Chinese Immigrants to Italy Build No Ordinary Chinatown

Christine Spolar, Chicago Tribune, January 1, 2009

In the heart of “Made-in-Italy” fashion country, China has carved out a home.

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The transformation of Prato, just outside Florence, marks a remarkable chapter in European immigration. This city has become the latest gateway for Chinese ambitions.

Like some city neighborhoods, suburbs and small towns across the U.S. where Mexicans and other immigrants gather in search of jobs, Prato is a place where two culturally different communities can live side-by-side and never really know each other.

“In all my travels, I had never seen anything like it,” said Roberto Ye, a son of Chinese immigrants and an Italian citizen who opened a Western Union office in the heart of Prato. “I said to myself: This is not like being in Chinatown in Chicago or New York or anywhere else. This is like China. White people are the foreigners here.”

To understand the impact, follow the money. This year, Chinese immigrants in Italy sent home a whopping 1.68 billion euros, about $2.4 billion, the lion’s share of all 6 billion euros in remittances recorded by Italy’s government.

“You have to forget anything you have ever learned about immigration when you come to Prato. Forget typical patterns. Europe has turned itself into a global marketplace and the Chinese who come are trying to take advantage of that,” said Andrea Frattani, Prato’s multicultural minister.

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An estimated 30,000 Chinese are legal immigrants in this city of 180,000. Another 30,000 illegal immigrants are also suspected to live here. Many among the Chinese work in small hidden factories for as long as 14 hours a day. They keep to themselves, they buy everything with cash and they see work as a mission, Frattani said.

Prato is the core of pronto moda fashion—a manufacturing sector of cheap clothes overwhelmed by Chinese workers and entrepreneurs. Government officials estimate that 5,500 textile workshops and factories in the region that has long been the backbone of small business in Italy, are now Chinese-owned.

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Police have raided hundreds of crowded workshops in the past few years where Chinese live, work and sleep. They earn far-below standard wage yet produce wares reportedly sold even in designer shops.

Some Chinese offer excuses for breaking labor laws. Workers still find conditions in Italy better than in China, they claim. But law-enforcement agents argue that Italian and Chinese entrepreneurs wrongly squeeze the most vulnerable. Italians subcontract with Chinese businessmen to cover dodgy business practices. Chinese owners rule over workers desperate for jobs.

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Social integration between Italians and Chinese is almost non-existent; schools are the few places where the young of both cultures mingle.

“Chinese businesses exist in Italy but they aren’t part of Italy. There has been Immigration but not integration,” said Daniele Cologna, a sociologist at the Codici research group in Milan.

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Multicultural Minister Frattani said the speed and scale of this Immigration has forever changed Italian markets. Chinese who landed in Tuscany are now moving into the nearby leather-trade region of Le Marche, he said.

“We believe that the migration of Chinese is done with the will of the China government,” Frattani said. “How else can you explain what is happening here? Look at the license plates of the buyers at those warehouses: Germany, Turkey, Sweden. . . .

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In December 2007, a national TV channel broadcast a documentary, “Schiavi del Lusso” or “Slaves of Luxury,” that linked several luxury firms in Italy to low-paid and often illegal Chinese labor, often hired by subcontractors. Prada and Ferragamo, cited in the report, were quoted in the documentary as stopping such subcontract work when alerted to the issue.

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