The blog has been on hold recently due to my moving to the area around via Paolo Sarpi – Milan’s “Chinatown.” This is a fascinating neighborhood that has exploded in the past decade or so with Chinese wholesalers. It is an ideal place to see how immigration, trade and globalization effect modern Europe. The small streets brim with outlets selling cheap clothes, costume jewels and watches, plastic toys, electronics, industrial items, and every other type of mass produced good imaginable.
(Although I’ve yet to find an outlet for cheap kitchen goods as serviceable as Ma Cosa?! in my old neighborhood on via Farini.) The Chinese food on offer looks to be much more adventurous than what you typically find in the West, and the density of the old streets, full of purposeful activity, lends the place a vibrant air that is at once familiar and alien – that couldn’t be more different from the Chinatown in my last place of residence, which was based more on tourist’s eating habits and less on trade and commerce. Along via Rosmini and via Bruno, most of the shops appear to be tiny storefronts. A proprietor stands guard outside in the mild fall weather, and at various points during the day men rush masses of boxes into the store.
A less cursory look reveals that many that many storefronts are essentially warehouses that sell only to wholesalers. Many of the shops adjoin large ring-shaped apartment buildings ringed around a central courtyard. More boxes arrive via van, truck or in the case of smaller streets, the ubiquitous bike outfitted with sturdy wooden shelves above both wheels.
Yet it’s hardly monoethnic: I hear Italian spoken as often as Chinese, and in the mass of overwhelmingly Chinese storefronts one spies the typical Italian bar, trattoria or even a highly-vaunted vintage shop. (I’m told Milanesi come from far and near to shop at Grani e Vaghi.)
In perhaps a sign of the shape of things to come, these trattorie that make risotto alla milanese or osso buco have Chinese cooks or managers; I struck up a conversation with a Chinese butcher working at the deli counter of a decidedly Italian grocery as he cut me prosciutto, immeasurably thin just like most Italians like it.
These experiences are, or should be, commonplace to any resident of northern Italy – Corriere della Sera publishes a Chinese edition, the Duomo’s tourist office has signs written prominently in both languages, and even tiny Veneto hamlets like Villanova del Ghebbo have burgeoning Chinese communities – but might come as a surprise to the non-resident, who might’ve read news of the 2007 ‘riots’ in Chinatown with a hint of surprise that such a place even exists.
This post, in addition to being an update, should serve to remind the reader on the other side of the Atlantic that the Chinese influence is being felt in a myriad of ways, across both sectors and geography. No matter what the area of competitive advantage, China cannot escape notice.
So, in New York talk may center on the (under)valuation of the renminbi; down in DC, Congress and the Pentagon publish volumes guessing as to China’s military capability; but here in Italy the focus is, of course, on clothing, shoes and leather – Italy’s historic areas of advantage.
The Northern League often proclaims Milan as its Padanian, and presumably monoethnic, capital. The most cursory visit to Milan’s via Sarpi should reveal the folly of this. The Chinese are here to stay, and I look forward to updating readers on the goings-on in this nexus of cultures and economics.
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