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February 11, 2012

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Italian users' guide to Shanghai

THE city's first guide for Italians in Italian - - tells newcomers all the nuts and bolts of getting settled. And where to find Italian banks, Catholic churches and good Italian food. Caterina Bernardini chats with the founder.

Armed with only his passion for the Chinese language and a desire to discover the world outside Italy, Michele Soranzo plunged into Shanghai 10 years ago to make his fortune.

When he embarked on his China adventure, the man from Padua in northern Italy was 36.

His passion for China had begun long ago in Venice where he decided to learn the complicated Oriental language.

Soranzo first visited Shanghai in the late 1980s and was fascinated, but he returned to Italy, where he found no prospects and felt that his home country was "strange."

He traveled around for years, first living in Ireland and then in Egypt. He then decided to return to his first passion, China, and moved to Shanghai in early 2002.

He had really nothing to do. No jobs, no friends, no nothing, just the powerful wish to stay and create his own life in China. He started with small jobs in various companies; he wrote freelance articles for Italian newspapers and he acted in some Chinese TV sitcoms to earn some money. He remembers playing Socrates in a "world history" sitcom and he had to wear a heavy costume beard on a hot day.

He didn't give up and he wasn't discouraged. He met another Italian fellow, Matteo Paiato whose passion was the Internet and everything related to it. Together they came up with a big idea and a small project to realize it.

They wanted to help Italian people like themselves and introduce new expats to the "Chinese world," particularly in Shanghai.

In 2006, they developed the website for the city's small Italian population, only around 800 expats at the time. Today 2,045 Italians live in the city, among the 6,000 Italians living in the neighboring region that includes Hangzhou and Suzhou.

What is (living in Shanghai) really about?

"It's a little community on the net that can give useful advice to people who feel so confused in a land so different from theirs," Soranzo tells Shanghai Daily.

"It's a sort of Shanghai guide for strangers."

It provides information about settling down, residence permits and visas, schools, hospitals, shops, restaurants, transport - "all kinds of suggestions about understanding, getting around and behaving in the Oriental New York," he says.

Soranzo's and Paiato's purpose was generous, to help others so they wouldn't feel too disoriented in a new big city.

It was hard to get the word out and promote the site since they didn't have much money and advertising was very expensive.

But after a few years of hard work, making the rounds and developing a big network, became a great success. It's the only online Italian service of its kind and receives 20,000 visitors a month.

Now virtually every Italian expat knows The reason is simple: "People ask the little but important things they need to know to live in this country - and we have the answers," Soranzo says.

Visitors can find out, in Italian, of course, how and where to study Chinese, how to get a Chinese driver's license, how to find work, where to find good Italian food. There's information on Catholic churches and times of mass, Italian banks, hospitals and clinics where Italian is spoken.

The "City Life" section is filled with resources. also schedules trips to museums so that Italians can get acquainted with each other.

"Italian people try to find something of their country all over the world, and we can help them both to find a little Italian corner and to discover and explore this amazing city," Soranzo says.

"A lot of people are fascinated by this city and I understand that," he says. "Here I feel free, even if you have to interact with different people. It's interesting and exciting."

Soranzo is fluent in Chinese and encourages newcomers to learn "this wonderful language." He carries with him the addresses and contact information of good language schools and shares the information whenever he can.

And he isn't stopping there. He and his collaborators plan to create other websites for Italians, as well as websites for Chinese (in Chinese) who want to visit Italy.

So for a fellow who arrived in Shanghai with nothing to do, no jobs and no friends, Soranzo has built a unique and successful business that fills a need, and a large network of friends. With his passion for China, he really is bringing Italy and China closer together.

Michele Soranzo
Age: 46
Nationality: Italian
Profession: Website editor/business developer

Unstable, curious, lazy, rationally emotional

Favorite place:
For the view, the Bund, for leisure, the pubs Park Tavern, Camel Bar, Big Bamboo, etc.

Strangest sight:
Men shooting birds with air-rifles in the city center; also, the fish market at night.

Motto for life:
Fortitudine vincimus (By endurance, we conquer) or you zhi zhe shi jing cheng

Worst experience:
Having to eat snake at a dinner, having my bikes regularly stolen, and finding a large rat at home.

How to improve Shanghai:
Train bus drivers to drive more smoothly.

Advice for newcomers:
A fair price does not mean a cheap price.


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