Chinese Immigrants Finding Their Digs In Italian Textile Town of Prato

The city of Prato in Tuscany is warming up to its Chinese population. Little by little, Chinese immigrants have taken over the low-end garment industry and adapted to the Italian way of business.

Chinese New Year in Prato (Flavio Casadei Della Chiesa)
Chinese New Year in Prato (Flavio Casadei Della Chiesa)
Marco Alfieri

PRATO - For the first time, in the city of Prato, in central Italy, a Chinese businessman, Wang Li Ping, has just been named deputy president of the Cna, the local association that represents small business owners.

Anselmo Potenza is the president of the Cna. Around his warehouse, the buildings that once housed Italian weavers are today all owned by people of Chinese descent. They possess restaurants, grocery stores, cafes, hairdressers, jewelry stores, but mostly low-end garment factories which produce more than one million items of clothing a day. T-shirts are sold for around three euros, shirts and jeans are sold for around six euros. Prato's Chinese business owners control every single step of the production: from importing the fabrics, cutting, stitching, dyeing, to the sale. Black-market and undocumented and exploited workers are often part of the process too.

The small businesses organization did not elect Li Ping just to send a message. "Years ago we already had a Moroccan lady as deputy president," explains Potenza. "We have around 3,000 businesses in our association, and around 50 of them are Chinese," he adds.

Fifty-four-year-old Wang Li Ping has been in Prato for 22 years. "Chinese businessmen and the Cna are working together to eradicate illicit work," says Wang, "Laws must be respected, Chinese workers must be documented, and to insure this, we have to use the carrot and stick method," he says.

Integration and business opportunities

There are already some results. "When police checked 15 companies which are members of our association, they found that 13 of them were operating within the law," he states proudly. Some Chinese businessmen have started to buy local fabric instead of importing it; others are involved in a plan to improve and save the fashion district. Wang is putting together a group to consult the Chinese community on taxation, laws and bureaucracy. His goal is to associate Cna to another 150 Chinese-owned small businesses. Two worlds that up to now have been apart - the Italian textile industry and the Chinese tailoring sector - are coming closer.

Claudio Bettazzi, Cna's deputy president in charge of legal issues, works side by side with Wang. His wife works at a Chinese company. "Look at these pictures, even my son has Chinese friends, he says. It's not only business and children. Few days ago, at the town festival, there were several mixed couples on the dance floor. The integration is happening gradually".

"Obviously not all 4,000 Chinese companies in Prato will survive, but we are helping them become legal," says Potenza. "It's the only way to make them understand that paying taxes and respecting the rules is the best way to develop their business," he adds.

Prato has 190,000 inhabitants, 40,000 of whom are Chinese. There are still social issues and unfair competition. But even for the industry association Confindustria things are changing.

People are starting to see the commercial opportunities too. "We are the only ones who can build a bridge between China and local small businesses," says Wang. Tourism is an opportunity too. Relatives of the Chinese immigrants come to Prato to visit them. They buy at the local stores, drink the local wine, and sleep in the local hotels. The relationship can be perfected, but something is improving. "We are not missionaries, this is the only way to develop business opportunities," says Potenza.

Read more from La Stampa in Italian.

Photo - Flavio Casadei Della Chiesa

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