China has 130 million migrant workers—the largest migration in human history. In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, tells the story of these workers primarily through the lives of two young women, whom she follows over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the assembly lines of Dongguan, an industrial city in China’s Pearl River Delta.
As she tracks their lives, Chang paints a never-before-seen picture of migrant life—a world where nearly everyone is under thirty; where you can lose your boyfriend and your friends with the loss of a mobile phone; where a few computer or English lessons can catapult you into a completely different social class. Chang takes us inside a sneaker factory so large that it has its own hospital, movie theater, and fire department; to posh karaoke bars that are fronts for prostitution; to makeshift English classes where students shave their heads in monklike devotion and sit day after day in front of machines watching English words flash by; and back to a farming village for the Chinese New Year, revealing the poverty and idleness of rural life that drive young girls to leave home in the first place. Throughout this riveting portrait, Chang also interweaves the story of her own family’s migrations, within China and to the West, providing historical and personal frames of reference for her investigation.
A wide-ranging, deep, and humanizing look at the women who work in the factories of China’s Southern coast.
These factories are huge, almost beyond comprehension.
Seventy thousand people work at [Yue Yuen’s] Dongguan factory. Imagine the entire population of Santa Fe, New Mexico, under the age of thirty and engaged in making athletic shoes.
Chang follows migrant workers as they arrive, jump factories looking for better conditions and pay, and go home to celebrate the new year. She sits in on a White-Collar Secretarial Skills Special Training Class, goes to karaoke at a hotel where women are part of the entertainment, and checks out “Assembly-Line English” where students sit for hours reciting columns of words as they float past. And most importantly she talks to these women about their goals, their dreams, and what they hope to gain by moving so far away from home in order to work.
Chang’s narrative voice is solid and assured, the tone engaging. The facts are all here and well reported but she goes further, digging for deeper truths. At first I thought a chapter detailing her own family history was a mere sidebar, but it comes back later to link in with the modern day tale in deep ways I hadn’t foreseen. It’s a technique I’ve seen in Japanese newspaper opinion pieces – talk about two wildly different things, then draw them together in masterful and unexpected ways – and Chang does a wonderful job of it. She also writes some gorgeous prose:
At night, the factories lining the highways are lit. Look closely and you can sometimes see shadows moving against a window, erratic as fireflies – as long as there is light, people are still working. Each strip of blue-lighted windows against the dark signals a single factory; one strip is set apart from the next, like stately ocean liners on the sea. From a distance, they are beautiful.
I loved reading about these women and their stories. A hearty recommend for anyone wondering what life is like in modern China.