How modern-day Chinese migrants are making a new life in Italy

Tracing how modern-day migrants from China are seeking a better life in Italy was an eye-opener for Canadian writer Suzanne Ma

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 April, 2015, 6:42am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 April, 2015, 10:28am

When Suzanne Ma embarked on a one-year Putonghua course at Tsinghua University in 2007, it piqued her interest about the diverse paths the Chinese diaspora had taken. The Canadian writer was fascinated to find many overseas-born Chinese like herself in the class, from North America as well as European nations such as France and Sweden. What struck her most at the time, however, was that the biggest contingent came from the Netherlands.

"There were about a dozen Chinese Dutch who came together and I had a stupid conversation with one of them and said that I didn't know there were so many Chinese in Holland as it's such a small country compared to Canada or the United States," Ma recalls. "I grew up knowing about the Chinese building the railways in Canada and the US, but didn't know much about the Chinese in Europe."

Ma, 31, not only struck up a friendship with that classmate, Marc Kuo, he eventually became her husband. Her curiosity also led her on a journey that has yielded a book, Meet Me in Venice. Although the title and dreamy cover art might suggest a novel, the book is about modern-day migrants from China trying to carve better lives for themselves in Italy.

As she and Kuo grew close, Ma was keen to find out more about how the Chinese wound up in the Netherlands. However, all he knew was that his own family came from Qingtian city in Zhejiang province, near Wenzhou, a city known for the resourcefulness and business acumen of its people.

Qingtian people, Ma later learned, were a similarly enterprising lot: its traders began travelling across Siberia to sell soapstone carvings in Europe about 300 years ago. Soapstone figurines became fashionable collectibles after a peddler presented a soapstone dragon to the Dutch queen, who admired the carving; and as word got back to Qingtian about demand for such items, more traders headed for the Netherlands.

Ma didn't embark on her book project, however, until a few years later after she completed a masters in journalism at Columbia University. One of the top students in her year, she won a fellowship that enabled her to travel and spend a month developing stories. That encouraged her to follow the examples of writers such as Leslie Chang ( Factory Girls) and Peter Hessler, who documented a changing China by following the lives of individuals over a period.

"I thought, 'This is awesome. I think I can do it,'" Ma says.

She wanted to tell the stories of China's 21st century migrants and the opportunity came up in 2010, when Kuo, who was working in Hong Kong at the time, brought her to Qingtian to meet his grandmother. His parents kept an empty apartment in the city that she could use as a base to identify would-be migrants in the community who she could shadow.

Being used to life in international cities such as Hong Kong and New York, Ma had some adjustments to make in Qingtian. Although the flat had internet access, she didn't speak the local dialect and diets and customs differed from the Cantonese she grew up with.

"I would wake up and hear pigs being slaughtered across the street, and later see animal parts on a bloody wooden board on a motorbike, with the seller waving a plastic bag on a stick to keep flies away," she recalls. Simply asking people she met if they planned to work abroad wasn't very useful so Ma hung out at places where would-be migrants were likely to frequent, including schools teaching foreign languages. "One was run by a retired Chinese teacher who converted her flat into a classroom but she had never been abroad before and learned Italian from a book," Ma says.

She also met many left-behind children at a high school, among them a girl named Ye Pei. The 16-year-old hoped to join her mother, whom she hadn't seen in five years, in Venice and was reading up about the city in preparation.

"She described Venice to me like it was straight out of a book, talking about the waterways, gelato shops and gondolas," Ma recalls.

Eventually settling on a handful of migrants, she interviewed them before their departure and arranged to get in touch again after they arrived in Italy. "When they were leaving, I told them on QQ [instant messaging] that as soon as they had access to the internet to tell me where they were."

Some just laughed, which made her think that the chances of their answering her request were slim. But among those who responded was Ye, who called six months after getting to Italy.

Instead of Venice, they met in Solesino, she was not able to live with her mother, who worked in a city several hours' ride away.

It's easy for people to pass migrants by ... but each one has an amazing story to tell
Suzanne Ma

"The first thing I noticed were her hands - they were swollen and puffy and her knuckles were bleeding," Ma says.

Ye brushed off her concerns: her rough hands were the result of 14-hour days mostly spent washing dishes. Ma's heart went out to her but the girl was focused on supporting her family.

Besides shadowing migrants who arrived with proper papers, Ma also interviewed workers who entered Europe illegally and those who escaped garment sweatshops in Tuscany.

Uprooting yourself to make a new life in another part of the world is generally difficult; but for many Chinese, language has been a huge barrier, she says. "They seem to have a harder time picking up the local language compared to other migrants from, say, Eastern Europe or North Africa. For example, many Chinese struggle to roll their Rs and mastering grammar is tricky."

The Chinese began migrating to Italy about 30 years ago but numbers have swelled in the past decade, bringing the total population to about 300,000. Most wound up in the garment trade, doing piecework (sewing buttons, zippers and the like) in factories that also provided food and lodging.

"This factory life isolated many Chinese migrant workers from the outside world. Those working in garment workshops can spend years in Italy without having any real interaction with Italians," Ma says.

That began to change following the global economic downturn in 2009, when many businesses closed or were sold to Chinese entrepreneurs.

Migrants who didn't want or couldn't find jobs in the clothing industry started opening bars and cafes, and managed to get a better grasp of Italian as a result.

That was why Ye's mother pushed her to work in a bar instead of joining her in a clothing factory: the girl would have a better life if she spoke Italian. Ye has succeeded beyond expectations, securing a driver's licence, which helps her make a substantial contribution to the family finances.

"But the pressure is enormous for a 17-, 18- or 19-year-old," Ma says.

Although would-be Chinese migrants hear about how tough their new life can be, "you don't really get it until you experience it", Ma adds. "Some understand they need to assimilate and do their best to prepare. That's why there are so many language schools that have opened up around Qingtian."

But for the most part, Chinese migrants know little about the place they're going to. For example, they might be familiar with a few stereotypes about Italians - they eat noodles, they are famous for leather shoes, they make good red wine - but nothing more, Ma says.

Many cannot or will not return to China because anything less than unqualified success would be a loss of face. "Some did go back to their hometowns but the pace had completely changed and they couldn't recognise the places any more, and lost their guanxi [relationships]," she says. Another character in her book is a man named Chen, who is raising a son on his own while his wife works in Italy. Ma finds him in a language school, keenly learning Italian while waiting for his paperwork to come through.

"He is romantic about reuniting with his wife; it is rare for a Chinese to open up like that," says Ma.

Meet Me in Venice is about connections to family, Ma says. "When Pei talked about taking care of her parents, that motivated her," she says. "For me it explains why they were so motivated to do what they do."

Ma believes their tales resonate with migrants everywhere; since the book came out in February, she has received comments from readers in India, Europe and South America, talking about how they packed up and left home hopeful for a new life.

"It's easy for people to pass migrants by - but if you stop and talk to them, each one has an amazing story," she says.

Ma will travel to Milan in October for the launch of the Italian version of her book, and hopes to meet Ye Pei again then. But most of all, she hopes to have it published in Chinese "so that Pei can read it in her own language", she says.