Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China by Leslie T. Chang. Picador, 2010, ISBN-10: 033044736X, ISBN-13: 978-0330447362; 320 pages; paper $10.88; Kindle edition $11.99 at Amazon. (Note: Various editions are available with a slightly different title, dates of publication and number of pages.)
Reviewed by Andrea Klopper
Over a period of three years, from 2004 to 2006, Ms. Chang dipped in and out of the manufacturing hub of Dongguan in the far south of China (arguably not the “heart” of the country, as the title may claim, but one of many such regions). Low-tech factories from Hong Kong and Taiwan congregated here needing cheap land and labor which were abundant in the 1990s. Dongguan is described as “a city built for machines, not people” (19), “a city where everything is in the process of becoming something else” (20). Anyone who has lived in a Chinese city over the past ten years or so would be likely to say this is true of many places. It is also true for factory workers who are determined to become someone else, to improve themselves, even as mayors are trying to improve their cities.
Most migrants associate their places of origin or homes with poverty and backwardness. Their stories usually begin with “going out” (ch q). While it is initially hard to do, frequently requiring people who have gone before and returned with some success, it is also an adventure and means of changing one’s fate. All too often there was simply “nothing to do” back in the countryside. The cities offered prospectsof wealth and betterment. Yet, there was inevitably the contradiction of “missing their mothers” while “having the time of their lives,” and experiencing a freedom previously uncommon for young women. This is but one of the contradictions which riddle modern China.
Another contradiction that Chang identifies is the high profile rejection of the foreign presence in the Pearl River Delta. In the past, this revolved around trade, particularly the opium trade; now it is the “stealthy embrace” (30) of the recent foreign presence as bags and toys are manufactured for foreign consumption. In the midst of a mass movement of overwhelming proportions, as China’s urban migration undoubtedly is, Chang presents it on a more human-scale by looking at the lives of several young women with whom she develops a relationship.
A variety of features of migrant life are helpfully portrayed over the course of the book as the factory girls speak. There is the confusion and blurring of initial events, people and places when starting factory work. There is the risk-taking in standing up and standing out, such as when bosses are challenged. There are the precarious advantages of women who matter less than sons and so are somewhat freed to do what they want as well as showing an ability to rapidly adapt to city life in terms of clothes, hairstyles and accents. Life becomes defined by the seasons of the factory rather than the fields. There was a notable absence of discussion about, or interest in, political matters, though possibly this would be less the case among the growing web of netizens and the better working conditions of companies such as Foxconn.1
Underlying these aspects is invariably the search for a better life and hope for a brighter future. Work is a means to an end, and there is seldom interest shown in what the factories produce, for whom or why. Whereas Marx would perhaps ascribe this to alienation, the greater alienation of which the factory girls are aware is expressed in terms of loneliness and the lack of stable, lasting relationshipsso they can rely only on themselves. Hence, “to be a migrant was to be constantly abandoned by the people closest to you” (104), to become a veteran of departures and returns. Transience inevitably breeds loneliness, a theme noted more recently by Gerard Lemos of the BBC who writes of “loneliness spreading like pollution.”2 Whether it is due to changing jobs and changing factories or changing mobile phones and changing numbers, the result is the same.
Survival became a matter of focusing on the kindnesses that were shown to one, acquiring new skills that gave one an edge on others (such as sales techniques, speaking English and networking), standing one’s ground in the face of truculent bosses and demanding parents and lying about one’s actual work experience and abilities in order to advance. Often it was pride that made the workers stay on despite hardship; to return home would be face-losing defeat.
Chang entered into the world of the migrants at least monthly. She went on bus rides, read migrant magazines with stories of anguish and survival, attended fly-by-night “schools” and dating agencies, made fleeting friendships, went on the annual pilgrimage back home for Chinese New Year and discovered her own migrant story as she faced the past of her family. She observes that “then as now, all paths to success led away from the village” (131)just as her grandfather left his lo ja and a strand of the family ended up in the United States.
The book throws up a number of questions. To what extent does the loosening of roots that seems to inevitably occur in migration lead to an initial denial of the pain of that past which deprives people of a deeper understanding of their history and a richer sense of identity? Perhaps this is something to which these factory girls will return in a more reflective vein in later years, as has the author herself done. How will these work experiences look as these factory girls are now entering their thirties, perhaps married and with children who grow up in a very different world? How has the even greater access to, and influence of, computers, mobile phone technology and the Internet impacted the life of factory girls today? How similar are the experiences of factory girls and workers in other industries, such as construction, which has been largely the preserve of migrating males?
As with most books about “modern China,” they become outdated. The author is aware of this danger, but in looking at individuals rather than issues she feels that time and place are transcended (426), and that the transformations in individual lives may ultimately prove more significant. That said, this book describes quite a different China in as much as the optimism fueled by an economy growing at a staggering pace of ten percent per annum (and faster in the south) has undoubtedly slowed.3 The world economic crisis post-2008 is dragging on and rippling outwards. There is more skepticism and doubts about the accessibility of earlier dreams. However, the book serves as a reminder that individuals and their stories matter. People deserve to be given a voice and listened to. They add color and life to the dry statistics. We discover that there are things shared by all those who “go out”be it from a village, city or nationand go through the process of “recreating” or “reinventing” themselves. They are “strivers” (404).
There is the pathos inherent in much of China’s past that people all too often have to rely on themselves. This highlights the need for avenues of hope and underscores the need for them to be pointed to a God who is totally reliable, ever present, stable and has their best interests at heart; a God who works in the lives of people “on the move.”
Among her conclusions, Chang observes that the lives and struggles of the factory girls ” were emblematic of their country todayand of the China of my family too, who strived to make up for everything they had lost or left behind. In the end, across time and class, this is the story of China: leaving home, enduring hardship, and making new life” (404).
Chang has an easy-going, engaging style and gradually draws the reader into the lives of Min and Chun Ming, as well as her own. She observes them, offering some comment, but withholds judgment. With time, she is able to revise some of her earlier views as possibly too simplistic. For example, she initially suggests that a place like Dongguan has no past and the past plays no part, but four years later she has come to see that the past had been there all along (383). This suggests that not only are the factory girls “in process,” but so is she as the author. Her growing awareness of both herself and her personal history, about which she knows little and in which she had previously shown no interest, begins to appeal to her. This gives the book a greater depth and breadth that would otherwise be absent. It also contributes an autobiographical element and an ability to empathize with those seeking to “shift the burden of being born Chinese,” casting aside the weight of family, history and nation (382-3).
While Chang’s book will definitely provide readers with insights into the lives of many in this vast nation, the most valuable reminder may well be that there is an inherent needand valuein taking time to listen to people’s hearts as revealed through their stories, and to engage in ways that will truly change their “fate.” Reading this book is one way to get a glimpse and hear.
1See assorted articles in www.bbc.co.uk/news.
2www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-19827537, 16 October 2012.
3China growth slows to 7.5% as the demand for the country’s exports drop, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-19975112, 18 October 2012.
Andrea Klopper has taught in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and China. She has mentored Mandarin language students and developed a cultural orientation and acquisition program which she used in two organizations. She is now being challenged to make friends in a new location and learning a new language. She …View Full Bio