Tuscany's Chinatown is shrugging off the slump, but integration remains a challengeby Anna Blundy / March 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Prato, a small Tuscan town 16 miles from Florence, is famous for the Lippi frescoes in the Cathedral of Santo Stefano, and for its ancient textile business, documented by the 14th-century merchant Francesco Datini, whose palazzo can still be visited. Or, rather, that is what Prato used to be famous for.
For Prato is now famous mainly for its Chinatown, known as Santo Beijing and stretching from the stone gate down bustling Via Pistoiese to the edge of the old city. There is none of the air of decay felt in most Italian provincial towns: shop closures, apathy and an ageing population. Here the shop signs are in Chinese and there are nail and hair salons, Wenzhou-style restaurants (most Pratese Chinese originate from Wenzhou in Zhejiang province), Chinese medicine shops and everything else Prato’s 45,000-odd ethnic Chinese might need.
Compared to Chinatowns abroad this may be nothing much. But in this town of around 200,000 in relatively monocultural Italy, still a staunchly Catholic country obsessed with its own food and traditions, it is striking. Especially since the Chinese shops and restaurants are always open, eschewing the four-hour lunch break and three days off a week plus long holiday closures that native businesses are lovingly known for. See a Chinese family by the river in the summer, a predominantly Chinese-looking orchestra in a Tuscan schools competition, a group of shiatsu massage ladies on the beach at Forte dei Marmi—they’ll be from Prato. There are Chinese-language magazines and radio stations and angsty blogs from young Italians born to Chinese parents, called Luca, Fabiano, Chiara and Cristina, and seeking an identity in what is often an unhospitable country.