Saturday, July 31, 2010

Factory Girls

I've just realized that Leslie Chang, author of Factory Girls: From
Village to City in a Changing China, which I'm reading this week, is
married to Peter Hessler, author of Country Driving: A Journey Through
China from Farm to Factory, which I read a couple of weeks ago. Here's
a review of Factory Girls, from the The Independent:

Factory Girls, By Leslie T Chang
Reviewed by Justin Hill
The Independent, 13 March 2009

"There was nothing to do at home, so I went out." So begins the
journey of millions of young Chinese migrants as they seek work in one
of the "instant cities" of southern China. Many are young girls who
drop out of school and head south in ones or twos, with often little
more than determination and a relative's phone number or a factory
name. Factory Girls is their story, written by a former Wall Street
Journal correspondent.

One of the biggest challenges Leslie Chang faced during her research
was simply maintaining contact. The girls live in a feverish city with
over ten million young migrants, who switch friends and factories
almost on a moment's whim, and where the loss of a mobile phone often
means losing contact with everyone they know. To an outsider it might
seem foolish that any parent would let their 16 or 17-year-old child
into such an exploitative world, but Chang writes of the parents of
migrants: "At every stage they gave bad advice; they specialised in
outdated knowledge and conservatism born out of fear ... But once a
migrant got to the city, the parental message shifted dramatically:
Send home money, the more the better."

For the girls, it was often a simple decision. They were young and
ambitious and saw little for themselves in their rural towns. Their
motivations were similar to Western counterparts heading off on a gap
year: see the world, develop themselves, learn new skills. "To come
out from home and work in a factory is the hardest thing they have
ever done. It is also an adventure. What keeps them in the city is not
fear but pride: to return home early is to admit defeat. To go out and
stay out is to change your fate."

There are thousands of factories and millions of workers, and Chang's
descriptions of Dongguan are sometimes an Orwell-esque vision of
work-stations and dormitories; mass labour, morning exercises, and
booming slogans. "To die poor is a sin"; "Through doing something, you
will learn it"; "If you don't work hard today, you'll look hard for
work tomorrow." Job advertisements reduce people to shortlists of
acceptable characteristics: "Receptionist: sweet voice. Good
appearance and disposition. Knows office software and Cantonese."
"Sales specialist. Can eat bitterness and endure hardship. Open to men
and women with rural residency. No only children."

Employers are free to discriminate wildly and sometimes advertisements
state that people from a certain province need not apply. But the
constant moving of workers means that there are also hundreds of
vacancies, and to lie about your experience seems the best way of
getting a job. "No one in the factories of Dongguan had been properly
educated for the task at hand," Chang states, for China suffers from
an antiquated education system. "The needs of the Chinese economy were
changing so fast that the education system was not even trying to keep
up anymore."

Many of the girls do succeed, but find that success has not made them
happy. Min works in a designer handbag factory, and fills her room
with black-market bags. "That's for holding make-up," she says of a
Coach purse, while she stores her keys and ID in a Lacoste hobo bag of
sage-green suede.

It's a big story, difficult to research, but as a young Chinese
American woman Chang blends into this world. She has a good eye for
the social and economic forces at work, as well as the smaller-scale
backdrops against which the girls live their lives. As the book
progresses, Chang begins to find parallels between the girls' stories
and her own family's migrations, first to north-east China in the
1700s, then in the aftermath of the Second World War as they fled to
Taiwan and the US. Wherever the migration, the possibility of
exploitation and danger does not change, but neither do the
opportunities. The same hope of improvement drives all the characters.

China is a country that dazzles by scale but the success of this book
is to take the blurred crowd and bring the single human face into
fascinating focus. It is also an uplifting book, for the defiant and
determined voices of the girls stand out: "In all the time I knew
them," Chang writes, "the migrant girls never asked me for help, and
rarely even for advice. Life was something they faced alone, as they
had been telling me from the first day we met. 'I can only rely on

Here's a blog post by Leslie Chang about how she quit journalism to
become a writer: