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Critical eyes watch Rome's Chinatown grow

ROME -- Maria Santonastaso has lived most of her six decades in Esquilino, a popular, busy neighborhood of wide streets and 150-year-old buildings atop one of ancient Rome's seven hills.

For generations, Romans came from all over the city to shop for bargains at Esquilino's vegetable and fruit market, stopping on the way at its mom-and-pop coffee bars and homey trattorias.

But today the merchants are more likely to be named Ling Chong than Luciano.

Santonastaso and her Italian neighbors have watched in dismay as first their dry cleaners, then their favorite bakery, and, more recently, the little place where they bought their mozzarella have disappeared.

The Piazza Vittorio at the heart of Esquilino is flanked by more signs in Chinese characters than Latin letters. A coffee bar on the piazza is named Caffe Del Portico Xu Ping. Most of Rome's 250 Chinese restaurants (10 times the number 15 years ago) are within a few blocks.

Esquilino has become home to Rome's fast-growing Chinatown, and many Italians are feeling displaced. ''We have lost our neighborhood," said Santonastaso, a translator for a legal firm. ''We are being thrown out. I go outside and I don't see Italians anymore."

Daniele Wong also has lived most of his life in Italy. A son of immigrants, he worked for many years in restaurants, but now is launching a real estate business specializing in selling homes to Chinese.

''Romans don't know foreigners and immigrants very well," he said. ''They say we are stealing Italian jobs, and they always assume we are doing illegal things. You hear negative comments all the time."

The tensions between Chinese and Italians in Esquilino are typical of any immigrant community and its new home, and cities throughout Europe are struggling with questions over how to accommodate the foreign-born. But Romans are particularly tradition bound, and the growth of ''La Chinatown" is proving traumatic.

Despite its ancient history as the seat of an empire that spanned much of the globe, Rome has only recently faced the phenomenon of modern immigration. Until the 1980s, Italy was a net exporter of labor. Only then was the trend reversed, with the arrival of tens of thousands of East European, African, and Asian immigrants, branded, officially, ''extracomunitari" -- an exclusionist term meaning outside the European community.

A small number of Chinese, like Wong's family, trace their presence to World War II. But the vast majority of Chinese who moved to Italy did so within the past decade and are thought to number anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000.

Many were brought into the garment industry, positioning themselves as cheap-labor subcontractors that enabled Italian fashion houses to remain competitive in a global market, according to a study by Antonella Ceccagno of the University of Bologna's Center for Immigration Research.

Others have used storefronts in Rome to channel inexpensive Chinese-made clothing into Europe, shops heavy on polyester jogging suits and no-name jeans. The stores rarely have customers. City officials say many are fronts for wholesale operations, not retail sales, despite regulations against such bulk commerce in the largely residential area.

''Every day a new Chinese store is opening and another Italian one is closing," Nicola Tripodi, a land surveyor who lives in Esquilino, said with only a bit of hyperbole. Tripodi is a member of the right-wing National Alliance party, and in the first six weeks of this year he helped organize three demonstrations against what many call the Chinese ''invasion."

''It's not only the fault of the Chinese," Tripodi, 56, continued. ''It's also the local government's fault for allowing the area to decline in an accelerated way. Against a background of decadence, the Chinese moved in and took advantage."

Tripodi, Santonastaso, and other Italian residents say they are not being racist. They don't mind immigrant neighbors. The problem, they say, is that the neighborhood is losing its Italian character and its tradition to an unfriendly wave of Chinese businessmen -- some of whom, they allege, are backed by nefarious activities.

Residents are convinced that some of the businesses conceal money-laundering and smuggling operations. In Tripodi's apartment building, for example, a Chinese family obtained permits for a small bed and breakfast. Neighbors say it functions instead as an all-hours gambling house.

''There certainly is Chinese Mafia [in Esquilino], but you cannot prove it," said Antonio Franco, deputy police chief. While contending that the majority of Chinese residents are law-abiding, police have long said they have encountered a ''wall of silence" when trying to investigate alleged crimes in the Chinese community.

Wong and other Chinese say they are victims of prejudice and are being treated unfairly. They stepped into a neighborhood down on its luck and have helped revive it, Wong said. They've brought in capital and are causing no harm. Nevertheless, authorities single them out and impose excessive regulations, they say.

''We feel pressured, under the eyes of the city," said Wong, 38. ''We can't understand what the city wants. If they don't want a Chinatown, then that's a pretty serious thing."

Whether La Chinatown evolves into an accepted immigrant community or the tensions continue to roil and lead to violence remains to be seen. A number of anti-immigrant measures are being considered in the Italian Parliament, and longtime residents are determined to fight back with demonstrations and petition drives.

''It's easy to blame the Chinese," Wong said. ''Compared to other immigrants, we are more visible."

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