Written by Claire Ping & Camilla Casale, under the supervision of Dr. Gaoheng Zhang.

A steady flow of migration between Italy and China has increased in the last few decades. Chinese immigration to Italy was typically described in the media in negative terms, particularly as many Chinese went there to work in the garment sector. In cities like Prato, Chinese workers and local factories were perceived to face a strong competition. This has caused tensions to arise between the two communities. Yet a new chapter of this cohabitation began as children of second- and third-generation born and raised in Italy started to reach out for a better understanding between the Chinese community and the Italian locals. In a parallel situation, many young Italians have recently chosen to move to big Chinese cities in order to boost their cultural understanding of the country, or to pursue new work experiences in this vast new economy.

History of Migration flows between Italy and China
The Chinese flow

Chinese migration to Italy dates back to the early-20th century and Italy is currently one of the most popular destinations in Europe for Chinese migrants. Chinese migrants first arrived in Italy in the 1920s and the numbers accumulated in the 1960s and 1970s. A larger influx of Chinese migrants occurred in the 1980s and 1990s to work in the garment manufacturing industry. Since then, the number of Chinese migrants in Italy has increased drastically. The gender ratio and number of children began to stabilize as more families joined male migrants. The Italian Institute of Statistics reported 209,934 PRC (People’s Republic of China) citizens living in Italy as of 2011; however, this number was far from reflecting the true number of ethnic Chinese in Italy given the presence of illegal migrants and second-generation Chinese. In fact, there is currently an estimated number of 50,000 Chinese migrants residing in Italy. The largest numbers of migrants are concentrated in Milan, Rome and Prato. An overwhelming percentage originated from Wenzhou and its surrounding counties in Zhejiang province in China. Meanwhile, most of them are employed in leather work, catering, or garment manufacturing.

Economic stagnation and the global financial crisis in the 2000s led to escalating conflict between the local population and Chinese migrants. During this period, Italian natives began to see Chinese migrants as ethnic entrepreneurs who profited at the cost of the Italian economy. Instead of engaging merely in productive labor, a number of Chinese migrants slowly moved into the status of ethnic entrepreneurs. They made use of personal relations within the ethnic community to broaden economic profits. The more established of these entrepreneurs have managed to take control of the entire production chain in the pronto moda (fast fashion or “ready-to-wear” garment) business, from the importation of materials in China to manufacturing in Italy. Prior to the 2000s, most pronto moda firms were owned by Italians who outsourced production to Chinese workshops; however, since the 2000s, Chinese migrants slowly began to establish their own firms. Chinese pronto moda businesses are overwhelmingly located in the historic textile town of Prato, with around 100 firms established as early as 2003.

Prato is currently a center of conflict between Chinese migrants and Italian locals. The supposed Chinese intrusion into an industry that is traditionally considered an Italian pride has alarmed native Italians, who often accuse migrant entrepreneurs for illegal business practices such as tax evasion. Conflicts and protests have broken out in the town of Prato. Story of My People by Edoardo Nesi, who was forced to sell his generations-old family garment business based in Prato, brings attention to the crisis facing the Italian textile and garment industry and the resentment it created towards the Chinese migrant community. Nesi’s book is the first work of nonfiction to receive Italy’s Strega Prize, a prestigious literary award. According to The New York Times, Nesi’s book “has clearly tugged at Italy’s heart.”

The emerging Italian migration to China

Official relations between China and Italy began on the 6th of November 1970, as Italy recognized the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, thus shifting and breaking ties with the government of the Republic of China in Taiwan. Regardless of this fact though strict conditions were imposed on the communication between the two countries as Italy had to request approval from the United States when dealing with trade with China. In 1978, China officially opened its doors to western businesses that wished to enter the Chinese market, in order to modernize and boost the economy. Special economic zones were set up in Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Guangdong, Xiamen and Fujian in order to welcome foreign presence, as these cities had the privilege of low taxation to facilitate the incoming foreign collaboration into the economy. Ever since then, China’s positioning on the economical ranks has surpassed any other foreign power and continues to grow to this day.

Inevitably, the favorable view on trade has in the recent years attracted many new Italian expats (mostly without families and coming out of university), as the AIRE (Registry of Italian Residents Abroad) has recorded a record of 6.746 new Italians who officially declared their residency in China in 2013, doubling the rate of 2006. These expats move to either start and expand their business or to find rewarding careers in one of the world’s leading economies, as the economic crisis still impacts Italy in a significant way to this day. Indeed, this is proven by the fact that most of these young expats tend to crowd around the economically strong regions of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. Research around this recent phenomenon has been published in the Italian book “Sulle orme di Marco polo: Italiani in Cina” (In the footsteps of Marco Polo: Italians in China) which explores the increasing flow of Italians moving to China.

While the primary reasons that push most Italians to move relies on the economic and working opportunities, many also move to China to either learn the language or increase their cultural understanding of the country through university programs and opportunities, which have been targeting young Westerners in recent years. Examples that demonstrate the increasing collaboration between the two countries regarding research collaboration include the Polytechnic University of Milan that has signed a bilateral agreement with Tongji University of Shanghai for various graduate programs and the new Sino-Italian Environmental-saving Building that was completed on June 8th 2006 at Tsinghua university, which was fully backed by both countries governments.

