Milan, Prato, Rome and Venice, Italy – 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 any more.”
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.
“Labourers 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 paralysed 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 organised 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?
According to Marianna Benetello from the Numero Verde Nazionale in aiuto alle vittime di tratta e/o grave sfruttamento (Italy’s hotline for victims of trafficking and/or exploitation), around 30 Chinese women work on the streets of the Venice area. Others are in about a dozen massage parlours, 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 parlours 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 labourers or maids,” she said. “Never-ending work shifts had a very strong impact on women’s bodies, mind and psychology.”
Chinese workers in Italy are forced to live in factories to be more productive. When large orders arrive, they often work up to 16 hours a day. Labourers are paid per piece, sometimes earning between 1,500 and 2,000 euros ($1,685 to $2,246) a month. But earnings are not proportional to people’s efforts.
Eventually, when their productivity decreases due to physical limits and sight problems, the workers lose their jobs.
Men are left with no choice but to return to China. Some women decide to stay, taking jobs as babysitters or maids for Chinese compatriots, for very low salaries. Others end up being exploited and enter prostitution.
“Exploitation passes very fast, and in a fluid way, from work exploitation to sexual exploitation,” Benetello said.
The Chinese started to reach Italy during World War II.
In the 1980s, their presence grew across the local garment sector, and in the booming 1990s, workers from across China relocated to produce clothes, shoes and handbags carrying the prized “Made in Italy” label.
Today, thousands work in small companies across Padua and other areas.
Around 50,000 Chinese are employed in Prato alone, Italy’s textile capital near Florence.
Several businesses have been accused of using undocumented migrant labour, ignoring safety rules and evading taxes.
In Prato, ads written in Chinese are found everywhere, reading: “Newly opened massage parlour, 18-year-old Chinese girls, newly arrived from China, very pretty, elegant, and well-mannered at your service.”
Others read: “Newly arrived young pretty girls from Taiwan. Full service.”
In light of their young age, social workers say human trafficking could be involved. Still, they say the hurdles that exist to accessing Chinese-only circles has made it impossible to connect with the victims directly.
Meanwhile, Chinese women working on the streets in Prato are older. Their clients are elderly Italian men or migrants. Women in this position keep an extremely low profile, wear modest attire and, in many cases, talk to potential clients while pretending to wait at bus stops or in public parks.
Around 300km north, in Milan, prices for sex with Chinese women on the street drop to between 20 and 30 euros ($22 to $34).
They work in a relatively central area, day and night. Most used to work in factories or massage parlours. Still, they prefer the street because it offers anonymity.
Yanyan*, a smartly dressed 45-year-old from China’s northeast, works every day with fixed clients in Milan’s Vallazze street.
The road is near cheap motels where prostitutes, also of other nationalities, bring clients.
Yanyan is divorced and moved eight years ago to support her son. After working in clothes factories, she needed a more lucrative job.
“I send money to my son when he needs it,” she said. “He lives with his grandmother and saves a lot. He is 25 and currently taking state exams to get a job in the public sector. This is a very hard exam. There are thousands of people fighting for that one place.”
For the past 25 years, China has undergone radical transformation and unprecedented economic growth, said Daniele Brigadoi Cologna, a Chinese language lecturer and researcher at the Insubria University of Como.
People are extremely worried about being left behind in the “race” to improve social status, he said.
This makes it very hard to offer alternatives to these women, whose only goal is to make money for their families and guarantee their own survival, social workers say.
“In this [struggle], people may feel that there are no clear boundaries and that everything is allowed,” Brigadoi Cologna says. “This pushes people to conceive their own commercialisation 360-degrees, embracing all aspects of life, starting with work.”
This is the driving force setting migration in motion.
“All women and men arrive using a tourist visa for a planned long stay in the country. Chinese migrants don’t enter the country via boats from the Mediterranean or from the Balkans,” said Lorenzo Gestri, Prato’s Public Prosecutor.
In 2014, his team found a group of Chinese people packed into an apartment with three-month Polish and French entry visas. The Schengen visa system allows people to legally travel across the European Union for 30 days after arrival.
“It seems a journey package costs between 7,000 and 10,000 euros ($7,863 and $11,232), including the visa, trip, lodging and several job offers. These trips are organised by middlemen back in China,” he said.
He added that it is difficult to pin down information on these middlemen.
“It is reasonable to think that the first year of work serves to repay the whole journey.”
When employers need labourers, fresh workers arrive almost immediately in Prato. Chinese scouts are allegedly in charge of recruiting new workers and coordinating their trip with organisers back in China.
“When people arrive, they lack all kinds of information, also ignoring the existence of a residency permit or their condition as [undocumented] migrants,” said Federica Festagallo, a China expert with Rome-based Be Free, a social cooperative against trafficking, violence and discrimination. “Chinese people only count on their own community when abroad.”
Also at a later stage, documents and residency permits are obtained with the help of people within their own community, in exchange for money.
“The person who exploits them is also the one who is feeding them, giving them a job and the chance to survive in Italy,” Festagallo said. “It is very hard to suggest to them to sue their exploiters.”
At the time of publication, the Chinese embassy in Rome had not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
“We don’t have any judicial cooperation with Chinese authorities,” said Gestri, Prato’s public prosecutor. “Each time we asked, [their] answers didn’t show availability to cooperate.”
We don't know who the owners of these parlours are. We can presume there is some criminal organisation behind them.
Among Italy-bound Chinese women, some are directly recruited to work in massage parlours.
They respond to adverts online and in Chinese newspapers.
Parlours protect clients by reducing the risk of police fines and also save them the money usually spent on motels.
Women, meanwhile, maximise their income by living and working on the premises.
Parlour windows are usually covered with pink or blue curtains, or tinted. A spy hole in the door allows women to see their clients arriving. On average, three to four work in one parlour.
“Comparing data gathered from clients chatting on online forums with information from social workers, we noticed that in two-thirds of the cases, women in massage parlours offer what they consider minor sexual services,” researcher Brigadoi Cologna said. “They do not think of themselves as prostitutes in the absence of complete sexual intercourse.”
At around 11:30am on a Monday, a woman in her late thirties wearing shorts and a tight t-shirt opens the door of a two-storey massage parlour in Milan’s Viale Padova.
Neon lights illuminate the bare architecture.
An Italian client carrying a backpack enters from another door and asks for the “usual” woman.
At this point, the woman makes brisk signs for these reporters to leave. The client begins walking downstairs to the lower floor, where the rooms presumably are.
“We don’t know who the owners of these parlours are,” said Carolina Jimenez, from the Somaschi foundation in Milan. “We can presume there is some criminal organisation behind them. What we see is that women are in charge of these spaces. They are probably prostitutes who managed to make a career over the years and climb a sort of career ladder. Still, the women don’t tell the whole truth.”
Back in Venice, on the streets of Mestre, Meiling*, Xiaoyan’s flatmate, said she has been in Italy for the past 20 years.
After working for 14 years in Chinese-run businesses making leather goods, the 51-year-old became a masseuse on Italian beaches. She moved to massage parlours later on but quit when she injured her hand.
“When I work on the street, I usually have a couple of clients a night,” she said. “Before landing on the street I tried to run a shop but went bankrupt shortly after. I lost 35,000 euros ($39,000).
“Meanwhile, my husband fell sick in China and I had to pay 60,000 euros ($67,300) 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?”