Growing up in Chinatown, Milan

The news has spread that policemen will arrive in Milan from Beijing to patrol the neighbourhood of ‘Chinatown,’  for two weeks at least. This will happen in Rome, too. Via Paolo Sarpi in Chinatown has been the home of the Chinese community since the first arrivals in the 1930s. In the ‘80s, a huge number of Chinese, mostly from the deprived region of Zhejiang, settled in Chinatown and worked in sweatshops where they sewed bags and clothes. Children used to work in the sweatshops, too, and until not very long ago. Indeed sometimes it happens today. The sweatshops were located in basements, and were damp and cold: I remember children with chilblains on their hands.

After the riots between the Chinese community and the police in 2007, following years of tension with the Italian residents over the transport of goods back and forth, (and, of course, over different lifestyles and lack of communication), the Municipality decided to create a “ZTL,” a limited traffic zone. Via Paolo Sarpi was transformed, both physically and economically. In a couple of years it became a gentrified, trendy area full of new cafés, restaurants, co-working spaces and pop-up art galleries. Many Chinese shops are still there, and others are opening up on a regular basis: pastry shops with impressive cakes baked and decorated in US style for marriages and celebrations, advertising agencies, mobile phone shops, private clinics and of course bars and restaurants. A “ravioleria”, selling nothing but Chinese ravioli, is now hip: the long queue at lunchtime is proof of its success.

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The ‘ravioleria’ – a successful shop in via Paolo Sarpi. Photo Anna Chiara Cimoli
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An old hat shop, one of the few original shops still remaining in via Paolo Sarpi. Photo Anna Chiara Cimoli.
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A Chinese wig shop. Photo Anna Chiara Cimoli.
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Via Paolo Sarpi and the new Fondazione Feltrinelli building. Photo: Anna Chiara Cimoli

Many Chinese entrepreneurs, based in other Italian cities, recently moved to Milan, as  via Paolo Sarpi is now the place to invest. There are expensive cars and expensive suits everywhere. In the last 2-3 years rents have more than doubled: the shop owners often live in the suburbs.

Hu Li Wei, a restaurant owner in a small town 50 km. from Milan, grew up in Chinatown. He arrived aged 9, in 1991, and lived there until three years ago, when he got married and decided to move his family to a better, healthier place. Still, via Paolo Sarpi is “like a magnet”: on Monday afternoons, when the restaurant is closed, he comes to Milan. His first stop is via Paolo Sarpi, no matter what. He knows he can meet friends and have a beer with his pals from high school.

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Li Wei and his brother in China. Photo: Hu Li Wei’s archives.

Still, Li Wei’s childhood in via Paolo Sarpi was not easy. He arrived from Zhejiang with his younger brother after years spent with their grandparents. He lived in a small apartment, his parents worked all day and didn’t have much time to devote to their children. Their Italian was poor and they could never afford the time to study. Li Wei attended an afterschool activity called “People’s School,”hosted by the local church and created by a Catholic movement called Community of Sant’Egidio, where he met Chinese, Moroccan, Sri Lankan children. Here he made friends. His open, cheerful personality was his strongest attribute. Summer holiday camps with his friends were particularly memorable: Chinese children seldom went on summer holidays.

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Li Wei and friends during the summer camps. Photo: Hu Li We’s archives.
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Li Wei and friends during summer camps. Photo: Hu Li We’s archives.
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Via Paolo Sarpi early 90s. Photo: Anna Chiara Cimoli.
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Children from China and Morocco at the ‘People’s School’ in the early 90s, via Paolo Sarpi. Photo: Anna Chiara Cimoli.

Some of Li Wei’s old friends have now opened classy cocktail bars in via Paolo Sarpi, a sign of the times. Not much remains of the old Chinatown. Herzog & De Meuron are building enormous, shiny new premises for the Fondazione Feltrinelli, at the end of the street, changing its skyline forever. And the traffic policemen will soon be arriving from Beijing. But why?

