Chinese laborers, first a few immigrants, then tens of thousands, began settling in Prato [a city outside of Florence] in the late 1980s. They transformed the textile hub into a low-end garment manufacturing capital — enriching many, stoking resentment and prompting recent crackdowns that in turn have brought cries of bigotry and hypocrisy.
The city is now home to the largest concentration of Chinese in Europe — some legal, many more not. Here in the heart of Tuscany, Chinese laborers work round the clock in some 3,200 businesses making low-end clothes, shoes and accessories, often with materials imported from China, for sale at midprice and low-end retailers worldwide.
It is a “Made in Italy” problem: Enabled by Italy’s weak institutions and high tolerance for rule-bending, the Chinese have blurred the line between “Made in China” and “Made in Italy,” undermining Italy’s cachet and ability to market its goods exclusively as high end.
Part of the resentment is cultural: The city’s classic Italian feel is giving way to that of a Chinatown, with signs in Italian and Chinese, and groceries that sell food imported from China.
But what seems to gall some Italians most is that the Chinese are beating them at their own game — tax evasion and brilliant ways of navigating Italy’s notoriously complex bureaucracy — and have created a thriving, if largely underground, new sector while many Prato businesses have gone under. The result is a toxic combination of residual fears about immigration and the economy.
--Rachel Donadio, NYT, on becoming more Italian than the Italians