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Keynote address for 6th Chinese in Prato and 4th Wenzhouese Diaspora Symposia

The social sources of migration and enterprise: Italian peasants and Chinese migrants in Prato

Dr Gary G. Hamilton, Henry M. Jackson Professor of International Studies, University of Washington, and
Mr Donald Fels, Independent scholar.

9am-10am Wednesday 30 October 2013
Monash University Prato Centre, via Pugliesi 26, Prato, Tuscany, Italy

View the video and download the presentation on the program webpage.


Prato has been a textile center of international renown for centuries. After World War II it also became the locus of hundreds of small textile enterprises established by Italian peasants who left their traditional plots and migrated to Prato to start businesses (Absalom 1991, A.Spinelli, R. Absalom 1997, A. Spinelli, 2012). These former peasants organized their enterprises much like the farms that they had left behind: small-scale, family-run, and staffed by persons who lived in adjoining structures to the business at hand. Though poorly educated, and unskilled in the textile trade, these resilient peasants brought with them a strong communal work-ethic, robust kinship networks, and a commitment to making money for the welfare of future generations.

By the time the Wenzhou Chinese arrived in Prato, several thousand small Italian-run textile enterprises, each performing a specific function in textile production, had gone into decline, and the vast majority of them had closed. The Italian ex-peasants had succeeded in leaving the land, and now they and their children were leaving the textile industry behind. When the Chinese established their enterprises in Prato, they re-established the small-scale, often family-run enterprises, living in or adjacent to the work place, as well as the economic networks linking them together, much as the Italian peasants had done before them, and for many of the same reasons. Though in creating pronto-moda the Chinese arrivals added significant new markets for Prato production, their goals of wanting to leave the land and to make money for this and future generations were consistent with the Italians before them.

In the paper, we propose to compare and contrast the small-firm economies in Italy and China, and will analyze the migration of Chinese to Prato as an extension of economic institutions currently practised in Chinese-led capitalism in East Asia. Our late colleague, Marco Orru, was one of the few scholars to show “the institutional logic of small-firms economies in Italy and Taiwan” (Orru, Biggart, and Hamilton 1997). We will extend his analysis in our comparison of Italian and Chinese small-firm economies in Prato. We will also note that despite a number of important structural similarities, there remain significant differences between the Prato textile enterprises run earlier by Italians and later by the Chinese, differences largely accounted for by the organization of the European and global markets. We will argue that these differences are important for the future trajectory of other Italian and European markets. Curzio Malaparte suggested as much in 1959 when he wrote, “The whole history of Italy and Europe comes to rest at Prato…”


Photo of Gary Hamilton

Dr Gary G. Hamilton, Henry M. Jackson Professor of International Studies, University of Washington

Hamilton specializes in historical/comparative sociology, economic sociology, and organizational sociology. He also specializes in Asian societies, with particular emphasis on East Asian societies. He is an author of numerous articles and books, including most recently Emergent Economies, Divergent Paths, Economic Organization and International Trade in South Korea and Taiwan (with Robert Feenstra) (Cambridge University Press, 2006), Commerce and Capitalism in Chinese Societies (London: Routledge, 2006), and The Market Makers: How Retailers Are Changing the Global Economy (co-editor and contributor, Oxford University Press, 2011; paperback 2012). 
Donald Fels

Mr Donald Fels, Independent scholar

Scholar and artist Donald Fels has examined trade around the world for over thirty years. He has conducted numerous research and museum projects in Asia, Europe and the United States. He has been a Fulbright researcher in Italy (he is a fluent Italian speaker) and a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar in India. His exhibition, “What is a Trade?” has been touring museums since 2008. He has written for a number of publications on America’s west coast, currently for He is at work on a major museum project for Paris.
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