The scapegoats of Empire: racism and resistance in the city of romance
“Out Chinese mafia!” reads the slogan, scrawled in block capitals on a crusty yellow bedsheet. The mud splattered message, which has been hanging from a balcony next to the Rialto Bridge for the past six months, makes a bold impact, unfaded by the strong winds of Venice’s bitterly cold spring. From the busy vantage point of the nearby Campo San Bartolomeo its sentiment continues to strike a cord with locals and is greeted each day with riotous whoops of approval by people of all ages. It has not been a good year for business. In Cannaregio, one of the last residential areas left in the city, the issue has become an everyday concern at the spritz hour. It is referred to, without satire, as the “Chinese problem”.
“They are fundamentally incompatible with us” booms Gabbo, a well-known gondolier who lives on my street, “they don’t know what it means to be Italian, and they don’t give a damn about trying to find out”. He gestures suggestively towards a nearby window, at a sorry looking panino made with two slices of supermarket bread and sweaty cuts of meat. A small group of large-bellied, red-cheeked listeners nod, as one, in approval. Behind the open-air counter of this latest ‘Chinese’ enterprise, the exhausted creator of the much-mocked sandwich looks on obliviously with a frown, clearly unaware of his central position in the conversation that is taking place 20 meters away. He sits and stares alone at the wall in front of him, waiting for customers that do not come.
It is a sad scene, and seems light-years away from what British ex-pat and popular author Hugo Pratt has unhelpfully labeled “an invasion”. There is a sense of defensiveness behind all of this, a rehearsed anger that is symptomatic of a deeper insecurity about the spuriousness of Venetian mythologising and the collapse of a belief in the future of the region’s civic identity. Illogical forces are destroying local landmarks and, as any good detective knows, guilt is the simplest way of manufacturing peace. Yet ironically it is the blind aggression of the fear itself that threatens to cannibalise the most exciting characteristics of a city that, as Cannaregio’s own Campo dei Mori monumentally attests, has always celebrated the diversity of its cultural and ethnic groups.
Tako, a Japanese friend of mine who has been living in Venice for over twenty years, explains his first-hand experience of the growing hostility to ‘oriental features’. “It began sometime last year and has been getting worse” he tells me. “Shop owners ignore me when I speak to them. I’m charged higher prices than other local residents because of my accent and the colour of my skin. I have to hold myself back from screaming: I’m not even Chinese!”
Despite this stubborn campaign of insults against an imagined enemy of pigments and lineaments, Tako’s business continues to boom. He sells poetry, short stories and original art prints, often collaborating with other local writers to construct humorous portrayals of the city and its people. He spends hours each day eavesdropping on the local vaporetti and, having mastered the region’s recondite dialect, proudly describes himself a Venetian. He is even a friend of Gabbo’s. And yet the exciting years of exploring backstreets and struggling through language classes have reached an unwelcome climax in which the long effort of home building seems suddenly in vain. “I hear strangers swearing behind my back in the supermarket” he tells me. “Get out of our country, they say. And for the first time since arriving here, I’m seriously thinking of leaving”.
The context is well known. The number of long-term businesses that are forced to close in Venice each year is rising and turnaround is rapid. At the same time there has been a noticeable boom in the quantity of sub-standard, tourist–driven establishments, particularly around the central area of San Marco. These depressing affairs can afford to sell whatever they want and still stay in business. Now the trend is beginning to hit the peripheral areas. In Cannaregio the list of closures from the last year is telling: the bookshop has gone, the greengrocers has been replaced by a chain coffee shop, and a favourite locale selling cheap local wine has transformed into an expensive cocktail bar. As young Venetians leave the city in large numbers, older citizens are worried about dwindling church attendance as well as the survival of the city’s traditional cuisine and distinctive dialect.
In reality, the actual Chinese population of Venice is small, just over 2,000 people, and shows no signs of uncontrolled growth. If at all, the sensation of ‘invasion’ can only be justified against a drop in the overall population of the city from 150,000 at the end of the 1980s to below 40,000 today. Old geographies are being razed and the population is increasingly disorientated by the closure of hairdressers, hardware shops and independent supermarkets. Similar closures are, of course, occurring across crisis-ridden Europe, and not only there. Nonetheless, the causality of this process has been lazily simplified by an ongoing crusade by various local newspapers, which regularly present cheap Chinese ornaments, often falsely labeled as Italian, as the sole reason for the decline of Murano’s world-famous glass industry, the ready supply of cheap sandals as the sole reason for the crisis of Venetian leatherwear.
