Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 320 pages; 2010.
Since the 1990s China has undergone rapid economic development. It’s no exaggeration to say that practically every useful item that we buy in the West — for example, shoes, t-shirts, laptops and mobile phones — was made in a factory somewhere in China. But what of the people who work in those factories? What sort of lives do they lead? How is China’s rise to power affecting them?
Leslie T. Chang, a Chinese American, wrote Factory Girls as a means of exploring these very questions. She says she didn’t want to write about the harsh conditions in the factories, because that had already been done. Instead, she wanted to concentrate on the workers and tell their stories.
Over the course of two years she follows two young women, Min and Chungming, who leave their rural villages — what is known as “going out” — in pursuit of a better life earning a regular wage in a factory. In China, these young women (and men) are “rural migrants”. There are 130 million of them (one-third of which are female), representing “the largest migration in human history, three times the number of people who emigrated to America from Europe over a century”.
Chang says she specifically wanted the book to focus on women, because they “seemed to have the most to gain in leaving the village but also maybe the most to lose”.
Dongguan, in the south-west, was the logical place to start. It is one of the largest factory cities in China, with a population of almost 7 million people, 2 million of them rural migrants. Some 70 per cent of the workforce is female.
What Chang discovered was surprising. While I won’t go into specific details about Min and Chungming — you need to read the book to discover their ups, downs, successes, failures, and the corruption and dangers to which they are exposed, all of which is gripping stuff — in general the women did not see factory work as we in the West might view it. They saw it as an opportunity to better themselves, to escape their rural lives and to achieve some measure of career success.
They also enjoyed a more fluid job situation than their male counterparts, and were often promoted more quickly. They were more flexible, in terms of fitting in, because they “quickly adopted the clothes, hairstyles and accents of the city”.
But if you are female, rural migration is a double-edged sword:
If migration liberated young women from the village, it also dropped them in a no-man’s land. Most girls in the countryside were married by their early twenties, and a migrant woman who postponed marriage risked closing off that possibility for good. […] Social mobility complicated the search for a husband. Women who had moved up from the assembly line disdained the men back in the village, but city men looked down on them in turn.
Despite Chang’s insistence that she didn’t want to write a book looking at factory conditions, she does provide some interesting pen-portraits of what it is like to work in these places. I found it eye-opening: the factory, no matter what it produces, is pretty much a way of life. Employees sleep in factory dorms, eat in factory cafeterias, are treated in factory hospitals. One factory that Chang visits employees 70,000 people!
Typically, the pay is usually low and the working hours extreme. Privacy is non-existent, as this excerpt describing one of Chang’s visits, explains:
Girls stand in doorways combing their shampooed hair in hand mirrors; girls in shorts and flip-flops lug buckets of water to mop the dormitory floors. Residents of the upper floors lean on bare arms over balcony railings, checking out the goings-on at ground level and calling out to friends many stories below. A pop ballad blasts from a tape deck into the muggy morning. I love you, loving you, as a mouse loves rice. The air smells of laundry hanging out to dry; bleach, detergent, and damp are the perpetual scents of the Yue Yuen factory.
Interestingly, migration, once a last resort, has now become an acceptable, indeed desirable, route to a better life. Chang says today’s migrants are “younger and better educated than their predecessors” and that “they are driven out less by the poverty of the countryside than by the opportunity of the city”.
One of the girls she follows, Min, is able to support herself and her family in the countryside, buying them new things — a TV, furniture and so on — and upgrading their lifestyle in the process. It’s not uncommon for young rural migrants who work hard to buy their parents a bigger, better, more modern house or apartment.
But Factory Girls isn’t just a book about modern China. Chang includes a dual narrative that gives a nod to the past. This narrative focuses on her own Chinese roots, in which she returns to her ancestral village and learns about her family, particularly her grandfather who was assassinated after World War Two. This adds an extra dimension to what is already a superb journalistic endeavour.
This is a book that puts a human face to China’s ongoing economic development, but ultimately the book works because these are human stories that transcend time and place. And you don’t even have to be remotely interested in China to appreciate Chang’s effortless and engaging writing style. Highly recommended.