Francesco Zhou Fei gives me an appointment near his offices in the Porta Venezia area, behind one of the shopping streets of Milan. While he is waiting for me, he talks on the phone. He wears sunglasses, a dark raincoat and a blue and white striped shirt: he appears as the most elegant Milanese businessman. A second generation Sino-Italian, 40, Zhou arrived from China at the age of five and became an entrepreneur. After graduating from Bocconi University, he was hired by an Italian company to work in its Beijing branch. In 2017 he returned to Milan, where he founded MiStore Italia and Niu Store Italia together with other entrepreneurs. The first is a chain of stores authorized to sell Xiaomi products, a Chinese multinational operating in the field of electronics, the second deals with electric scooters.
The place that Zhou chose for our lunch has innovated one of the most famous dishes of the Arab tradition: kebab. The formula is that of quality and personalization. In fact, the dish is created by choosing the ingredients, but for the undecided there are also the proposals of the house. Zhou orders a kabir, a kind of flatbread, with a side of hummus and water, I a chicken salad and a Coke. Sitting in the modern lighted room, we admire the idea of the “Italian kebab”.
“We Sino-Italians should also do the same thing: innovate, follow trends and anticipate them,” says Zhou as he savors hummus. He sure did. Launched in 2018, MiStore Italia has opened in recent years about thirty points of sale that mainly deal with mobile phones, but also Xiaomi appliances capable of connecting to the 5G network. “But there is still a lot of distrust towards made in China,” she explains. In 2019 Zhou brought the Niu Store electric scooters to Italy, which currently has six stores.
While I try to compliment, he interrupts me: “I’m just a trader, perhaps a plus trader”, he says, reminding me of the humility of the Confucian gentleman. “I just followed the trends I saw in China. For example, electric scooters have been in vogue there for many years, the government wanted them to contain pollution. I am happy that they have also arrived here and this thanks to a greater awareness of environmental issues “. With his activities, Zhou has created at least a hundred jobs.
Yet in Italy the Chinese community seems stuck in a double representation: on the one hand the “yellow invasion” of the mafia launderers, on the other a model minority of hard-working hairdressers and bartenders, the “good Chinese people”.
This picture seems to be confirmed by the 2020 report of the National Institute of Statistics (Istat) according to which only 11 percent of children of Chinese origin between the ages of 15 and 29 do not work and do not seek employment, compared to an average national rate of 33.1 percent.
“Unfortunately, there is a certain image of a Chinese immigrant and that remains,” Zhou laughs. “We haven’t been able to create a new representation yet. Many of our generation continued the family business, even those who studied as lawyers or engineers. We need new models to help young people imagine a different future “.
Italy is still a long way from countries like the United States where films like Crazy & Rich feature Asian stars in different professions, or where there are Asian-born actors who win the Golden Globe, or young women who become prominent politicians, like Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. “I had my father’s example,” continues Zhou. “He has always had an open vision, perhaps because he was a soldier and also lived outside of China. As a result, I too have traveled extensively, in nearly forty countries. Then he made me study Chinese and paid me Bocconi. After university, my goal was to combine the Chinese entrepreneurial spirit with Italian education. I wanted to follow the example of Japanese management which took Anglo-Saxon elements and adapted them to their own culture ”.
In 2008, Zhou was one of the founders of the Alumni Bocconi Beijing, which brings together former students of the Milanese university in Beijing, and created a Facebook group in Ibc (Italian born Chinese) that has almost six thousand Sino-Italian members. “Alumni Bocconi was born as a support network,” he explains. “With Ibc, on the other hand, I wanted to raise awareness of our role in Italian society. Or educate new talents, support someone with a passion for politics “.
However, the young synodescendants seem resistant to public debate. “In addition, many have returned to China to have a life and work experience. Between 2000 and 2010, foreign companies needed people like us: business graduates who spoke Chinese, English and Italian well. They were golden years, they gave you a house, a car and a salary that would have been a dream in Italy “. Those were the years of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo. China faced the world, opening up new possibilities. Today, however, it seems to concentrate all its energies towards internal development.
“Since 2013, the situation has completely changed,” confirms Zhou. “Suddenly figures like mine were no longer needed. So I enrolled in a masters in business administration but it only confirmed it was time to move. The advent of digital had created new markets and new trends, purely Chinese. Competition from Chinese students with an overseas degree has also increased. In the end I returned ”.
In Italy too, the number of Chinese students arriving through international exchanges or other projects has steadily increased, especially in the artistic and musical fields. Unitalia data from 2022 indicate 1,136 Chinese students in 2008-2009, up to a peak of 5,022 in 2020-2021. “Some of them have opened successful restaurants in Milan, bringing the flavors of their region,” says Zhou. “Others have founded home delivery services dedicated to the Synophonic population or communication agencies with direct connections in China. They have given birth to new markets ”.
Today in the Sino-Italian community very different identities and experiences coexist: first generations coming from the countryside, students from the cities, new generations who have suffered multiple influences. “We second generation families should aim for excellence,” says Zhou as we leave. “Otherwise our children will not compete with the graduates from China. I work so that my daughter Lucilla, who was born here, can attend the best schools in different countries in the future ”.
The Chinese community has been present in Italy since the early twentieth century. As the studies of the sociologist Daniele Brigadoi Cologna testify, in the 1920s a large group of sales agents from a Shanghai-based artificial pearl manufacturer arrived in Milan and decided to live there. Then, relatives and friends joined them, forming the basis of the community that has since shared more than a hundred years of history with Milan.
“We should stop falling into the trap of being Italian or Chinese. We are global citizens. For example, I don’t think I have much in common with a Sino-Italian boy who works in the family business. I feel much closer to a synodescendant of the United States, a graduate of an Ivy league university and a consultant in Singapore ”.
I too reflect on the inevitable chaos of life in the diaspora. And on the possibility of training new reference figures for the new generations.
Nun-Taste of Middle East
Via Lazzaro Spallanzani 36, Milan
1 chicken salad 8,40
1 kabir 8,90
1 hummus 3,50
1 bottle of still water 1,10
1 Coca-Cola zero 2,30
This article appeared in number 31 of the Essential, on page 25.