Factory Girls offers a previously untold story about the immense population of unknown women who work countless hours, often in hazardous conditions, to provide us with the material goods we take for granted. A book of global significance, it demonstrates how the movement from rural villages to cities is remaking individual lives and the fates of families, transforming our world much as immigration to America's shores remade that society a century ago.
Leslie Chang’s book is a collection of stories: the stories of the rural women who left their homes for the city, the unfolding of China, and Chang’s own family history.
Chang makes the journeys of the millions of rural women migrant human by following the lives two women, Min and Wu Chunming, as they went out into the city, seeking jobs and a better life than their parents’. She really engages the in the course of their lives as they first arrive in the wilderness of the city, following in the footsteps of someone’s “gone out” before, either a family member or someone they know from their village. Although there are risks---for example, Chunming was almost sold into prostitution---there’s no real alternative. But it’s not all about economics. Like most Westerners, I automatically assume the reason behind the migration is economics, so I was surprised to learn that another major driving force was boredom: "There was nothing to do at home, so I went out." Another misconception I had was, I’d thought that the migrants would go off to the city and work in the factories for a while, and then head back home to retire on their parents’ farm. But I was wrong (and again, it was a woman who corrected me :J); they’re making a life in the city. For example, when Min does go back home for the Chinese New Year, within a day (or so), she’s itching to head back to the city, even though she’d complained about how much work there is. Nor is it only Min and her older sister, Guimin, the ones who went to the city. Her younger siblings who are still home don’t know much about the workings of the farm, either (there is a funny moment when Min’s younger sister, Sar, goes out to feed the chickens that’s lifted right out of "City Slickers"). It’s as if the two generations have been severed from one another. That’s another surprise: the fact that Min has four siblings. Once they’re home, the boredom comes into play: there simply isn’t anything to do back home (aside from the TV), and she’s changed, home may be the same, but she isn’t. And her parents, who did migrate to the city for jobs and came back home to the farm, there’s a pervading feeling of . . . being stuck on the farm, and there’s a wall between them (Min’s parents wants her to come back to their village, get married, and start her life there, while Min wants something else entirely). There are other changes. With her new economic muscle, the balance has shifted at home, and the traditional Confucian hierarchy has almost upended. Another surprise was the sheer chaos and ad hoc-ness of the migration; it was like the pioneers going West; they just went and winged it. And their daring, how they hopped from one job to another without refrain, was amazing. There are Chunming’s diary entries, her efforts to improve herself, so that she might become someone else and thus be happy. Chang---the author---really delves into the migrants’ lives, and takes the reader along in a way that although is intimate, does not seem intrusive. She’s a good storyteller.
Chang manages to weave in her insights of China into the migrants' threads without faltering. The story flows pretty evenly, although . . . Her own family's history, though, wobbles here and there. Um, that's a bit vague. What I mean to say is, there are instances when Chang is right in the middle of telling Min or Chunming's story when she interrupts it to veer into her own family's history in China. I'm not suggesting that it doesn't add depth to the overall story, just . . . maybe she could've used some more segues in that transition. But those instances are more often than not the exceptions. She's very discerning. One of her most intriguing insights she had was, as the migrants began gathering economic muscle the hierarchy shifted from a top-down order to a more horizontal order. They become less constrained by tradition and orders from back home (for example, how Min dealt with her parents when she's job-hopping or boyfriend-seeking), especially as they spend more time in the city and the ties with their old lives are loosened. As they gain economic stability, they're pursuing their own "American Dream." Their ambition grows, and they're exerting themselves, and that's how China's going to be changed. It' won't be changed from the top-down or by the intellectuals, but by bottom-up and through the migrants. That's something I've read in other places, but Chang really puts a human face on it. I know, that's such a cliche, but she's not seeing it through Disneyesque lens. She approaches it as it is, as if, as if, I don't know, as if she's saying, "For the next 400 or so pages, I'm going to be your eyes and ears into the lives of these migrant women, and along the way I'm going to tell you a little bit about myself, and maybe we'll learn a little something about China."
It's a good read. I recommend it, even if you're not interested in learning about China. Thanks for tuning in, and I hope you remembered to blink.
The book focuses on two young women, Min and Chungmin, and their struggles to advance up the economic ladder, with little education and no support but their own wits and intelligence. Are they representative? Probably not - they were open minded enough to make the friendship of a foreign, albeit Chinese speaking, journalist. Are their stories typical? Very much so and as Chang herself points out the story of Napoleon's lowest foot soldier is more important that the story of Napoleon.
