing only what was right in front of me. On that first visit, I saw a city full of life, teeming with expectations and hopes, with young people and immigrants and expatriates. A hedonistic capital thronged with tourists. Cheap coffeehouses and free-flowing beer and funny-looking words in neon letters.
It was on that trip to Prague, one rainy afternoon, that I stumbled into a noodle shop run by a pair of Vietnamese brothers. I learned they had family near Los Angeles—Little Saigon, in Orange County. They told me I should check out Sapa—a market run by immigrants and former guest-workers who came from Vietnam and who made a life on the city’s outskirts selling soft goods to small- and big-time traders around Central and Eastern Europe.
I didn’t get to Sapa that time—but that afternoon stuck with me.
A year ago, I had the opportunity to propose a research project on a topic of my choosing, and magnetic Prague pulled me back to its winding streets and Socialist boulevards to understand what I hadn’t seen on my first visit to the city.
When I returned, I learned to see a city of children who know nothing of their grandparents’ struggle and a city of grandparents who want most of all to forget it. I learned to wonder at the foot of every contemporary building what came before, and what must be hidden to show off something new. I learned to listen for Vietnamese and Ukrainian, the tongues of Prague’s street merchants and taxi drivers and storekeepers. I learned to see a city so often defined by its last century grappling with the tensions of its next: wealth and poverty; immigrant and “native”; outward-looking yet inward-turning; tolerant yet illiberal. And I learned to empathize with a city unsure of whether its long shadows and soft light are the coming of dawn or the onset of night.
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Part I: Praha mới đã đến
I first meet Tereza, a professor at Charles University, at the pedestrian entrance to Sapa Market, on the far outskirts of Prague, about forty minutes by train and bus from my apartment near the center. When I arrive, she is already explaining the history of the market space to a group of tired-out college students on a ten-day immersion trip from CU Boulder.
She gives the elevator pitch with which I have become familiar after a few months of background research: Sapa is a wholesale market space built by Vietnamese entrepreneurs on the site of what used to be a large, state-owned meat processing plant. Since its founding in the late 1990s, the market has grown into one of the largest centers for wholesale trade in food, clothing, and electronics in all of Europe.
Tereza reveals Sapa one anecdote at a time, through stories she’s heard from friends—Vietnamese students, businessmen (and they are almost all men), and petty traders from the borderlands. She tells the story of the Sapa fire brigade (“They practice their techniques here on Tuesdays”), of the private police force that patrols the 66-acre complex in white Skoda hatchbacks. Her data is what she’s been told over a decade of hanging around this bizarre bazaar, and she will tell you whether your conjecture has any basis in fact.
I ask at one point, “Is Sapa a city?” It is one of those questions you ask when you’ve run out of material. She laughs. “Sapa is a shopping mall without a roof,” she says, picking up a piece of bun cha. She is being sincere, self-effacing.
Of course, Sapa is more than that. What she means is that it’s hard to see anything else: the complex is aluminum warehouses and improvised food stands and rows upon rows of fancy cars mixed with the ubiquitous white van of the European working class. Yet there is something else, something that she’s spent ten years looking for. Somewhere in an endless row of floral blouses made in Xi’an, Tereza stops dead. “This is what I love,” she says to a group of increasingly wayward and disinterested CU Boulder students, “Getting lost.”
What can be said about such a place? It is easier to focus on the facts: 66 acres, so-and-so-many millions of crowns in sales, x number of businesses. But to call this impossibly detailed place a “shopping mall without a roof” is like calling Notre Dame a Very Beautiful Church. That is, missing the point.
I spend the whole day with Tereza, tagging along for both of the tours she’s planned. After the CU Boulder students leave, we wait for three representatives from an anti-human-trafficking organization based in London, killing time walking through Sapa’s massive “cash-and-carry”, Tamda Foods.
It is here that Tereza explains a fundamental dynamic of the marketplace, as I notice older Czechs waiting in line to buy large boxes of Frito-Lay chips. The market used to be sealed off, she says, at least in a cultural sense—anyone who came or went was probably a wholesaler, and probably Vietnamese. But during the financial crisis, she says, when the government cut pensions and older residents of the surrounding neighborhood were pinching pennies, Sapa was suddenly full of Czech retirees searching for deals. Pensioners who grew up under Communist rule, the older Czechs were resourceful and eager not to slide further into poverty, so a kind of informal local solidarity developed between the generally young Vietnamese merchants and their older Czech neighbors. The local seniors began trying new foods: pho and bun cha and Vietnamese coffee; the merchants began stocking old Czechoslovak favorites, like Ruska zmrzlina, a processed ice cream treat once exported to the Eastern Bloc from the Soviet Union, and still made in Czechia. Tereza points out that 2008 was about the time public sentiment about the market began to shift from suspicion to curiosity; she wonders aloud if the seniors played a role in demystifying what had seemed to many a state unto itself.
2008 was a pivotal year at Sapa for another reason: the fire.
