In Conversation with Leslie T. Chang, author of Factory Girls
There's been a lot written in recent years on the sweatshop
conditions inside Chinese factories. Yet in Factory Girls, you describe a
job on the assembly line in terms of adventure, opportunity, even liberation.
Doesn't this contradict the reality of factory life?
Certainly conditions in the factories are tough. Most of the young women I
got to know while researching this book worked thirteen hours a day, seven days
a week when they first started out. Their wages were often late; many had no
idea how much they would be paid from month to month, because the factory
charged fees for all sorts of things over which they had no control. But you
have to remember that the world looks very different when you're coming from a
Chinese farming village. What we think of as miserable living conditionsbad
food, tedious labor, living twelve or fifteen to a roomare a given to these
workers. Their response is usually not to complain or protest, as a typical
American might, but to look for any slight advantage that would lead to an
improvement in their situations. I think that's the reason you see a lot less
protest in these factories than you might expect. These workers are constantly
calculating what is in their own best interest. Usually they decide that talking
a boss into giving them a raise or jumping to a different job is a better option
than challenging the factory directly.
Early in your book, you meet two young women who had come out from their village
twenty days before "and already they were changed." How does going to the city
For most of these young people, working in the factory marks the first time
in their lives that they have ever earned cash. That immediately changes their
relationship with their parentshaving money gives them a lot more leverage in
family decisions, for example. It makes them think more carefully about what
skills they need to move up, and also what kind of person they might marry, or
how they want to raise their children someday. Over time, the experience of
working in the city can completely transform their view of the world and their
expectations of life. When I first met Min, a young woman who became one of my
book's main characters, she told me she would work in the city for seven years
and then return home to get married. Over time, as she became more established
and more ambitious, those plans went out the window.
Both Min and Chunming, the two young women who are the book's main
characters, end up rising from the factory floor into better-paying work. Did
you choose them because they were success stories?
Actually, I wasn't looking for any great successes or great failures when I
started my reporting. Both Min and Chunming had pretty typical profilesthey
came from poor farming families, they had not attended high school or college,
and they had come out to the city as teenagers to work in the factories. Beyond
that, the main reason I ended up focusing on them was because they were engaging
and open and easy to talk to, and they were willing to have me follow them
around for what ended up being three years.
This approachof getting to know a person and watching what happens to them in
real timeis very different from more traditional journalism, where you decide
to write about someone because you already know his story and then all that's
left for you to do is to "back-report" everything that's already happened. But
that approach tends to pre-determine your story from the start. If you want to
show that it's easy to be successful, choose someone who has already succeeded.
If you want to show the opposite, start with someone else.
Is this open-ended reporting easy to do in a place like China?
I think China today is really an ideal place for the kind of reporting that
follows someone in real time. Because people's lives are changing so
dramatically, if you are willing to spend a year or two with someone, you are
basically guaranteed to see change and transformation. That's true all along the
economic spectrum, but probably most pronounced in the lives of the rural poor,
which is one reason I wanted to write about them.
You were a journalist at the Wall Street Journal in China for ten
years. How did this experience shape the research and writing of your book?
Definitely my reporting experience in China helped me. I knew how to find
information, I knew which Chinese newspapers were useful, I could locate
scholars if I wanted some background on what I was seeing. I find that when
people come to China "cold" to report, they tend to have a subconscious sense
that a lot of things are unknowable, but that isn't usually true.
Were there ways you worked differently than you would have as a newspaper
Yes, I found I had to unlearn a fair amount in order to research this book.
For starters, I had to throw out the traditional interview technique of writing
down a bunch of questions in your notebook beforehand and then running through
them in the course of the interview. I found it was best just to arrange to
spend a day with someone, to watch and be quiet and see what developed. There's
a lot of downtime, and I had to learn to be patient. Journalism is fueled by
impatience; you are always being rushed to wrap up your reporting, write your
story, get out of town. If I had met either Min or Chunming at certain
pointswhen Min was robbed of her savings and her mobile phone, or when
Chunming's first business went bankruptand then written about them right away,
I would have gotten a pretty dire picture. Because I hung around with them for
three years before I wrote anything, I could see the broader trajectory of their
lives. It was very different than what you could see at any given moment.
You include your own family story in this book, even though your family
background is very different from that of the migrant workers. How did this come
It started by chance. In the spring of 2005 while I was doing my factory
reporting, I took a book leave from the Wall Street Journal, and because
I had more free time I decided to visit my ancestral village in northeastern
China. I started piecing together the details of how my grandfather had left
this tiny farming village in 1916 to attend school in Beijing, then to go to
America and later to return to China, where he was assassinated shortly after
the Second World War. My father basically retraced that journey forty years
laterfrom Beijing to Taiwan to Americaand then, forty years after that, I made
the reverse journey from America back to Beijing. I realized that including my
family's history of migration and immigration would make the book more personal
but also universalafter all, you could say that the story of people leaving
home in search of a better life is really the story of all nations and all
people. Bringing in the history of China in the twentieth century, through my
own family's experiences, also gave context to what was going on in the factory
towns. I don't think a place like Dongguan, with all of its hunger, energy,
industry, and pragmatism, could exist without the traumas that China has endured
over the last century.
Choosing to include my family story also made sense from a writing point of
view. It freed me to write about history, which gave the book a different pacing
and rhythm. I hope it also made my own character in the book more
interestingbecause I was discovering my own family story and meeting relatives,
I became more than just a reporter and an observer. I could develop my voice as
a writer and bring more of my own emotions into the book, and explore more
directly the complicated feelings I had about China.