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Wenzhou’s Italian Uncles

Wenzhou’s Italian Uncles

0039 Ristorante Italia sits in the middle of West Jiangbin Street, one of many long and large stretches of concrete that cross Wenzhou east to west, parallel to the Oujiang River, running next to some of the city’s visible wealth—in the form of glitzy malls—and its noticeable lack of architectural beauty. The restaurant is at street level, announced by a large window shaded by a lace curtain, a blackboard on a tripod with the menu scribbled in colored chalk, the statue of a smiling chef next to it, and an Italian flag fluttering above it all. The interior is unpretentious: the checkered cloths of a Roman trattoria cover the tables, and a glass deli case full of mouth-watering vegetables takes pride of place in front of the cashier, just like in any family-run Italian restaurant. Grilled eggplants and zucchini sit in their marinade, the charred bits gleaming with a hint of olive oil and lemon juice; layered slices of tomatoes and mozzarella cheese are dotted with shreds of basil leaves; and roasted peppers in a large ceramic dish lie surrounded by bits of garlic in a pool of their own luscious juices.

It is dinnertime, and the patrons at 0039 (the Italian country code) are enjoying their Italian meals Chinese-style: their orders have been put in the middle for all to share, and in spite of the heat many are sipping glasses of hot water together with their rosso.

I am waiting for Song Xiaohua, the owner of Barolo, a wine shop I saw on Chezhan Dadao, the “Great Road of the Train Station.” I have never met him before, but I came to Wenzhou to talk to people like him: Chinese who have spent years living and working in Italy and are now back (either on a visit or for good), pushed out by the economic downturn in Europe and lured by the growing possibilities in China. Walking by Song’s store, I ventured in and found myself in an old-fashioned Italian wine cave. I asked to meet the manager, and after a very friendly phone call in excited Italian, he suggested we have dinner at 0039 together.

The vast majority of Chinese who have emigrated to Italy come from Wenzhou and the surrounding area, a municipality of about 9 million people. I have been wondering for a long time what happens when they return to China: does anything Italian stick to them? Has Wenzhou been Italianized at all? Is it a purely opportunistic, functional relationship, or has the country they migrated to—my country—given them something to keep, other than a job or a business opportunity? I have never been able to pin down what, if anything, “Italianness” might be—yet here I am, wondering if it rubs off in any significant way.                                              

* * *

The first year I lived in Beijing, the eventful year of 1988-1989, I experienced aesthetic shock. I remember one evening in mid-March: the weather was starting to get warmer, and I was sitting on the ledge of the big terrace of the foreign students building of Beijing Normal University, looking at the street below in anguish. It all seemed so amazingly ugly—new yet already old, all dust and concrete. Stimulating, interesting, challenging, for sure … but ugly beyond comparison. I had grown up in Bologna and spent five years of high school in Florence. Before leaving Italy, I had a brief stint in Venice, then moved to London, taking beauty as a given all along. The contrast was shocking to me. I started to wonder what it would be like for a Chinese person to be catapulted into Venice, or Florence, or Rome, or Mantua, or Siena, or Perugia, or Bologna, or Palermo, or Ferrara … into any one of the ancient architectural gems that Italy boasts about and neglects. With that unique arrogance of someone barely out of her teens and very much out of her depth, and with the know-it-all-ness of the liuxuesheng [foreign exchange student], I toyed with the idea of taking the first person in the street and dropping him or her in a historical square in any beautiful Italian town, and then asking: So, what does this feel like? I thought that the reverse, more or less, had happened to me, albeit by an unwitting choice, and I was unsure how to deal with it.

It was early spring, 1989. What happened afterwards made every single one of these lazy musings completely irrelevant. Yet, obviously, some of it must have lingered in the back of my mind.

