Inside China's Factories

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Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang.

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
Leslie T. Chang
Spiegel & Grau; 432 pages

The Gist
There are 60 million of them, and they make everything from the sneakers on our feet to the mobile phones we carry. But to most of the world, China's legions of migrant factory workers are faceless, the interchangeable gears whose revolutions drive the global economy. Chang, a journalist at the Wall Street Journal, spent two years reporting in the gritty southern boomtown of Dongguuan trying to put human faces on these workers, and the ones she finds are extraordinary: overwhelmingly female, jarringly young and driven as much by the desire to see the world beyond their village as by financial necessity. They are, more than anything else, the face of modern China: a country increasingly turning away from its rural roots and turbulent past and embracing a promising but uncertain future.

Highlight Reel
1. On Dongguan, the fast-changing boomtown where Chang does the majority of her reporting: "No one is sure how many people live here. According to the city government, Dongguan has 1.7 million local residents and almost seven million migrants, but few people believe these official figures...Dongguan is invisible to the outside world. Most of my friends in Beijing had passed through the city but all they remembered — with a shudder — were the endless factories and the prostitutes. I had stumbled on this secret world, one that I shared with six million, or eight million, or maybe ten million other people."

2. After hearing that her boss is looking to replace her, Lu Qingmin quits her job in a factory's human resources department: "In August 2004, two months after she arrived, Min collected her pay and left without telling anyone... she spent the night in a hotel near her factory; while she slept, someone broke the lock on her door. The thief took nine hundred yuan [about $130] and Min's mobile phone, the only place where she had stored the numbers of everyone she knew in the city: the ex-colleague who was her only link to her new job, the friends she had made since going out, and the boyfriend who had gone home... With the theft of her phone, the friendships of a year and a half vanished as if they had never been. She was alone again."

3. At one of Dongguan's numerous self-help seminars, where factory girls pay to learn how to improve themselves and find better jobs: "It was the strangest jumble of ideas I had ever encountered, combining the primacy of the individual with rules that were at once New Age and rigid...the message was modern — express yourself, be confident — but it came with traditional assumptions: You will lift up your whole family....I noticed something: the students did not fall asleep. They did not look bored. No one ever left to use the bathroom during the two-hour class; they were afraid they might miss something...They took only what they needed, grasping the principal lesson long before I did: If you look and act like someone of a higher class, you will become that person."

4. On factory girls' social lives: "Many women regarded apartment ownership as a prerequisite for a date. That was common in Chinese personals, which sometimes read like real estate listings, as in this ad in a magazine for rural women: A 27-YEAR-OLD MAN...DIVORCED WITH AN OPEN NATURE...POSSESSING A FIVE-BEDROOM TILE HOUSE WITH FURNITURE, MODERN APPLIANCES, AND A MOTORCYCLE, SEEKS A WOMAN TO BE A PARTNER FOR LIFE. The preoccupation with property was not as mercenary as it appeared, like height, apartment ownership was a marker, a sign that a man could be depended on."

The Lowdown:
As Chang notes, Dongguan is where the First Opium War sent China's Qing Empire on its headlong course towards eventual collapse — and is also where China's first foreign-owned factory opened in 1978. Factory Girls is one of the few books on modern China that deals more with the ramifications of the second milestone than the first, to Chang's great credit. For Dongguan's factory girls, the Cultural Revolution, The Great Leap Forward and the other injustices of the Mao era are stories from aged relatives and history books (As one girl asks another during a discussion on politics, "I can't remember, who's Mao now? Jiang Zemin?").

And while the morbid pull of China's brutal twentieth century history is ever present, it's the portraits of the migrant workers and their lives — at once exciting and mind-numbingly boring, crowded and starkly isolated — that are at the book's heart. The painstaking work Chang put into befriending these girls and drawing out their stories is evident, as is the genuine affection she has for them and their spirit.

Verdict: Read