Tuscany's Chinatown is shrugging off the slump, but integration remains a challengeby Anna Blundy / March 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
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.
Many local Italians think of the Chinese as lawbreakers, consider their restaurants dirty and complain about their spitting and littering. I once told a Pratese friend that I had no car insurance and he laughed and said, “You’re like the Chinese! I’ve actually seen them running away from accidents!”
A large number of the Chinese immigrants to Prato, who have been coming over since the late 1980s, are in Italy illegally. They came chiefly to work in the textile industry, producing clothes for the Chinese market labelled “Made in Italy.” Most of the factories, abandoned by the collapsing domestic textile industry, are now leased by Italians to the Chinese. Recently, the Chinese have gone into farming and now hold 25 per cent of the province’s farmland. Land rental prices are soaring, with the Chinese paying many times what locals are used to.
There are frequent police crackdowns on Chinese-run enterprises, infamous for ignoring tax, labour and safety laws, and businesses are endlessly shut down and reopened. There are allegations of money laundering and fires in overcrowded lodgings; seven people died in a fire at a garment workshop in 2013. Clashes with police tend to follow the sporadic mass raids. A lot of locals resent the factory owners and farmers for flaunting their wealth: Chinese men in Ferraris are considered the height of bad taste. Florence newspaper La Nazione refers to the Pratese Chinese as the “yellow invasion.” Unfounded complaints that some Chinese restaurants do not serve Italians have been widely reported.
What there is not, however, is much celebration of the way in which Prato has avoided the economic crisis blighting most of Italy. The President of the Industrial Association of Prato, Andrea Cavicchi, has noted the Chinese contribution to the economy. Yet most Italians still tend to view the incomers as a problem, so much so that the Chinese have developed their own labour association, Cervo Bianco (white deer).
But piano piano, as the Italians say, things are changing. Ten years ago, Xu Qiu Lin became the first Chinese-born member of Prato’s Confindustria, the General Confederation of Italian Industry, and he has gradually become a media spokesperson on integration. Marco Wong, an entrepreneur born in Prato, credits Mayor Matteo Biffoni with a shift in attitudes. Usually, says Wong, in any conflict between Chinese and native Italians, the Chinese take the blame. Biffoni doesn’t respond in that fashion.
Five years ago Wang Li Ping, 56, having lived in Prato for 22 years, was made deputy president of the CNA, another confederation representing small business owners. “Chinese businessmen and the CNA are working together to eradicate illicit work,” Wang told the press. Wang works with CNA legal representative Claudio Bettazzi whose wife, in turn, works for a local Chinese company.
Bettazzi told La Stampa that at a recent town festival, “there were several mixed couples on the dance floor. The integration is happening gradually.” For the younger generation, of course, it has already happened.
Anna Blundy lives in Tuscany