* * *

I sit at a table inside 0039, study the impressively large menu, and ask for a glass of water, when I hear loud hellos being exchanged with the restaurant staff at the main entrance. And then there is Song Xiaohua. He has a broad smile, longish hair with a prominent fringe, piercing, happy eyes, and the battered skin of someone who eats too many rich meals. We shake hands and he introduces me to his assistant—a demure fellow who spends most of his time texting and gazing into the distance waiting for instructions—then he sits down and immediately starts to order like a king, waving his hands, switching from Chinese to Italian at very high speed and changing personality in the process. The Chinese-speaking Song is a grand gentleman, suave and determined, who imposes his will firmly, whether it concerns the seating arrangement, the choice of dishes, or the business transaction details whispered curtly to the texting assistant. The Italian-speaking Song is a loud-mouthed braggart who cannot last one sentence without recourse to wide gesticulation and onomatopoeia, with concluding bursts of laughter. From his neck dangles a big gold cross: “I am a Christian!” he says, and joins hands in front of himself in an improvised prayer. “Always have been,” he adds, hinting at missionaries present in Wenzhou through the centuries, and changes the topic, like all that needs to has been said. Throughout the meal, his favorite way to underline something he finds astounding is to exclaim, like Northern Italians do, “Oh Madonna!”

“So, tell me about yourself!” I say, amused by the whole show but worried that his histrionics will take the place of any coherent conversation. I get treated to a version of his life story that I assume to be duly enriched.

“My generation of migrants”—he starts off seriously, now in Chinese, now in Italian, in a most peculiar and disorienting punctuation system—“Every. Single one of us! All illegal. Clan-des-ti-ni,” he says, spelling the Italian word given to undocumented alien residents. “I have done all the jobs you can think of!” He starts off with a detailed list, then gets evasive again, rescued by the arrival of our antipasti: “Kitchen aid. I washed? Everything. Cut the vegetables and cleaned the restaurant and I was a worker in a factory and I was a janitor in a firm and I was a waiter and I ah, eat! Eat, eat. I have done all the jobs. Eat.”

To my surprise, Song has ordered a cheese platter, a dish of mixed olives and Italian pickles, and prosciutto with melon. The average Chinese palate is not very accustomed to this type of food, but he and the texting assistant seem pleased with the offerings. Once the main course arrives—for me, a pasta primavera cooked to al dente perfection with a colorful array of diced vegetables lightly sautéed in olive oil—I am won over and I ask if I can meet the chef. This is real Italian food: tasty, honest, with recognizable everyday ingredients that blend together so that every mouthful brings a warmth of surprise and familiarity. Food that grounds and elates. I look up in surprise, and I am only met with a smile and new promptings of “Eat, eat.”

The conversation continues, and I learn that Song Xiaohua has lived in many Italian cities—Abano, Milan, Trieste, Rome—ending up in Brunick, a city on the Austrian border in what is part of historic Tirol, where he has a restaurant.

I want to know how it feels to live in these places—what he feels—and Song says:

“I am a man cut in half, right through the middle. In China, the moon will always be rounder and the water sweeter. But in Italy … there are rules! Not like here. The air is clean, the food is better, and people respect the rules. I know Italians do not think so: but come, come to China and see what I mean! Now that I have a business in Brunick, the regulations are carved in marble … You do not follow them and … Zac!” he says, hitting the palm of his left hand with the side of his right one, a gesture so Italian that even I hardly use it.

“I do not miss those who yell: ‘go back to China!’ But then, I never cared about them,” and he laughs that off, too, passing his turned fingers below his chin, another Italian gesture meaning one could not care less.

iconDaniele Mattioli
0039 Ristorante Italia chef Wang Yinfu returned to China after twenty-six years working in a restaurant in Ostia, Italy.

As soon as it gets a little less busy, my request to meet the chef is satisfied and he presents himself at our table, a diminutive man with a crew cut and a round, gentle face, still trying to wipe his magical hands in his apron. He takes my enthusiastic compliments with grace and introduces himself as Wang Yinfu, a Wenzhou native whose heart is in Italy.