I couldn't agree more. A tremendous book
I’m glad that someone finally wrote a book like this. People in America like to focus on poor working conditions of factories in China, but what they don’t realize is that a lot of the people working in those factories would rather work 14 hour days sitting in an assembly line and earning 10x the amount they make doing back-breaking work on a farm. The author does a great job showing the lives of these girls who leave their village without imparting any judgement on them or their bosses.
I enjoyed reading the stories of the handful of girls who worked at one factory, jumped to the next, jumped to another job, and so on, but I thought the author’s own story of her family felt a bit tacked on. It made the book feel like it was trying to be two separate books. The author’s story could have gone in a separate book about families affected by the Communist Revolution.
The book is easy to read. Even though the factory girls’ stories started sounding similar toward the middle of the book (that was the point), it never felt like a chore to read. I’d recommend the book to anyone interested in the side of the story that doesn’t usually get covered in western newspapers.
Most of the workers are young girls from farming villages, who have left school and their families to live in factory dormitories. At Yue Yuen the average salary for an assembly line job is 72 dollars a month. The work day is 11 hours, with 60 hours a week and Sunday off. In other less generous factories, working through the night is not unheard of.
The world of work, family, love and play of some of these girls comprise the stories in this wonderful book. The author was born in China, but raised in the United States. She was a writer for the Wall Street Journal, but had the ability and the moxie to live among the factory girls, make friends with them, visit their living spaces and their families in villages. She said that the move from farm to city by the youth of the country was the largest migration in history.
The girls change jobs rapidlly, often lying about their qualifications or experience. They take classes in behavior or Englsh, and some even use internet dating services. They acquire lovers or boy friends from villages or cities far from their own. The parents of these girls push them to contribute money to the family but by doing so the girls gain independence and ascendance over their peasant parents.
The author visited her family village in Manchuria where the temple and home were torn down. Her uncle who was murdered during the Cultural Revolution was rehabilitated. The mine where he was murdered is now named after him.
Instead of the factory girls, the author follows the lives of a few white collar women. Like in the Wild West, success seems to go to the cheaters and snake-oil sellers. It is not by hard work but by accepting bribes and kickbacks that one acquires a fortune. The right connections and the suitably forged documents are the ticket to wealth. Her description of manufacturing and business processes makes one wonder how the Chinese products hold together at all and manage to pass some quality controls. While the Japanese seem to strive for technical perfection, the Chinese aim to cut corners.
Hurt, they often are in this abrasive process. Despite their economic gains, Chang's account does not present happy people but drained women in a rat race who cannot enjoy what they have as long as an acquaintance has more. If hell is other people, China is not lacking in company. A Chinese train trip during the New Year season must indeed be painful.
A bit redundant among the tales of new China, Chang includes, over multiple chapters, the story of her rediscovering her own Chinese roots (at the other end of China). This highlights the book's big weakness: Her need to distinguish her Western, American, Taiwanese, educated, rich family/person from the poor, ignorant, Cantonese/provincial Chinese. Her husband, Peter Hessler, whose book Country Driving covers some of the same topics in its middle part, possesses the self assurance to be willing to look strange and foolish among the natives. Her Chinese roots (and thus the possibility of being actually considered Chinese) makes her struggle to maintain her superiority and distance, a fact her interlocutors notice too. Recommended.
I was particularly impressed with Chang's writing, which is accessible but smart, loaded with nuance and insights. The book is thoughtful and stimulating, and conveys with telling details what life is like for migrants, both in the factories and back at home in the village. At the same time, it's depressing: the rapidly growing cities have a deeply amoral culture, in which workers lie to obtain jobs for which they are totally unqualified, steal from their employers, extort kickbacks from business partners, and spend much of their time feeling lonely. While Chang largely avoids judging her friends, I felt a consistent note of sadness at the ways in which the migrants' hopes for themselves, and capacity for empathy for others, were repeatedly undercut by the realities of their lives. The world Chang sketches seems profoundly alienating, and I wonder how it compares to the culture of American cities in the 1800s, during the era of great migrations and industrial revolutions there.
Getting into a factory is easy, what is harder is getting out. Employers often withhold up to 2 months of pay, and if an employee wants to quit, they face losing that pay if the employer does not want to let them go. Most workers live in dormitory type rooms at the factories; one factory, which employs over 70,000 people, even has its own hospital.
