Asian persuasion

Living in Chinese

Anne Ning Feng
June 14, 2007

Stroll down via Cavour from Piazza San Marco and pay attention to the shops on both sides of the street before you reach the Duomo. Within 500 metres, you will find at least six shops owned by Asian people, or more specifically, people from mainland China. Only two stores actually have names, and one says ‘Made in Italy’ on the front window.


These shops mostly sell shoes, scarves, suitcases, leather handbags, accessories and clothing—all at an incredibly low price. Walking into one of these stores, you will see the simple lay-out, pale fluorescent light and products with Chinese labels typical of stores in China. You will hear customers bargaining with merchants as if in a shop in Beijing. The young Asian girl sitting in the corner reading a Chinese newspaper while sipping from a jar of hot green tea has you believing you are in Asia, but when you turn around to see an older, elegant Florentine woman, wrapped in her fancy fur coat, trying on a faux pearl necklace, reality hits you: this is Florence, Italy.


According to a report released by the municipality of Florence, in 2004 the city had 3,918 Chinese residents, representing over 13 percent of the total foreign population residing in the city. The majority of Chinese residents were reported to be males between 25 and 40 years old. Chinese people in Tuscany most likely live in Florence’s quartiere 5 and in the nearby city of Prato. The vast majority of Asian residents in Prato are entrepreneurs operating in the commercial, restaurant and textile industries. According to the 2004 data, among the city’s entrepreneurs, there were more Asians than homegrown Florentines. Other recent reports suggest that the Asian presence in the province of Florence has doubled—possibly tripled—since 2004.


However, browse the local newspapers and you will barely find anything about Chinese people living in Tuscany, though you stand beside them at the bus stop every day. You order Chinese food from Il Panda or Il Pollo restaurants every once in a while, though you know nothing about the Asian waiter who serves you, the cook who prepares your food or the cashier who brings you your receipt. They speak their own language, open their own shops and restaurants and have their own hospitals and communities, and continue to remain virtually invisible to Florentines. Chinese residents make little effort to adjust to their Tuscan environment, nor does their Tuscan environment make attempts to adjust to them.


The majority of these immigrants come from Wenzhou, Zhejiang, which is the smallest province in southern China. There is a Chinese saying about the Wenzhou people: ‘If you see a guy trudging in the middle of a barren desert in the most remote place on this planet, all alone, then he must be from Wenzhou’. The Wenzhou people are known for their strong work ethic and perseverance. What’s more, they are a determined, quick-witted, self-interested and self-made people. They accomplish miracles all over the planet, turning rags into riches—turning nothing into something.

In the past few years, the Whenzhou people have opened leather factories in Florence and Prato that produce handbags, clothing and suitcases, all of which are proudly stamped with the ‘Made in Italy’ label. These products are made in Italy, just not by Italians—this is something that people rarely notice. These businesses are usually owned and managed by kinsmen and friends and normally hire only Chinese employees. The workshops are very small, the workload very heavy and the pay embarrassingly low. Local Italians would probably never work in such conditions. But the newly arrived Chinese are in debt to the workshop owners, who, more often than not, have helped them come to Florence. The Chinese are habitually and uncritically used to being oppressed and forced to endure hard labor. Without complaint or protest, they continue to sweat in dark factories in order to send money home to their families, hoping one day to pay off their debt.


The words ‘Made in Italy’ are beautiful to a consumer’s eyes. All things beautiful are found in Italy, in Tuscany, in Florence. But the ‘Made in Italy’ label also tells a silent story. The story of a tiny man from Wenzhou, who came to Italy like mere cargo on a ship and was forced to work 18 hours a day in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. He hates pizza and he has never set foot in the Uffizi. Tourists flock to Florence every year and are immediately overwhelmed by the beauty of the Duomo. They sit on patios, sip cappuccinos and dream of the Renaissance. Then, their dream is suddenly interrupted: ‘Prego! Prego!’ A tiny Asian man approaches them with a handful of colorful scarves. He knows nothing about the Renaissance, but he also dreams—he dreams of a better life.

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