With an estimated 300,000 Chinese nationals, Italy hosts the largest diaspora community in the European Union.
Wearing a knee-length winter coat, Xiaoyan* waits for her next client near the main train station in Venice. Clinging to her bag, she looks like any other bundled-up passer-by in the evening cold.
But the 45-year-old Chinese woman from the Zhejiang province, on the country’s eastern coast, has been working as a prostitute for the past three years.
She arrived in Italy in 2007 and, like many of her compatriots, initially found work in small clothes and footwear businesses.
Xiaoyan is gaunt but has a delicate appearance, with shoulder-length black hair and a short fringe. She lived in Civitanova Marche, a central city, before heading north.
“I used to work in small Chinese-run footwear enterprises, making around 1,000 euros ($1,123) a month,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Shifts were non-stop. I hardly slept. When orders arrived, I even worked up to 24 hours. I could not cope with that any longer. I wasn’t able to keep the pace anymore.”
In China, Xiaoyan was a stay-at-home mother, looking after her two children. But her family needed money, so she left.
People of rural origin in China have reported being denied basic rights and benefits. A household registration system known as hukou determines citizens’ access to education and social welfare. Leaving the village becomes the only way for rural migrants to secure a better future.
After a challenging trip financed with loans from relatives and friends for a tourist visa, Xiaoyan eventually reached Italy.
“Laborers slept inside the [premises],” she said. “Our Chinese boss provided food and lodging, I never left the factory during those years.”
Hours upon hours of bad posture saw a doctor diagnose her with chronic body pain.
Sex work has also impacted her mental and physical health.
Two years ago, Xiaoyan was unable to eat for several days when her face became partially paralyzed from prolonged exposure to the cold.
In 2017, a man picked her up and drove out of the city. He assaulted and raped her, then stole her belongings. She managed to rush out of the car and grab his ID. But when she went to the police to file a report, she was unable to communicate in the little Italian she knew.
“Clients can be good and can be bad. Sometimes, I am scared,” Xiaoyan said. “I only work until midnight because this area turns very dangerous after that. It is easier to get mugged.”
Sexual intercourse with her costs 50 euros ($56), she says. With a little extra, she might agree to sex without a condom. For other acts, she charges between 10 and 30 euros ($11 and $34).
The interview ends when headlights catch her attention. A client arrives, her job starts. Meanwhile, seven other Chinese women have appeared on the street.
Prostitution is legal in Italy, but organized prostitution – solicitation, whether indoor, on the street or controlled by third parties, is not.
Brothels were also banned in 1958.
“There is an extremely high demand for prostitutes in Italy,” said Davide Prosdocimi, a social worker with the Milan-based Somaschi, a religious foundation working with vulnerable individuals. “Clients are extremely numerous. Women and transsexuals, mostly hailing from Albania, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Nigeria, Peru and Romania are easy to find online, at massage parlours and on the streets.”
He said some women are underage and are forced by their pimps to ask for more money from clients. The Chinese don’t, he said. But regardless of their age, most of the women tend to remain on the streets for a long time, up to eight years.
Like in several other Italian municipalities, clients in Mestre risk fines between 250 and 500 euros ($280 to $561) if caught.
My husband fell sick in China and I had to pay 60,000 euros for his medical expenses. Today, I am a widow, I am scared my son might find out about this job. But what else can I do?
Italy’s hotline for victims of trafficking and/or exploitation says, around 30 Chinese women work on the streets of the Venice area. Others are in about a dozen massage parlors, while more work hidden inside flats.
The hotline works in partnership with governmental and local agencies.
There are no exact figures for the number of Chinese prostitutes working indoors. They are usually older than 29 and are considered the most vulnerable group.
Their landlords, mostly Chinese, do not question their activities, although in many cases they are aware of them.
Chinese women in parlors usually possess regular documents and are in good health, while those in apartments don’t. Both move fast, hopping from city to city.
This lifestyle is also documented by client complaints on dedicated forums like gnoccaforum or gnoccatravels (“gnocca” being the Italian for “chick”).
Web entries describe encounters in graphic language, detailing the way women look, what they offer, costs, GPS coordinates to reach the location, and the presence of architectural barriers for people with disabilities.
In Italy’s vast online prostitution world, Chinese ads represent between five and 10 percent of the offers.
“We are in regular contact with 13 Chinese women working on the street,” says Benetello, also an Italian-Chinese cultural mediator in Venice. “We accompany them to regular checkups and help them out with documents. Their average age is around 50. The youngest is 32, the oldest is 62.
“Women who work on the street or inside apartments are older because they come from previous work experiences, either as laborers or maids,” she said. “Never-ending work shifts had a very strong impact on women’s bodies, mind and psychology.”