I’ve been in Prato, Italy for three days now, and am happily adjusting to the abundant sun and the slower pace of life. I spent last week in London and had a blast zipping about the city, riding the Tube everywhere and exploring the city’s Chinese community (more on this later). But I did this all while bundled up in layers and frequently through the rain; even a romantic mist can wear you down after a while.
Here in Prato, a Tuscan town about a half hour’s train ride from Florence, palm trees stand beside white stucco houses topped with orange roofs. Church bells chime throughout the day and no one, it seems, is in a rush. From one to three o’clock each afternoon, businesses shut their doors and everyone goes home for a leisurely lunch.
Well, not quite everyone; the Chinese in Prato keep working.
I’d read a lot about the Chinese in Prato, who’ve made headlines in recent years for the success they’ve had in the pronto moda – fast fashion – business. But still I’ve been astounded by just how many Chinese people are here.
Walking down Via Pistoiese, the long, narrow street that forms the central artery of Prato’s Chinatown, I discovered that most of the people on the streets and in the shops are Chinese. Wenzhounese is the language most commonly heard, while Mandarin is second and Italian a distant third. Of Prato’s 200,000 residents, about 40,000 are Chinese; one-fifth of the city’s population is Chinese.
Stretching northwest from Porta Pistoiese, a 14th-century stone gate that demarcates the edge of the old city, Via Pistoiese doesn’t at first look too different from other streets in Prato. But nearly all the store signs feature Chinese, and the shops lining the street offer just about every product and service that Chinese immigrants may need: Wenzhou-style food, fashions plucked from Shanghai (some of the Chinese here favor the all-black look you might recognize from mafia or triad movies), hair salons, graphic design services, traditional Chinese medicine, mobile phones and electronics, Chinese groceries, wedding photography studios and Chinese classes for children.
The Chinese neighborhood – some locals describe it as a ghetto – is growing, and some Chinese have also started to settle in other areas in Prato. Especially troubling to many Italians is the fact that Chinese businesses have set up shop in the center of the old town as Italian-owned businesses have shut down or moved away. Some of these endeavors, like the cafes, cater to Italian as well as Chinese customers. But others, such as the clothing stores, exclusively target the local Chinese.
Say the name “Prato” in Italy, one Pratese told me, and it’s now synonymous with Chinatown.