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.
Prato’s streets have slowly become more and more Chinese, as the Chinese have bought out Italian-owned shops and apartments, often paying in cash. Public schools are increasingly filled with Chinese pupils.
In a story highly reminiscent of what has happened in Arizona, the increasing visibility of the Chinese immigrant population has generated a backlash:
In 2009, the traditionally left-wing city elected its first right-wing mayor in the postwar era, whose winning campaign tapped into powerful local fears of a “Chinese invasion,” and who seeks a broader European Union response to Chinese immigration.
The mayor has also stepped up raids on Chinese businesses. Critics say they are little more than media spectacles, but local Chinese have seen them as unwarranted attacks.
The local Chinese community has responded by noting that:
Many Chinese in Prato are offended at the idea that they have ruined the city. Instead, some argue, they have helped rescue Prato from total economic irrelevance, another way of saying that if the Italian state fails to innovate and modernize the economy, somebody else just might.
“If the Chinese hadn’t gone to Prato, would there be pronto moda?” asked Matteo Wong, 30, who was born in China and raised in Prato and runs a consulting office for Chinese immigrants. “Did the Chinese take jobs away from Italians? If anything, they brought lots of jobs to Italians.”