But still, most of the young workers, in spite of the low pay and long hours, see work on the assembly line as way to a better life; it's still more money than they would have been able to earn staying in their villages. A lot of the young women are able to work their way to office jobs within the factories. Even after long 12 hour shifts, many will take classes after work ends for the day, including learning English, to enable them to have a better future.
The author also weaves the story of her own family history throughout the story, which provides a contrast between the values and attitudes of more traditional times, to modern times.
This was a very interesting read,and it certainly made me think more about the people who make so many of the products that are used here in the U.S. and around the world.
The author follows three young women during three years. There are no explanations as to how she decided on these three women, or whether other women were interviewed during the same period. The interviews themselves are not included. Still, a fairly comprehensive picture emerges.
The style of the book is that of journalism (the author is a journalist), so very readable with little attention to methodological encumbrance. A more serious problem with the book is that the author is selective in the information she presents to the effect of misleading. Regarding the salaries of the migrant workers she pipes the common Western view that the salaries are extremely low, and the workers are exploited. The author insufficiently makes clear what the meaning of poverty is, and that many Chinese people will take any opportunity to get away from the countryside to work in the city. The problem with a word such as "poverty" is that everyone thinks they know what it means while most Western people haven't seen any real poverty in their entire life.
Another flaw in the book is that the wages of the migrant workers are systematically incorrectly presented, and that deductions for food and accommodation are presented in a negative light. The reality in China is that China has a very high percentage of house ownership, and rental accommodation is very, very expensive. It is not unusual that migrant workers pay 130 US dollars for a bed per month: all the room they get for that is less than two square meters, and to prevent theft of their property, their part of the bunk bed is turned into a cage, which they can lock while they go out. Although communal kitchens in private home compounds were abolished decades ago, Chinese people are used to eating in canteens, where food is spooned out to them. These arrangements, while leaving little freedom, individuality or privacy are very common to China, where these terms have but a shade of the meaning they have in a country such as the United States.
A peculiar feature of the book is that more than 25% of it is devoted to telling the author's life story. There is absolutely no excuse for that other than amateurism and vanity.
Chang, a Chinese-American former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, spent several years researching this report of modern-day China, and the young women migrant workers who leave their small rural villages to go to work in the big-city factories. She focuses her story on two women in particular – Min and Chunming – expounding on the events in their lives to illustrate the plight of the hordes of workers just like them.
Personalizing the story in this way made it highly readable and interesting. As a reader, I was invested in their stories and wanted to know how things would turn out for them. I recognized their immaturity and winced at some of their rationalizations (remembering my own youthful mistakes), but also applauded their tenacity and determination.
However, Chang also uses the book to explore the history of modern-day China by giving us a history of her family. These sections, while illuminating (especially for the reader who is unfamiliar with the country’s political history), drew attention away from the central focus of the book and made me lose interest. I persevered in hopes Chang would get back to Min and Chunming, and fortunately she did.
Susan Ericksen did a fine job of the audio performance. Her pacing was good, and I believe her pronunciation was accurate (but since I don’t speak Chinese, I cannot really tell). However, readers completely unfamiliar with Chinese names may find it easier to read the text version to avoid confusion.
I read this book for my F2F book club and we had a very interesting and spirited discussion about modern-day China. However, this particular book group is made up of women business executives and 12 of the 14 of us had been to China. The usual book discussions on pacing, plot, character development, themes, etc don’t apply to a work of nonfiction such as this, so it may not be suitable for all book groups.
However, given that, this book gave me a real sense of what it’s like for young women in China today. Chang does a clear, thorough job of detailing the lives of women in transition, moving from the village to urban life. The women in this book are not stuck in their factories; they have a clear sense of their own destiny. She describes their friendships, their relationships to their families, their romantic struggles, their ways of living, their mobility, their dependence on cell phones, their ambitions, and their ethical beliefs.
Throughout most of the book, Chang maintains an observer stance, although she never entirely leaves herself out of the story. People’s reactions to her are revealing, too. But she also diverges from her main theme to tell the story of her own family history in China. She went back to visit her ancestral village, and to see hitherto unknown family members. I often wished this could have been a book of its own, since it didn’t always mesh with the rest of the book - although it does echo, on a larger scale, the patterns of the migrant workers who “go out” and then come home.
One thing that’s clear is that Chang’s attitude towards China changed in the writing of this book. She discovered things she didn’t expect - about herself and her own history, and about the factory girls she was studying. And I was surprised by the things she discovered as well.