Representation of the diaspora in film and other creative works

In recent years, a number of creative works have explored the tension between Chinese migrants and the local Italian community. Sergio Basso’s documentary film Thriller in Milan (2009) tells the story of a Chinese youth named Longxing who arrived in Italy as an illegal immigrant. The tale, filled with adventures and even a murder case, reinforces the image of the typical Chinese worker in Italy. Other works such as Andrea Segre’s film Shun Li and the Poet and Yang Xiaping’s novel Like Two Butterflies Flying on the Great Wall also focus on conflicts surrounding Chinese migration in Italy.  Segre’s film tells the story of Shun Li, a Chinese migrant woman who struggle to bring her son to Italy, and Slavic fisherman Bepi. The film follows the two as their peculiar friendship lead to disruptions in the communities of Chioggia, an island town where the story is set. Films and novels that focus on the Chinese migrant community in Italy often reveal common stereotypes held against Chinese migrants, ranging from their occasionally illegal status to their work in factors or the catering services.

As mentioned earlier, Chinese migration to Italy– legal and illegal – has increased since the 1980s. Middle-class migrants would typically be employed as a laborer in garment factories or server in the catering services. A number of migrants would move on to become ethnic entrepreneurs. Following the economic crisis of the 2000s, Chinese migrants were increasingly able to set up their own pronto moda business chains while Italian firms closed down. This led to increasing resentment against Chinese migrants within the local community, particularly in areas where Chinese communities are concentrated. Such tensions are captured in literary and cinematic works produced in recent years.

Stories of Italians in China

Particularly since the 2000s, China’s economic, cultural and touristic exchanges with Italy and the rest of the world accelerated. Regardless of the cultural shift in today’s China, a fascination and eagerness to explore the country still remains with many ordinary Italians who decide to go and live in the country. Throughout the years, many migrants have published in Italy stories of their life in China. Examples include the graphic novel Ciao mamma, vado in Cina!: un anno in una scuola cinese, adottati da una famiglia cinese (Bye Mum, I’m going to China!: A year in a Chinese school, adopted by a Chinese family), Prezzemolo & Cilantro: Storie di donne italiane in Cina (Parsley & Coriander: Life in China with Italian flavor) and Pechino Bassano del Grappa: Storia di una famiglia italiana in Cina nella prima metà del ventesimo secolo (Beijing, Bassano del Grappa: Story of an Italian family in China in the first half of the twentieth century).

Each story explains the cultural differences between Italy and China and the difficulties encountered in new countries. The authors often strive to break down barriers that could stop people from exploring the country. Such is the case of Antonella Moretti that has written her experience in her book “Parsley & Coriander.” In a successful blog (http://www.cucinanto.com/), she explains the hardships of daily life, ranging from shopping for imported goods from Italy and dealing with high rents and prices of the city, to giving birth at a local hospital in Suzhou where no doctors could communicate in English. Regardless of the potential frightening experiences the author often reminds the reader of her choice in following her husband to China and not regretting the family that she has established there. Similarly, the stories of adolescents who were temporarily adopted in Chinese families while enrolled in a local high school in the graphic novel “Bye Mum I’m going to China!” shows the reader from an insider’s point of view the manner in which Chinese society has been evolving throughout the decades as observed through the generational divide seen between children and their parents. Other important themes, which are widely discussed in the stories of these young adults, include differences in educational expectations, the role of the older generation in Chinese society, and the diverse ways friendship is expressed in the two cultures. Overall, an issue of individualistic lifestyle versus a culture that emphasizes the “group” is certainly one of the main divergent points that are observed in this graphic novel.

Regardless, just by scrolling through the numerous titles of novels written about Italian life in China, it becomes increasingly apparent that even after many centuries since the explorer Marco Polo first arrived in China, a curiosity which seeks out a different way of life continues to push Italians to explore the country and the different cultural aspects it has to offer to the Western world.


Sources and further reading:

Andrews, Fred. “In ‘Story of My People,’ Recalling an Industry (and Way of Life).” The NewYork Times. August 10, 2013. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/11/business/in-story-of-my-people-recalling-an-industry-and-way-of-life.html?mcubz=1)

Boncori, Ilaria. Expatriates in China: Experiences, Opportunities and Challenges. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Ceccagno, Antonella (2003). “New Chinese Migrants in Italy.” International Migration 41(3): 187-213. (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/doi/10.1111/1468-2435.00246/abstract)

Chang, Angela (2012). “20th Century Chinese Migration to Italy: the Chinese Diaspora Presence within European International Migration.” History Compass 10(2): 179-190.(http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1478-0542.2011.00833.x/abstract)

“Italy’s biggest Chinese community clashes with police near Florence.” The Guardian. July 2, 2016. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/02/italys-biggest-chinese-community-clashes-with-police-near-florence)

“Migrantes: circa 7000 gli italiani in Cina.” ABM. http://www.bellunesinelmondo.it/migrantes-circa-7000-gli-italiani-in-cina/.

Orlando, Sandro. “Cina, la nuova terra promessa degli italiani.” L’Espresso, July 21, 2014. http://espresso.repubblica.it/plus/articoli/2014/07/21/news/cina-la-nuova-terra-promessa-degli-italiani-1.173976.

“Sino-Italian Tsinghua Environment and Energy-efficient Building.” University Design Consortium. https://universitydesign.asu.edu/db/sino-italian-tsinghua-environment-and-energy-efficient-building.

Vincenzo, Giovanni Di, Fabio Marcelli, and Maria Francesca Staiano. Sulle orme di Marco Polo: italiani in Cina. Todi: Tau, 2014.

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