Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Factory Girls

Factory Girls : From Village to City in a Changing China
© Leslie Chang
420 pages

China as a whole may have a third more men than women because of the one-child rule and a preference for male children, but in Dongguan it's a different story. There, women outnumber the men, for it is they who fill the factories and help expand the Chinese economy.  When Leslie Chang learned how many Chinese women -- girls, really, for many are teenagers -- were leaving their villages to find work on the coast, she wanted to know and tell their story.  In her seven years living in China,  Chang also discovered a link to the lives of these women who opened up to her; her grandfather had once "gone out" of the village and sought his fortune, and both would do their part to build out China's future. Factory Girls is not an expose, but a long-term project of both journalistic  and personal interest, as Chang befriends a few women to learn about their lives as a whole: their work, their leisure, their aspirations,  and their attempts to find meaning in their associations and relationships.

Chang believes there are two key reasons women are so predominant in China's factories. First,  they're more likely to leave home for the factories, as sons are encouraged to stick close to the homes they'll one day inherit.  Men who go to the city are often relegated to dead end positions as cooks and security guards, because factory owners prefer hiring young women -- they being more patient and easier to manage. The Chinese cheerfully embrace sex discrimination in their want ads: tall men are solicited for one job, pretty women for another.  Chang muses that women have embraced the development zones more readily than their male counterparts because they don't have the security of the family  farm to take for granted.   After moving to the cities, few daughters want to go back home, anyway. They might yearn to see their family and visit once a year, but once there they miss the energy of the cities and resent their parents' authority. That authority is further compromised given that these families often depend on the money sent to them by their wandering children.

As with Country Driving, Factory Girls bears witness to the sheer amount of energy on China's southern coast, how companies and people are scrambling. "Jumping factories" to find better positions is the norm, but this does impose a cost on the employees:  no sooner do they make friends at a factory do those friends disappear, sometimes leaving the city altogether.  Although the first generation of migrant employees  were self-conscious of their in-between status, and read magazines and sang songs specifically about the migrant experience,  most women who move to the cities quickly embrace their status as residents of the New China. They constantly re-invent themselves,  trying new hairstyles and styles of clothing seemingly every week.  This is not merely curiosity or vanity;  many takes classes to instruct them in how to find white-collar work, and it's more about presentation than skills. Skills can be learned on the job; what has to be learned before that is how to sell one's self as a confident, personable professional who can shake hands and trot out a little English from time to time. There's also a growing class of courtesans, 'karaoke girls', and prostitutes who take 'selling themselves' somewhat more literally.  With the right madam, in the right area, ladies of the night can make in a week what their sisters in the factories make in a month.   Chang also notes a search for meaning among these new urbanites, who explore previously forbidden religions, including China's traditional occult practices with obscure origins.

Chang  occasionally includes chapters about her own search for her roots, and the discovery  that her grandfather had once "gone out" of China, only to return and be killed by the Communists.  Chang sees a big difference between her grandfather's story and those of her  new friends in China: while he viewed his travels and work as something done to better China and his family, the women were largely concerned with themselves and their own stories. Chang seems to approve of the change, even as she documents the loneliness and restlessness that has resulted from these young people not having any larger purpose in mind in their lives; supporting their parents is obligatory, and done more out of reflexive duty than purposeful choice.

Although this book is approaching its fifteenth anniversary and China's economy and society have presumably changed much in the past two decades, all of his is consistent with books like Country Driving which were published a few years later. Like Country Driving, the chief appeal here is human interest,  concentrating around the lives of  few young women whose stories illuminate the loves of millions of others. Definitely of interest to those curious about modern China, and particularly its women.

Fun fact: Leslie Chang is married to Peter Hessler, author of Country Driving. No wonder there was so much overlap!  They were working the same territory, so to speak..


  1. hmmm the social dynamics of overpopulation; probably a master's thesis in there somewhere... good review, and thought provoking... tx...

  2. Hopefully I'll make my own contribution (as a reviewer!) to the ongoing conversation regarding China @ some point in 2018. The 3 books I have in mind are *slowly* edging closer to the read next pile....

    1. I will have a little more, too, as I tended to drift towards books about modern India and China instead of reviewing their history!


Thank you for visiting! Because of some very clever spambots, I've had to start moderating comments more strictly, but they're approved throughout the day.