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    Immigrants Bring China to Italy ... 7042.story

    Chinese immigrants to Italy build no ordinary Chinatown

    The Tribune's Christine Spolar explores how Chinese workers are transforming Italy's fashion industry. Says a son of immigrants in the Tuscan city of Prato: 'This is not like being in Chinatown in Chicago or New York or anywhere else. This is like China.'

    By Christine Spolar
    Tribune correspondent
    5:52 PM CST, January 1, 2009
    PRATO, Italy

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

    Signs in Chinese script hang from wrought-iron balconies in this Tuscan city. Hot dumplings and fried fish—flown in from China—are served in cafes. Chinese men and women, tourist visas in pocket, hang out on street corners in the center of town angling for jobs. Not a one speaks Italian.

    Dozens of Chinese jam up to a wall filled with taped notes, all written in Chinese. Job offers are plentiful if brutal by Italian standards. Seamstresses can earn 90 euro cents a dress—about $1.50—if they work all night in small workshops. A man can earn up to 500 euros a month—$700—if he works all his waking hours.

    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.

    Frattani has overseen immigrant outreach since 2002 and, since then, Italy has realized a dramatic rise in Chinese labor, he said. Prato has seen a particular surge.

    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.

    Large-scale warehouses line the motorway leading to Prato's historic center. One warehouse—shown to a Tribune correspondent on condition that its name not be revealed—opened a door to another continent.

    Inside a vast storeroom of cotton sweat pants, skirt and blouses, a Chinese seamstress operated a high-speed Japanese-made Juki sewing machine. Nearby, a Chinese man lorded over thick layers of jersey cloth with massive electric shears. With every buzz, he created sleeves, pant legs and bodices for Chinese men waiting with open arms.

    They ran the pieces over to a red Fiat, trunk open and motor running. A Chinese driver soon revved the packed car away. She'd return in hours with clothes sewn by women closeted in nearby houses.

    That visit was a snapshot of a pure Chinese work ethic. There are grimmer images.

    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.

    Authorities worry about potential dangers: Criminal networks can prey on outsiders who don't speak the native language — and Italy is a place where mafias already operate.

    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.

    Tensions can erupt. In Milan, home to generations of Chinese, riots broke out last year after police ticketed some Chinese traders who tried to turn Via Sarpi, a street known for shoe shops, into a wholesale district with near non-stop deliveries. The city eventually restricted deliveries to two hours a day.

    Dongke Mo, who heads the Italian Chinese Association in Prato, said his storefront office is a haven for Chinese workers. They struggle with harsh work demands, he said, and they cope with repeated document raids by Italy's finance police.

    "In America, you absorb immigrants. In Italy, the Chinese are looked on as labor," Mo said.

    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…

    "The Chinese know: Distribution is key.… This is the way to distribute all over Europe," he said.

    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.

    In Prato, in Milan and in Le Marche, such revelations triggered shrugs and smiles. The program told Italian and Chinese businessmen what they already knew. Chinese workers keep "Made-in-Italy" fashion afloat.

    "In official factories, everyone has to have a certain amount of space and work a certain amount of hours. Well, if you follow those rules, costs will keep you out of the market," said Luigi Sun, owner of Uniontrade, a Milan-based importer of Japanese and Chinese food, and a respected figure in the older Chinese community.

    "If you are in the garment businesses here—and I don't care who you are—sooner or later, you will have to work with the Chinese," he said. "Prato is just an extraordinary example."

    Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune
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  2. #2
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    Jul 2008
    Kind of sounds like every city and every industry in the US.
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