In the small hours of November 6th, 2008, a fire broke out in a clothing warehouse and grew into an inferno requiring 350 firefighters to extinguish. The blaze, which was among the largest in the city’s recent history, destroyed multiple warehouses and about 100 million crowns’ worth of goods. The recession and the fire were a one-two punch that threatened to knock Sapa into dire financial trouble. That the market’s proprietors preferred to conduct all business in cash limited the possibility of obtaining formal loans, yet the uncertain immigration status of many of the market’s merchants prevented a large-scale exodus of tenants.
According to Tereza, it was against this backdrop of economic precarity that many in the market turned to Czechia’s other lucrative cash-based trades: marijuana (or, as usually transliterated in Czech media, marihuana) and methamphetamine.
There is no reliable data on who exactly is involved with the drug trade. Dozens of large-scale drug raids have revealed Czechs and Vietnamese alike involved in the production of meth and marijuana for sale domestically and abroad: Czechia produces more than 100,000 kg of meth each year, a majority of Europe’s supply. But even a casual look into Czech-language tabloids reveals a slanderous portrait of the Vietnamese minority in Czechia as a kind of unified criminal syndicate. “Close the Markets, Head of Czech Anti-Drug Agency Says” reads a 2012 headline above a quotation by Jakub Frydrych, director of the Czech equivalent of the D.E.A.:
“Frydrych sees a much bigger problem in the existence of Vietnamese markets … ‘It would be helpful for us to engage all the regulatory authorities to such criminal sites [Vietnamese markets]… That is, the Czech Trade Inspection, the Hygienic Service, the Fire Brigades, the Trades Licensing Office, the Alien Police, who will attack you.’”
Frydrych made these comments in the context of a drug bust; he went on to say that Vietnamese people must enjoy prison, “where he is entitled to a lawyer, six hours of food, and is in a cell with a toilet he does not have in his home country”. He suggested that Czech laws should not apply uniformly to Vietnamese people; argued that civil agencies should harass Vietnamese business owners; and openly questioned whether his activities should be subject to legal standards like probable cause. Frydrych’s racist comments would be troubling coming from anyone. That they came from the high ranks of law enforcement was an early warning about the decay of Czechia’s rule of law.
Frydrych’s attitude reflects a common prejudice among many Czechs about the Vietnamese minority: whatever the facade—market, pho shop, večerka—crime lurks behind it.
That viewpoint is less common in the capital, where a more cosmopolitan attitude toward ethnic diversity prevails. If the tabloids from Czechia’s provinces shape a hateful perception of the Vietnamese community, it is urban Praguers who promote its sunny opposite. At the same time that Frydrych questioned the civil rights of Vietnamese people, urban Czechs began visiting Sapa in droves, drawn by unfamiliar cuisine and a unique sense of place.
It was amid this tension, just a few years ago, that Sapa began a reputational winning streak. Soon after local Vietnamese-Czechs began offering tours of the market, it began appearing on food blogs and travel guides, even making an appearance in an Anthony Bourdain episode about Prague. The entrance, a large archway topped by red letters reading, “TTTM SAPA” was photographed like the Dragon Gate in San Francisco. Visitors to the market—Czechs, Praguers, out-of-towners—posted thousands of photos at Sapa, tagging their location. The sunny portraiture is at odds with the dark picture painted by the likes of Jakub Frydrych and belies the real threat to minority civil rights in Czechia.
Despite the increasingly positive representation of the market on social media and among young people, the Vietnamese community faces continued harassment from the government. The hard line from the police became the party line in parliament on July 18th, 2018, when the far-right populist government voted to stop accepting applications for long-term visas from Vietnamese nationals. Lubomír Zaorálek, the Czech Foreign Minister, defended the decision in parliament, reported a Prague newspaper: “In his view, Vietnam has become a security risk of the first order. ‘Vietnam is just organized crime,’ he told the lower house’s Foreign Affairs Committee.”
For Czechia, just thirty years into its latest experiment in democracy, the seams are fraying. They are doing better than most—but this is not saying much. Across the region, new governments are eroding the institutions and civil rights hard-won by the last generation: in Hungary, a man who once demonstrated in favor of civil liberties as an activist now seeks to curtail them as Prime Minister; in Poland, the same men who toppled Communism have reinstated its authoritarian unanimity; in Slovakia, a journalist investigating government corruption was murdered along with his girlfriend in the same summer that a Filipino expat was shot to death on a Bratislava street corner by a Nazi sympathizer.
Praguers cannot go backwards in time to find solutions to their problems; Prague’s “magic” will not protect it from the challenges of the coming century. Yet the imagined past is an easier sell than the complex and very real present. Like Anselmus said, “das alte Prag ist verschwunden.” Still, something must come in its place. Ready or not, “Praha mới đã đến”—a new Prague has arrived.
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Featured Image: A drawing of Old Town Prague from the right bank of the River Vltava. Images such as these helped to establish in 19th-century travel writing a portrait of Prague as a romantic, magic city. Photo Credit: Austrian National Library/Creative Commons.
About the author: Ezra Rawitsch is a senior undergraduate in Geography at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is interested in post-Socialist urban political economy & the architecture and urban design of Central and Eastern Europe.