In close conformity with a distinctly Italian stereotype, it is restaurants that have become the main barometer of ‘contamination’. But contrary to Gabbo’s convincing gesticulations, it is not just the Chinese who are selling plastic sandwiches. The city’s reputation as the worst destination to sample Italian cooking goes back at least as far as Henry James who wrote disdainfully in 1882 of the homogenous nature of the Venetian dining experience, “the same tightly-button officers are forever sucking the same black weeds, at the same empty tables, in front of the same cafes”. Anyone who has had the misfortune of being duped by the charms of one of Strada Nuova’s sharply-dressed silver-tongued waiters will recognize the pertinence of this description. In fact, the city’s youth have turned en mass to Chinese food as a budget means of avoiding this expensive blend of artificial service and defrosted seafood. Last week I was perplexed to see a satisfied looking Gabbo emerge from the increasingly trendy restaurant ‘Tian Jin’ with a take-away portion of egg-fried rice. “Oh, they know how to do some things good alright” he said to me with a wink.
To properly understand the relationship between these elements as well as the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of those pursuing a racial justification, it is vital to acknowledge the extent to which Venice’s cultural anxieties are deeply embedded within global and national systems facilitated by local government and organised labour movements. The exodus of youth from Venice, for example, is symptomatic of wider problems in the country’s higher-education system. While admirable national initiatives have sought to attack nepotism in the Italian university sector, their efforts have been accompanied by an increasing reliance upon EU funded research projects to compensate for heavy cuts to individual departments. Even though Venice hosts one of the most prestigious architecture Universities in the world (IUAV), its finance department is so heavily in debt that large-scale re-structuring has already led to an unwelcome synthesis of academic and managerial roles. This has had a knock-on effect on research standards and teaching responsibilities, the latter of which are increasingly delegated to doctoral students, many of whom are not even on contract.
Meanwhile, public transport costs have skyrocketed and payment is enforced by ruthless ticket-collecters. Strikes are common, including ‘white’ variants in which vaporetto services deliberately deviate from the designated route or miss stops. There is little local support for this. Life is hard for many. Rents have reached an average of €500 a month for a one bedroom apartment in a city where the average monthy income is between €1,200-1,300. Gas prices are astronomical. Loans are hard to come by within Italy and, in a mirror image of the university sector, it is foreign investment that provides the motor for city-planning. When ‘public’ measures are undertaken it is by large firms who receive high-scale advertising space in exchange (as is currently the case with IWC’s ongoing support of the restoration of San Marco). ‘Brand expansion’ is conflated with ‘public interest’ as much-admired architecture is transformed into a giant billboard. With this phenomenon in mind, and in service to these same interests, the local government continues to pour large sums of tax money into projects for the construction and maintenance of infrastructure necessary to harbor yachts and luxury Cruise Liners. For the locals, there is a monorail that leads to nowhere.
The invisible hand that underpins these problems has nothing to do with the ethnic descriptor ‘Chinese’. The sad looking man with the third-rate sandwich bar in Cannaregio is not the footsoldier of an imminent invasion but a victim of the very same class whose swanky apartments will remain dark for most of the year. This invasion happened long ago and was welcomed with open arms. Andrea Segre’s award winning film Io Sono Li (2011) which tells the story of a Chinese immigrant who moves to Chioggia, near Venice, to work in a local bar. It is a sensitive meditation on the experience of isolation, populated by international mobsters and a subtle awareness of how global flows of capital can drastically transform everyday life. This drama is played-out every day just across Venice’s ‘Freedom Bridge’ in Mestre’s ‘informal economy’, whose industrial barricades are just visible from the elegent promenade of the Zattere. It is there, in the smog of motorways and poorly maintained towerblocks that the tourist industry looks after its imported specimens, from near or far. While many may not realise it, as more and more Venetians are forced to transfer themselves from monolocale to modernist high-rises, they will move towards and not away from the people they have trained themselves to hate.
The now-famous No Grandi Navi ('No Big Ships') protests have begun to catalyse languid frustration about big boats in the lagoon into an organized movement, but the scale of this initiative and its meaning in the everyday life of the city goes far beyond this single issue. The message is clear. Venice is not Disneyland but a place for people to live in. It is a city with a complex family demographic, much-loved traditions and a pride in its independent internationalism. Policies must urgently be fought for with these principles in mind: the construction of social housing, the founding of an entrepreneurial fund for local residents and a transparent anti-corruption movement are among the most pressing. In 2008, Treviso took the appalling measure of banning paper lanterns outside restaurants and homes on the basis that they appear ‘too oriental’. If Venice is to avoid courting a similarly impotent racism, resistance must explicitly position itself against the illusions of market freedom and, with its admirable republican history in mind, suggest new models for direct participation in local democracy.