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Chinese Immigration, European Crisis And A Visit To Wenzhou's Little Italy

Chinese have set out en masse in recent years to find their fortune as immigrants in Europe. Lately, though, more than usual are returning home in the face of Europe's economic crisis and opportunities in their booming native land. In Wenzhou, the tale comes with an Italian twist.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Ordering Italian in China (Harald Graven)

WENZHOU - Looking at the data, more than 90% of the Chinese who have immigrated to Italy in recent years came from in and around Wenzhou. Around 2.5 million people live in this southern Chinese city in the region of Zhejiang, and some 9 million people live in its county. In some places, such as the town of Qingtian, more than 60% of the population has emigrated to different parts of Europe.

But the most recent numbers show a new trend: due to the crisis hitting the euro zone, many Chinese immigrants have decided to go back home, bringing along a piece of Europe.

That, of course, means a whiff of Italy is settling in China as well. For some it is just a matter of better clothes, but many former immigrants clearly miss other aspects of Europe. Newly opened stores in Wenzhou have European-sounding names such as Genio La Mode, or La Féta.

Italian bars and restaurants in Wenzhou are different from those you find in other Chinese cities. They don’t look like the posh clubs packed with foreigners in Beijing and Shanghai. They are not fashionable, and might actually fit in on a typical street back in an average Italian town. Caffè Ally sells Illy coffee products. The owners of the restaurant 0039, named after the Italian international area code, learned everything about Italian cooking from Wang, who works as a cook in Ostia, a seaside town near Rome. He came back to China to help launch the restaurant, but he will return to Italy soon.

Wang came out with the name for the restaurant because, he says, “my wife is in Italy with our child who was born in Ostia and has no affinity for China. To call them, I have to dial the area code 0039, which is the number closest to my heart right now.”

The restaurant serves typical Italian dishes, with the pasta cooked “al dente,” and as tasty as if an Italian chef had cooked them. Wang wears a white uniform with a little ribbon with an Italian flag. The same Italian flag waves outside of 0039, which is managed by Chinese people. Customers of 0039 and of Napoli, another Italian restaurant in town, are all Chinese too. They eat Italian food in the Chinese manner, placing all the plates at the center of the table and sharing them. There are plenty of pizzerias, and even a Piazza Rome, which is at the heart of the Europe City mall.

Wenzhou is a typically chaotic Chinese city, with stores that open and close nonstop, and dozens of Catholic and Protestant churches, due to the historically large Christian presence here.

Italian is "easier" than French

Along the main street that leads to the train station, Chezhan Dadao, there are several wine shops that sell Champagne and Cognac, imported by the returning immigrants from France. Song Xiaohu, the owner of Barolo, a store that organizes Italian wine tastings , says that “for many Chinese, everything about Italy is more accessible and genuine. Italian cooking, for example, does not require long and difficult preparations, so it is more approachable than French cooking. It is the same with the wine. French wines are good, but Italian wines are easier. Now, at weddings or birthdays, every Chinese who wants to make a good impression serves wine to his guests.”

Song wears a necklace with a golden cross, says “Oh, Madonna!” and moves his hands when he speaks, like a real Italian. He has lived at different times in Rome, Milan, Trieste, Udine, and Brunico, where he opened the Tay Yan restaurant -- that serves Chinese, of course.

After 27 years in Italy, he saved enough money to go back to Wenzhou. “But at the beginning, I was illegal,” he proudly says of his early days in Italy. He did all kinds of spare jobs.

“I see myself as half-Italian,” he says. “There, the food is better, the air is cleaner, and the cities are more beautiful. Sometimes, people would tell me, "go back to China." But I didn’t give a damn,” Song adds laughing.

Still, in the end, he says that for him in China, “the moon will always be rounder, and the water sweeter.”

Song is drinking a cappuccino at the bar called The Dainty with his son Song Bing, and his wife Giovanna, who works in a fashion store. They all decided to come back to China for good. “The Italian economy got a cold," he quips. "But you will get better soon, because this is painful for everyone.” 

Everyone in the Song family works in commerce. Today they deal in clothes and wine but previously traded cars, shoes, and anything else possible. The family keeps drinking cappuccino until late at night, with they cellphone ringing all the time, working on different businesses.

Some of the people who went back to China now hold an Italian passport, despite the complications it can cause when they want to obtain Chinese visas. It is obvious that people like Wang the cook or Cao Danti, whose son still lives in Italy, miss the bel paese.

Cao recently founded a new social club called Chiacchiere Aperte (Open Chatting), with other lovers of Italy who gather once a month to talk about their common experiences, and of course, to share an authentic plate of pasta.

Read more from La Stampa in Italian

Photo - Harald Graven

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