China in My Suburbs
I timidly tiptoe after Ling Ling. The small black-haired Chinese girl approaches tall metal gates and calls out in a sharp voice sounds of a language not familiar to me, so foreign to the ear that they seem only an accidental mix of vowels and consonants. Someone answers from the other side and the heavy gates slide to the side. Ling Ling tells me to wait and promptly talks to a middle aged Chinese man, who keeps angrily glancing to my side. Ling Ling waves her hand – I can come in.
I am not really familiar with this second-generation Chinese girl from Prato, but she agreed to take me to a leather handbag factory, which is hidden deep in the industry zone between Florence and Prato.
The Chinese man Jonny announces he wants to have a look into my bag and threatens not to take pictures, not to film and not to disturb the employees. At the same time he adds something angrily in his own language. While he is muttering under his nose, a group of small Chinese children appears and they confusedly look at the stranger who wandered in. In the meantime, I and Ling Ling enter a huge hangar…
Ling Ling warns me that her countrymen who work and live in the hangar can be unfriendly – white people are not welcome. Inside I do not feel like I stopped by to look around someone’s workplace, but like I invaded a most private and secret space, vigilantly hidden from the eyes of passers-by… A strange feeling takes over, a mix of horror, surprise, guilt and compassion. Is this that great and powerful China? Thousands of years of history, art, philosophy and medicine?
The Italian actor and director Roberto Benigni once joked that the Venetian merchant and traveller Marco Polo never took the Silk Road to China and never met the Great Khan – it was enough for him to go the Florence and Prato industrial zone (Italians say that “la Cina è vicina”, i.e. China is nearby). Why? According to official data, approximately 200 thousand Italians and about 13 000 Chinese people live in Prato. However everyone also knows the unofficial statistics, according to which there are about ten times more Chinese people in the city of Prato and its district. The Chinese community of this city is the biggest in Italy and third according to size in Europe after Paris and London.
It is said that most Chinese emigrants arrived from the Zhejiang province in the South of China, especially from the town of Wenzhou. This is exactly the same place from which a century ago the first Chinese emigrant groups reached Europe. Chinese people first settled in France, in which they took over from the French factory workers who set out to the war front of the IWW. The war coming to an end and lacking workforce, about 140 thousand Chinese people were employed in the Western front in the so-called Chinese Labour divisions, and sent back to China when the war was over. Another part of Chinese people remained in France and formed the first Chinese emigrant community in Europe.
Meanwhile, the big emigration boom in the city of Prato happened a lot later – just at the end of the 20th century. This time it was not only men who came to Europe in search of a better life, but women and children as well, whole families and their relatives. The part of Prato populated by the Chinese was eventually named “Chinatown” by the locals, as it is usually named in almost every city that has a larger Chinese community.
Prato has always been well known for its textile and leather products, almost a third of Italy’s textiles is produced here, for the most famous companies too. And none other but the Chinese work in those factories. It is said that in the industrial zone between Florence and Prato 3200 large and small Chinese factories can be found, in which almost everything is produced – from clothing and shoes to accessories, household items and various junk. Materials needed for production are imported by the factory owners from China, so maintaining not only the lowest cost of the product, but the quality as well.
The huge hangar is divided by partitions into separate spaces. In some of them – leather scraps and other materials for making handbags are piled into huge loads. In others – the already finished goods bulge in crumpled boxes and black bags that pungently stink of plastic. In the third ones, alongside specialized equipment, furious work is taking place, small black-haired Chinese women raise their eyes from their work for only a second. Pale neon lamps hang over their heads, rubbish tossed around their feet. We approach a section in which a sharp rice, soy sauce, boiled Chinese cabbage and an unfamiliar unctuous smell lingers. Yes, here the factory workers live. Here also live the children I saw playing before. In these fabric-covered “rooms” are hidden the crumbs of the lives of these Chinese labourers.
Ling Ling, noticing my confused look, shrugs and gloomily smiles. Yes, we can find China right next to us – it is different, unfamiliar and scary. I feel a lot of hostility towards China, the Chinese and their culture from my friends and acquaintances. Almost none of them remember that China is not only some emigrants talking in a foreign language, spending their days in a factory. Almost none remember that China is first and foremost a country through which stretches the Great Wall of China, where the terracotta Chi Shi Huang warriors are slumbering, where in the Xi’an city the Silk Road began, the Yangtze River squirms, where the magical Zhangjiajie mountain peaks rise to the sky, the never ending rice terraces stretch and the brightly green tea leaves bloom. This is the China I want to see and know, this is the Great China I want to write about the next time.