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October 7, 2014 7:21 pm
Chinese translate the European work ethic
By Robin Kwong and Rachel Sanderson in Prato
Yang Guang, 27, speaks fluent Italian and English as well as Mandarin Chinese
Hu Jian-bing and Yang Guang are the new Europeans. They work in Prato, a city of 200,000 people just outside Florence in Italy that has the largest Chinese population in Europe. Residency records show about 16,000 Chinese live in the city known for its textiles industry but officials estimate the number could soar to 50,000 when counting illegal labourers.
Mr Hu, a factory owner, settled in the Tuscan city 20 years ago as part of the influx of Chinese attracted by its history as Europe’s textile capital and its stock of empty warehouses for rent.
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“When we arrived we worked for the Italians. Now they work for us,” says Mr Hu. Chinese-owned ready-to-wear factories in Prato, which flourished as traditional and high-end Italian textile makers were driven out of business, have supported Chinese communities all over Europe.
Mr Hu has two children – a daughter, 21, who lives in Italy and a son in Los Angeles who is about to go to university. He recently bought his son an $80,000 BMW. “Money is rolling in,” he says, explaining his largesse.
“I tell my son the important thing is for him to use his brain and figure out his own way. I have the money to help him start a business if he wants . . . ’ I want [my children] to have to slave away for years before they have enough money to get their feet on the ground,” he says.
Wearing shorts and flip-flops, Mr Hu surveys the factory floor at Macrolotto 1, a warehouse area on the outskirts of the city. He says it is unlikely he will ever return to China. “ People like us, who have come abroad, we can’t catch up to the pace of life in China any more,” he says.
EU data suggest that low-wage Chinese workers are heading back home where economic opportunities are opening up. But as they go, a more educated generation is arriving In Italy and seeing opportunities amid the transition.
Yang Guang, 27, from Qingdao, came to study in Florence on an Italian government grant in 2007. Smart and personable, Mr Yang is intent on assimilating where previous generations of Chinese have not. He calls himself “Lucio” in an effort to fit in more easily. “It means the same – light – as my name does in Chinese,” he says.
Mr Yang studied international economics at Florence University and eventually earned a master’s degree, again fully funded by the Italian government. He is fluent in Italian and English as well as Mandarin Chinese and says there are plenty of jobs for young Chinese working in the luxury goods malls – he has a part-time position at Burberry – but he wants a more fulfilling career.
So he has taken a job with the Prato council as an outreach officer, visiting factories to help owners and their workers assimilate. He believes a private sector market is emerging across Europe for people like him who can help Chinese entrepreneurs make sense of European customs and corporate rules. Prato, rooted in Italian tradition, is a perfect training ground, he says.
“Italy is like a cake. And, maybe, China is like five cakes. But in Italy, there are just five people competing to eat that cake while in China there are millions. So I’m taking my chance in Italy.”