I asked Xiaomin, a young woman who arrived from Shanghai at the age of 16 and is well known in the neighborhood for her activism and bridge building. She says recent thefts have alarmed the community: many Chinese use cash instead of credit cards because they don’t trust the Italian banks; they show off their wealth; they are easy targets.

Xiaomin’s life choice is different. After graduating from university (she studied design at Milan Polytechnic), she was offered prestigious jobs both in Italy and in China. But this would have meant travelling a lot and she wanted to “live her life in Milan”, instead.

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Xiaomin with her mother, upon her arrival in Italy. Photo: Zhang Xiaomin’s archives.
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Xiaomin, today, in via Paolo Sarpi. Photo: Anna Chiara Cimoli.

Xiaomin arrived in Milan in 1999 with her father. Her mother had already been living in Milan for some years. They settled near via Paolo Sarpi. She soon enrolled in high school, where she did well. Her first memories as an immigrant are confused, and not at all pleasant: she wanted to move back to China and missed her friends. She had been a teenager with a rich social life and really didn’t want to emigrate. Besides, most of the Chinese children in Milan at that time, chose vocational courses, mainly because of the language, while Xiaomin went to the College of Science, where she also studied Latin. She didn’t have any Chinese friends or schoolmates.

I asked her if she felt twice different: both from the Italians and from the Chinese living in Paolo Sarpi. In some ways, she replied. Most of the Chinese friends she made later in her life had arrived when they were very young and had huge families; she was an only child who had arrived from a big city where she attended a highly pressurised school. Whilst her mother, a house-wife, made friends and had a rich social life in Milan, her father never accepted his new situation. Her parents moved back to Shanghai three years ago, as soon as they could after they had retired.

At high school, Xiaomin attended a presentation by the Community of Sant’Egidio, which was recruiting teenagers for after-school activities and summer camps for underprivileged children. She liked the idea, and decided to leave her phone number. She soon started volunteering, and still is, after about 15 years. Besides her job as an interpreter in a local private clinic, she works with disadvantaged children and is an activist in the field of intercultural dialogue and social inclusion. These activities are based in a conflict-ridden neighborhood called Corvetto, but she is also involved with organizations across the city. At present she is running an art therapy project led by a Muslim young girl, bringing Roma, Italian and immigrant children together. In fact, she decided not to focus on the needs of the Chinese community, but rather to collaborate with a variety of associations, in a wider project based upon mutual understanding and the prevention of conflict.

Most of the Chinese families of Paolo Sarpi, Xiaomin says, tend to enroll their children in the Chinese language school or in other “specific” courses for the community such as tai-chi, held at the weekend. But Xiaomin believes this encourages a closed attitude, prevents Chinese children from meeting other people, fosters the stereotype of Chinese people as inward looking and unwilling to mingle with others. Xiaomin’s work aims to create a different perspective, to move beyond the old and crystallized vision of ethnic communities based on nationhood and to support collaboration based on shared goals, a more forward-looking attitude.

She was, maybe, luckier than many others. She had the opportunity to study and go to university whilst her friends from Zhejiang work in restaurants or shops: they say that, well, “it’s a job like any other”. But she was also able to reflect upon her life, to recognize the opportunities she had, and to take on responsibility towards other immigrants.

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Xiaomin with Roma children. Photo: Zhang Xiaomin’s archives.

Meanwhile we wait to see whether the Chinese police from Beijing will help protect the new wealth of those along via Paolo Sarpi who do not trust Italian banks. Seen from the outside, this recruitment initiative seems odd, as if legitimizing Xiaomin’s worst fears: that of a community unprepared to mingle with others. Her work therefore,  seems, even more relevant. And if the Chinese community have been in Milan since the 193os where are the Italian born policemen of Chinese origin?

Anna Chiara Cimoli, Art historian and museologist, ABCittà, Milan


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