The history of Chinese migration isn’t nearly as old as the culture itself. Free exploration of the world has only been available since the 1860 Treaty of Peking opened China’s borders. In the 148 years since, Chinese migrants have seen the world – from Asia to the West Coast of the United States and beyond. Their settlements in urban environments are burrowed for survival and self-sufficient based on trade goods. By staying so close together, the Chinese are able to establish their own businesses, import Chinese products, and maintain their own language and customs. Mostly ignored by American and Asian cities throughout history as “overcrowded ethnic ghettos,” the Chinese living in these communities were, in some cases, able to self-govern. Many of them have their own councils and cultural committees. Festivals are kept alive and well as the elderly practice tai chi meditation in cobblestone parks. Community problems are often solved internally.
-image courtesy of Occidentalism.org
Today, the Chinese fight to co-exist in Italy, a country that is not welcoming their particular ways. As the International Herald Tribune puts it, there’s a “pushcart war” going on in Milan, and it’s cultivating some frightening language:
“This used to be a Milanese neighborhood with stores to buy thread, bread, electrical things – the kind of stores neighborhoods have,” said Corrado Borrelli, a business consultant and longtime resident of the neighborhood that centers around a street named after Paolo Sarpi, a 16th-century statesman. “It’s not just about the carts. The Chinese have taken over the neighborhood, they have stolen spaces from Italians, but they haven’t developed relationships with the residents.”
“They shop at their own stores – their culture closes them off,” he added. “And there are small things, like they speak too loudly.” -from The International Herald Tribune
Chinatowns are not as common in Europe. Historically, these settlements have been met with cultural resistance. In London, anti-Chinese literature was popular in the late 19th century. Many villianous characters in fiction novels, including Sherlock Holmes, were described with Chinese features. Scorned for their involvment in the Opium trade, the Chinese were painted as rapists and theives throughout Europe and society was warned to be cautious.
Italy’s government has made it clear that they want the Chinese to leave their cities. Italian officials have stopped allowing imported materials from China at its harbors – effectively squeezing the life out of these communities. It’s causing a major crisis in Tuscany, where the upscale textile industry has complained to the government that Chinese clotheirs, who make products for much cheaper, are a threat to Italian businesses. Taking away Chinatown’s long-standing tradition of trade-based local business is steering Chinese youth to involve themselves in drug dealing and other black market operations.
BBC News Reports: Professor Antonella Ceccagno is director of Prato’s immigration centre where staff are still trying to get to grips with the effects of the economic turn-down. “This is a very new situation – just two months ago when we talked about the situation of the Chinese in Italy there was no crisis,” she says. “It arrived all of a sudden”.
She says that many Chinese immigrants in Prato may now have to look outside Italy to find work. “The Chinese migrants perceive Europe as a chessboard where they move freely. They go from country to country looking for opportunities,” she says.
The right-leaning governments that dominate Italian municipalities have been employing some ethically questionable methods of dealing with immigrants. Milan’s Mayor Leitizia Moratti launched an anti-immigrant based criminal crack down in March of 2007 involving vigilante patrols to monitor gypsy and other non-Italian settlements. The unfriendly environment has stirred severe tension between the Chinese and the Italians – even leading to a full-on racial riot in Milan that started over a parking ticket.
The Guardian reports: It started with an everyday dispute over a parking fine when two traffic wardens stopped Ruowei Bu unloading shoes into her shop in the heart of Milan’s Chinatown. What happened next is not clear. The wardens say Bu pushed at them, locals claim the wardens struck her toddler. What is certain is that the standoff triggered Italy’s first major ethnic riot, an all-day running battle between around 300 Chinese flag-waving residents and baton-wielding police which left cars overturned, 14 policemen injured and prompted worried questions from the Chinese government.
It is interesting to note that emigrants from both cultures have experienced racial oppression while trying to settle in foreign communities. Maybe this is where they should start talking – a bond of historical struggle. With the Chinese economy and population expanding more and more into free market trading, will the world see a massive distribution of Chinese immigration? Will the Chinese, whose social culture looks inward, be welcome in places like Italy, with an extremely outward social perspective?