THE CITY OF Prato, in the hills of Tuscany, is as Italian as the region’s Chianti. It is also the heart of the fashion industry, where fine fabrics are made for brands such as Gucci and Armani. “Made in Italy” is still a label proudly displayed. But many of Prato’s factories are now owned, and staffed, by Chinese.
Within the 14th-century walls of Prato’s old town, Chinese tourists take snaps of the Romanesque cathedral and the picturesque castle of Frederick II, a 13th-century Holy Roman Emperor. Some Chinese call this “kung-pao-chicken tourism” because the characters for that globally popular dish, gong bao ji ding, sound like syllables in the Chinese words for palace, castle, church and town hall—the staples of any Chinese visitor’s tour of Europe.
Via Pistoiese leads north-westwards from an ancient gate into a different world: the real Prato, a city of textiles, clothing and Chinese people of a different kind. Since the 1990s Chinese have been drawn to Prato not by its medieval architecture but by the same forces that in the 1960s and 1970s brought poor migrants from southern Italy: demand for labour in the city’s factories. Prato now has one of the biggest concentrations of recent Chinese immigrants in Europe. The official population count in 2017 was nearly 20,700, almost double the number a decade earlier, but estimates vary widely because many of the residents are illegal immigrants. These days the four most common surnames in Prato are Chen, Hu, Lin and Wang.
More than 80% of Prato’s Chinese residents come from a single coastal city, Wenzhou, and its rural hinterland—a region with a long history of overseas migration and therefore a global network of kinships to which migrants can turn for support. Indeed, Wenzhou and its environs are the source of the majority of Chinese who have moved to Europe in recent years, write Loretta Baldassar, Graeme Johanson, Narelle McAuliffe and Massimo Bressan in their book, “Chinese Migration to Europe”.
Around Via Pistoiese the occasional abandoned building that was once an Italian-run factory can still be seen. Some locals have blamed the Chinese for the demise of such workshops and for pushing Italians out of work, especially after the global financial crisis in 2008. The following year the city elected its first right-wing mayor since the end of the second world war, Roberto Cenni, who had campaigned on a platform of getting tough on immigration, especially what his supporters called the “Chinese invasion”. His successor, Matteo Biffoni, elected in 2014, is from the centre-left, but he still grumbles about the Chinese in Prato. “They don’t relate to Italian people,” he says. But he says it would be wrong to try to push them out.
The arrival of Chinese factory owners and their workers has saved Prato from the fate of some places in the rich world that suffered badly as a result of competition from developing economies like China’s. Prato’s Italian-owned textile firms took a hammering (though not a fatal one) from low-cost production in China itself, not from the arrival in Prato of Chinese rivals in the same line of business.
The power of pronto
The immigrants developed a new industry known as pronto moda. This involved importing cheap fabrics, mainly from China, and turning them into fashion garments at lightning speed to keep up with fast-changing styles. Even as the number of textile firms in Prato fell from more than 9,400 to below 3,000 in the two decades to 2011, the number of clothing manufacturers more than tripled to nearly 4,400, three-quarters of which had Chinese owners. In 2015 Chinese firms accounted for more than half the value added by Prato’s textile and clothing firms, according to Tuscany’s Regional Institute for Economic Planning.
The growth of Chinese-run, Chinese-staffed industries in Prato has created a growing Chinese middle class. It includes not only the factory bosses but owners of the shops, restaurants, hairdressers and travel agents that line the streets of Prato’s Chinese district. But many of its members feel settled in Italy only up to a point.
In her forthcoming book, “Tight Knit: Global Families and the Social Life of Fast Fashion”, Elizabeth Krause notes that half of the children born in Prato since 2009 have been foreign, yet many of those whose parents are Chinese are sent to China for schooling, even though they would be entitled to free education in Italy. Ms Krause calls this “a strategy of keeping options open”. Cultural bonds, and the growing wealth of the motherland, are powerful forces to pull them back.