The New Wave of Globalization Made in Italy at Chinese Prices

The next stage of globalization is in full swing in Prato, once the center of the Italian textile industry. After the city lost jobs to factories in the Far East, now the Chinese and their low-wage workers are encroaching on Old Europe.


Prato's old city wall is wrapped around the city like a tightly cinched belt. The pale brick wall, 15 meters (49 feet) tall and topped with battlements, encloses the city's marble cathedral, baroque churches and palaces while a river gushes beneath ancient bridges built by the Etruscans. Built in the Middle Ages, the wall once protected Prato from outsiders. Today it's little more than a picturesque backdrop.

Outsiders have long since made their way into Prato, Italy's textile-making capital in the heart of Tuscany. Luigi, a 30-year-old man with a boyish face, waits in the shadow of the wall, his black hair gelled into spikes, a constantly ringing mobile phone in his hand. Luigi is a Chinese businessman from Wenzhou. He calls himself Luigi because it's easier for Italians to remember. Practically every pizza maker in Italy is named Luigi, he says. He prefers not to reveal his real, Chinese name. It would be bad for business. The Chinese Luigi wants to keep his story a secret in Prato.

It's Sunday, an ordinary work day for the Chinese. Luigi hurries through a gate in the wall, walks down a narrow street through his neighborhood, passing the Square of the White Stone and the Palace of the Rising Moon. The names are Luigi's inventions and his way of familiarizing himself with the city more quickly. When asked what his goal is, he says: "to get rich as quickly as possible." And when asked what he calls home, he answers: "the whole world, but my heart beats for China."

The new home of 2,000 Chinese entrepreneurs and an army of low-wage workers, 25,000 strong, is growing rapidly in front of the walls of this small city of 180,000. One in five of the workers is undocumented and, officially at least, isn't even here. Meanwhile Prato's citizens look on and curse their new neighbors as sewing machines rattle through the night.

The houses in Luigi's Prato, outside the wall, are decorated with red lanterns and neon signs emblazoned with Chinese characters that might as well be secret codes. The residents of Luigi's street, Via Pistoiese, are almost exclusively Chinese. They wear blue blouses and flip-flops and have spiky angular haircuts. They have little reason to be homesick because-- after all, they have built their own miniature version of China here, one of Europe's most dynamic Chinese colonies.

They wait in line at money transfer offices and peruse job listings flickering across digital display panels. In their supermarkets, they squat between rows of good luck charms and frozen duck tongues, smoke under "No Smoking" signs in restaurants with names like "Hong Kong," blow their noses, spit onto the ground and flick their cigarette butts into the street. Non-Chinese are barred from their gaming halls and Internet cafes, where the windows are covered with layers of dark film. Global time clocks hang on the walls, a constant reminder that China is seven hours ahead.

In the evening, when the sun sinks behind the Apennine Mountains, the streets are empty and the courtyard factory buildings are bathed in neon light. Chinese workers now sit -- in seats occupied in the early 20th century by Italians who worked the looms and fought for workers' rights and unions and gave Europe's leading textile center its reputation -- in front of Juki sewing machines, their backs straight, working silently and industriously into the night, every night. Laoban, the foreman, supervises their work while carts deliver bolts of material and spools of "Made in Italy" labels. The sound of Chinese pop songs drifts softly through the windows.

"St. Beijing"

Prato's residents call the immigrant neighborhood, which has grown rapidly in the last five or six years in an area once inhabited by local factory workers, "San Pechino," or St. Beijing. When the first Chinese, their suitcases filled with cash, arrived in the early 1990s and leased their factories, the Italians laughed at them. But now that their numbers have quadrupled and they own a quarter of the city's textile businesses, where they make "Made in Italy" fashion at "Made in China" prices -- often illegally -- the newspapers are full of op-ed pieces about the "yellow invasion," low-wage competition and the Chinese mafia. The president of the city's chamber of commerce, who also happens to own a textile business, says: "We underestimated them. What they're doing here is called unfair competition. We need a battalion, an operation like the one in Iraq, to keep them under control."

Prato's residents are now frantically asking themselves questions to which they have no answers. Who are these Chinese? What is their objective?

The Chinese Luigi points to an unassuming apartment building where he lives with his wife, who is also Chinese. The couple sent its four-year-old daughter to her grandparents in China to learn the language and the culture -- and so that her parents can work even more. Luigi walks into a bar, its walls covered with wallpaper depicting photographed scenes of the skyline of Wenzhou, his hometown. He tells the story, quickly and soberly, of how he came to his adopted neighborhood. One of his favorite sayings is: "Success requires sacrifice."

It was the summer of 1993 and Luigi was 17. The Europeans and the Chinese were just beginning to open up their sweatshops in southern China's Pearl River delta region. But working there wasn't for Luigi, who wanted to be free and his own boss -- and was determined to be successful. He went to Italy illegally, as a "clandestino." His parents, a teacher and an office worker, put him on a ship in Shanghai. A "snakehead," a term used to describe a middleman working for a human trafficking operation, met him in Singapore. Together with 11 other Chinese, Luigi flew to the Romanian capital, Bucharest, and from there traveled by bus across the war-torn Balkans. They were shot at in Belgrade and some were arrested in Zagreb. After a two-month odyssey, Luigi finally made it to Italy after wading across a river at the Slovenian border. The remainder of the group didn't make it. At a rest stop, he called his uncle in Prato who brought him to a factory there.

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