“It is me who chose the name of the restaurant … I have lived in Italy for twenty-six years,” he tells me, “in Ostia [Rome’s seaside town], and I always worked in restaurants. My wife, who took Italian citizenship, and my son are still there,” he says, with a wave of nostalgia wiping away his smile. “0039 is the most beautiful number in the world: it is the number I dial to talk to them, and when they pick up I can picture them and all the beauty of Italy around,” he sighs. His Italian is good and very regional, with many characteristically Roman words peppering his speech. He hastens to add, “I am here just to train the other chefs in the kitchen. Then I will go back. My boy came to see me with his mother, and he could not stand it here. He said: ‘Dad, I am Italian. Do not ever make me come to this place again.’ So I am going back as soon as my job here is finished.”

Wang sits at the table. Song smiles proudly, turning his palm towards me while looking at him in the eyes, as if my presence here were yet more proof of his numerous powers.

“So the food was alright?” asks Wang.

“It was excellent,” I say, wondering if I should mention that in the whole of China I had never found a restaurant that truly knew what Italian food is about, and that did not count on its patrons’ not knowing what to expect. But I am made shy by my enthusiasm and by the modest way in which he dismisses his talent, and somehow I just sit there nodding.

Song, meanwhile, explains that Italian food and wine are becoming very popular in China:

“I sold everything in my life,” he says. “I imported cars. Clothes. Watches. We Wenzhounese are traders! But now everyone who has a party wants Italian wine to go with it. And they even take guests to Italian restaurants: it impresses people, but does not intimidate them like French things do.”

* * *

One might imagine Italians to have taken the influx of migrants into their country in stride: after all, we have emigrated everywhere, bringing our food and coffee culture, together with so much else, to the four corners of the world. But the wave of newcomers over the past fifteen to twenty years has taken the whole country by surprise, And all of a sudden, it strikes me that they are the Chinese version of what Italians used to call lo zio americano, “the American uncle,” who left the country as a poor illegal immigrant and after working his fingers to the bone … came back wealthy enough to impress family and friends.and not everyone has coped with it well. First, migrants came from nearby—northern Africans arriving full of anticipation after perilous boat journeys, and truckloads of Albanians raised on a diet of Italian TV via illegal satellites that gave them wild expectations of what they would find. Then word must have got around, and from one year to the next, people started to come from Russia and the Baltic republics and sub-Saharan Africa. And China. Italians worried. The Chinese seemed to be so numerous (if you look at the statistics, they are actually just around 200,000 in total, compared to a million Romanians and half a million Albanians) and they reproduced that frequent pattern of immigration, all moving into the same areas, creating what felt like pop-up Chinatowns, in Milan, Prato, Rome, and other cities. Industries at which Italians thought they uniquely excelled, like fashion and food, attracted many Chinese immigrants and the competition on home ground felt unsettling. But the most commonly heard complaint about Chinese migrants in Italy is that they “do not mix”: they send their children to school, but seldom to after-school activities, worried Italian parents will tell you. They work in huge illegal workshops for shockingly long shifts; they buy—in cash!—bars, homes, and businesses, but will do nothing to learn about Italian culture, exasperated citizens complain. Worst of all: they bring their own mafia, as if ours were not enough. And for some reason, Chinese illegal activities grate more than Albanian criminal gangs or Ukrainian and Nigerian women traffickers. They seem to reach wider, to be more sophisticated and harder to track.

* * *

Cao Danti arrives at the appointment in a downtown Wenzhou tearoom impeccably dressed. Nothing flashy, but I can see from a distance that his shirt and his trousers are of the finest material and of very good make. I got his number through a friend of a friend of a friend of his who lives in Milan, and called to ask if he’d explain to me what Italy means to those who go and come back. He seems pleased with the idea and is determined to give me a history lesson. “You see, you must look at the geography. Wenzhou, Wencheng, and Qingtian, just behind it, are a bit isolated from the rest of China, closed off by our mountains. Especially until a couple of decades ago, when there were no proper roads and no airport, in order to get anywhere we had to get on a boat. And other than a bit of agriculture, there was not much here. Traveling overseas was pretty natural to us,” he says. “We were the first huaqiao [overseas Chinese]. So a tradition was started: we are traders, and are not afraid of sailing far from home.” He speaks softly, carefully, pouring tea elegantly and making sure my cup is never empty. “And quite a few people here are Christians, which fostered a connection with overseas, too. A few missionaries arrived in the nineteenth century, but people converted through travels,” he says laughing. “And now, they have converted to Italian fashion and food.” Just downstairs from the tearoom, we are sitting on the second floor of a commercial building in the old part of town, which has been turned into a cacophony of garment shops, with improbable Italian-sounding names. Fèta Fashion makes me think of cheese, while Genio La Mode caters to genius males. The window displays reproduce Venice, Milan, and even Rome, with dioramas and photographs. Every other shop is renovating, another closing down or opening up. In spite of the biting credit crunch, this is a busy commercial center, and the whole feel is of China at its most anarchic.

“But for me,” Cao whispers in spite of the din coming from the street, now sharing a more intimate detail, “it was the beauty. I used to watch Italian movies—I am fifty-eight now, so when I was young we had very few foreign movies. Everybody could watch Bicycle Thieves [Ladri di biciclette], though. I loved it, too, but what really struck me was Rome. So beautiful! I looked out for Italian cities in pictorial magazines, and I knew that’s where I wanted to go. I fell in love with everything Italian: the cities, the art, the clothes, the shoes, the football, the cars! So in 1987, I left. I was an illegal immigrant, but I ended up owning a high-end Chinese restaurant. My son now works for Max Mara, the Italian fashion house,” he says looking at me squarely in the eyes. “And I am going back, too. As soon as the economy picks up a little: here, it so ugly, so dirty,” he adds disconsolately. My younger self, sitting on the ledge of the terrace at Beijing Normal University in 1989, is in complete agreement.                                              

* * *

Before leaving, I see Song Xiaohua again and we go for drinks. The whole city is full of Italian-style cafés—you do not see these anywhere else, not evening Beijing or Hong Kong. Simple places where you can take an espresso or an ice cream at the counter. One is called Colosseo, another Ally; this sells only Illy coffee, an Italian brand considered by many as the best coffee roast available. And of course—as there is in every Italian city—Bar Napoli. The difference is that these cafés were all opened by Chinese returnees, not Italians.

Song, though, wants to take me to something very up-market, and we go to The Dainty. Here, the cappuccinos come with the elaborate profile of a lady drawn in the foam, and the whole place exudes a sophisticated, old-Europe feel. There are little tables surrounded by padded chairs vaguely rococo, high tea is served with stacked trays of attractively displayed sweet and savory snacks, art books line the shelves behind, with a suffused light making everything look softer than it would be under harsh neons.

His son, Song Bing, is waiting for us, a younger version of his father, with bleached hair and accompanied by his wife. She introduces herself as Giovanna and spends the evening studying on her computer pictures of dresses from the latest catwalks. “I adore fashion,” she says, and she is indeed impeccably dressed and made up. Father and son keep name-dropping, exclaiming “Oh Madonna!” and telling me about all the amazing business ideas they have and have had. Song Bing sports a large gold chain and a cotton jacket with rolled up sleeves. Also fashionable, I guess, in a rather loud way.

And all of a sudden, it strikes me that they are the Chinese version of what Italians used to call lo zio americano, “the American uncle,” who left the country as a poor illegal immigrant and after working his fingers to the bone—maybe not always in the most legitimate ways—came back wealthy enough to impress family and friends. Cheerful, name-dropping, extravagant and generous, the quintessential braggart. That’s what they are: gli zii italiani. The Italian uncles.

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Ilaria Maria Sala was born in Italy and grew up in Bologna and Florence. She has studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Beijing Normal University, and Beijing University. After a few...

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