“Fistful of Tears”: Encounters with Transnational Affect, Chinese Immigrants and Italian Fast Fashion

Elizabeth L. Krause

In the Made in Italy fast-fashion sector, the ultimate flexible workers are Chinese migrants. Their flexibility assumes particular forms that speak to the contours of global dynamics and local work characteristics. This paper draws on three years of collaborative research, from 2012–15, in Prato, Italy, to grasp how families, institutions, and communities negotiate and cope with the terms of globalization (Bressan, Krause 2014). The project innovates an encounter ethnography framework to guide research into the dialectic between sentiments and economics. So often as scholars report on the structural adjustments of capital and shifts to flexible accumulation (Harvey 2005; Ong 1999) they fail to consider «sentiments as forces of production» (Yanagisako 2002:7). Besides shaping the dynamics of firms such as those Yanagisako studied in Northern Italy, such sentiments are dispersed and travel from points of destination to places of arrival and back again (Ma Mung 2004; Coe 2014).

Even in the context of more recent transnational joint ventures, Yanagisako noted the persistent significance of kinship sentiments among Italian family firms that enter into collaboration with Chinese entrepreneurs. The ironic twist to the story is that, as she puts it, «the agents of Western capitalism — namely the Italian capitalist families — aspire to enrich and develop a cultural logic that does not fit comfortably into evolutionary models of capitalism» (Yanagisako 2013: 82). To understand sentiments as forces of production, I ground sentiments in structural encounters. This paper asks how encounter ethnography, and specifically structural encounters, can help make sense of contrasting sentiments of bitterness as a form of social suffering and of “high-mindedness” as a sign of social success.

This paper situates Chinese immigrants’ aspiration to migrate and make money in three structural encounters, each at a different level of scale: a Chinese regional approach to economic development known as the Wenzhou model; a local Italian environment of small firms connected to the made in italy brand; and a global restructuring of the clothing industry. These encounters shape migrant experiences and reveal the complex meanings and practices behind what would appear to be unbridled exploitation and social suffering, on the one hand, and a universal quest for money, on the other (Holmes 2013).A historic textile district in the Province of Prato hosts what is claimed to be Europe’s most concentrated overseas Chinese community. Transnational migrants produce low-cost items for the fast-fashion industry in the context of family firms.

Chinese firms based in Italy also enter into subcontracting relationships with Italian artisan firms who contract directly with luxury brands (Giannini 2014). More than 4,800 Chinese-owned firms are registered with Prato’s Chamber of Commerce1.Prato and its environs have witnessed regional, national, and transnational in-migration during the past seventy years. The first two phases resulted in permanent transplants. A first phase of migration came on the heels of World War II, as Tuscan peasants abandoned the rural countryside. Residents with such roots make up about 30 percent of Prato’s population. A second phase of migration occurred during the boom of the 1960s, as people from the Deep South left behind diverse peasant agriculture, bringing Southern habits and dialects, and experiencing quasi Jim Crow–style discrimination as they sought housing and employment. People of southern Italian heritage, long stigmatized in the Italian imagination as inferior, now make up about 12 percent of Prato’s population (Bressan and Tosi Cambini 2009). In a third phase, especially since the 1990s, transnational migrants have come onto the scene. They comprise about 17 percent of the population in the city and 15 percent in the province. The majority originates from China, with most born in Wenzhou of the province of Zhejiang (83.4 percent), or Fujian (13.2 percent). These migrants view southern Europe as a «frontier of highly developed economies» (Pieke 2004:2). Unlike the old migrants, new immigrants are non-citizens and typically incur debt to enter the European Union. Like the old migrants, they bring networking and labor strategies moored in a family model (Bagnasco 1992; Ceccagno 2009, Denison et al. 2007; Lem 2010).Prato serves as an ethnographic laboratory of globalization. Our team interviewed more than 40 immigrants, primarily parents who worked in fast fashion and had experience circulating their young children between China and Italy. Interviews were conducted in the language of the speaker’s preference, typically either Mandarin or the dialect of Wenzhouese, though on several occasions Italian. Recruitment occurred in encounter sites such as Prato’s immigration office as well as the hospital pediatric ward. About half of the interviewees were firm owners and half were workers. Ethnographic fieldwork involved my being present in Prato for a total of 220 days over eight trips between 2012–2015. Along with my bilingual research assistants, I conducted participant observation in the pediatric ward of a hospital where Chinese parents brought their infants for check-up visits. I also attended numerous encounters sponsored by official government entities, such as municipalities or schools in the province, as well as civil society cultural organizations.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.13128/cambio-19167

Read Full Text: https://oaj.fupress.net/index.php/cambio/article/view/1353

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