I reviewed Leslie’s book as part of cover story for an Italian magazine East.
A Story of Modern China
Review of The Factory Girls
By Lijia Zhang
Under Chairman Mao, the farmers were chained to their land. Deng Xiaopeng’s economic reforms have allowed them to leave their poor villages to come to the city to look for work and a better life. The result is the largest migration in human history. Now, there are about 250 millions migrant workers (the book, published in 2008, quotes 130 million) – or nongmingong, virtually, peasant workers. They have built the highways and taller and taller buildings; they’ve taken over the worst and dirtiest jobs in the city; they manufacture a large percent of goods consumed by people around the globe. Their hard and cheap labour has fuelled China’s economy. They are the unsung heroes of the so-called “economic miracles”.
Since I came from a factory background, people often ask me what’s it like to be a worker today I’d always send people to read Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, a vivid portrait of migrant girls working in factories in Dongguang, the world’s manufacture center in southern China’s Pearl River Delta. There have been other books and heaps of articles on the subject, but none of them delves so deeply into the lives of these workers as author Chang, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. The young girls, mostly in their late teens and early twenties, leave home because they are poor, because there’s nothing to do at home and because they are curious about the outside world. The city people call them ‘floating population’, which “suggests an aimless mob, but most migrants leave home with a work objective in mind, in the company of a relative or a fellow villager who already knows the way”, Chang observes.
Their lives in the city are hard. We learn how a day on the assembly stretches from eight in the morning until midnight – thirteen hours plus two breaks for meals – and workers labor every day for weeks on end. And they feel lonely and isolated – they live a separate life from the urban dwellers. Yet, they can make more money in a month than their parents can in a year.
Factory Girls offers fresh insights. Contrary to the common belief, the young migrant workers actually don’t come from the farm: they come from school. “Farming is something they have watched their parents do.”
They may be looked down upon by the city people, the migrants are the rural elite: younger, better educated, and more enterprising than the people they leave behind. Moreover, they are more adventurous. And it takes courage for any adventure.
And the factory girls are all strivers, like many Chinese. As I travel around the world more, I see this quality of my country men more clearly – their fierce determination in bettering themselves is rarely seen elsewhere in the world. Snatching their limited free time, the girls take evening classes to study computers or teach themselves English. This particularly resonates with me. As a young woman strapped in a regimental military factory, I once also studied English very hard, as an escape route.
For three years, Chang spends time with the girls, documents their lives and make friends with them, especially Chin and Chunming. It is not easy to keep in touch, let alone maintain friendships, as they jump from one job to another or they lose their mobile phones, therefore loosing contacts with all their friends. Luckily, Chang, an ABC – America born Chinese, blends easily into their world. If the author were a white male, the girls might not have been so open with her.
I am delighted that her effort has been richly rewarded, as evidenced in many awards. Factory Girls is probably the best book I come cross in recent years. (It’s not because Chang is a friend.)
It is not only well researched but also beautifully written. The prose is simple and neat, the style readers’ friendly and filled with the same energy demonstrated by the young workers she depicts. I love the way Chang uses metaphors to summaries a situation. Chunming, a restless girl from central China’s Hunan province, sells building materials in Dongguan for some time. Chang writes: “Her past was inscribed in its buildings, in the pipes that delivered water to one of the city’s grandest hotels, her personal history was written in plaster and steel and stone.”
My main criticism is the story of Chang’s own family’s history that budges in half way through the book. Her ancestors’ migration to Taiwan and United States distracts readers from the main story of today’s young migrants, thought it is interesting in its own way and I can see the parallel.
Migration changes fates. For all their suffering, loneliness and isolation, coming to the city has enriched their lives of the factory girls and given them the seductive taste of freedom, something that they can’t live without now. And for most of them, they have improved their lots, thanks to their determination and hard work. Because of them, I feel hopeful about my country’s future, despite the mountains of challenges we are facing.
I recommend Factory Girls to anyone who wishes to understand China because it is the story of modern China.