BookBrowse Reviews Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Factory Girls

From Village to City in a Changing China

by Leslie T. Chang

Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang X
Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Oct 2008, 432 pages

    Aug 2009, 448 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Karen Rigby
Buy This Book

About this Book



An eye-opening and previously untold story, Factory Girls is the first look into the everyday lives of the migrant factory population in China

Considering the articles in recent years regarding toy recalls or melamine-tainted milk products, Factory Girls serves as a timely reminder of the human story behind the Chinese factories we often view in critical terms. Leslie T. Chang examines an easily forgotten facet: that factories represent a chance for millions to leave a rural life in search of higher wages, to escape traditional expectations, and to search for adventure—a migratory phenomenon known as chuqu, "to go out".

The city of Dongguan is brought to the foreground through a blend of immersion reporting, diary excerpts and research. As you would expect, we're given accounts of what it's like to work in the factories, but the best chapters detail life outside the confines of the assembly line and the dormitories: Hustlers promote pyramid schemes; a self-help author preaches the practicality of plagiarizing; and Mr. Wu, whose method for teaching English informs the chapter "Assembly-Line English", inspires his star pupil to teach despite her lack of fluency. In the talent market, workers claim to possess skills beyond their actual experiences. A motivational speaker remarks that "In a factory with one thousand or ten thousand people, to have the boss discover you is very hard. You must discover yourself."

One may be left with the impression that the modus operandi is one of self-preservation and opportunism, but the author never gives the impression of moralizing and doesn't write an exposé of China's problems. If the cast of dynamic characters seem like those you might imagine in a frontier town—surviving on their wits, a little suspect of outsiders, and constantly building, moving or selling snake oil—it is partly because these are the characters that make for the most compelling reading; but also because the author notes that, to some degree, the subjects were self-selecting, since the ambitious were more open to talking about themselves.

On occasion, Chang departs from the central themes of migration and the quest for employment, education and security to examine her own family history. The attempt to draw parallels between her grandfather and the factory girls is tenuous—he was sent abroad for a college degree, something beyond the financial reach of most girls in China and certainly beyond the reach of most factory girls. Even if the motivation to search for a better life was the same, the differences remain too broad to convince the reader. Nevertheless, these sections provide a valuable context as they explore some of the consequences of the Communist Revolution and the subsequent years of recovery.

The author's rare fallible moments turn into one of the book's strengths. No mantle of authority is assumed here. When Chang struggles, we empathize with her, particularly in the beginning when she hesitates to approach workers on the street for interviews and experiences emotional victories and setbacks with the girls. When she seems a little too pleased with being a native speaker of English, as when she mentions "all the times strangers had gushed over my English", it's a forgivable faux-pas—living abroad for years in pursuit of a story is no easy feat, and indeed, that willingness to portray oneself in a multi-faceted light, whether favorable or not, lends an honesty to the voice that might otherwise become too distant, too austere.

Factory Girls does not propose solutions, nor is it meant as a comprehensive guide to current trends in the industry. Instead the author leaves it up to the reader to draw his or her own moral conclusions. Although some readers may notice an absence of the more salient controversies (from the USA point of view) surrounding the factories, such as extensive discussions on unionization or the lack thereof, livable wages, or whether or not foreign corporations should be outsourcing their manufacturing processes in the first place, the author appears to be focusing more on the human-interest perspective, and as such, succeeds wonderfully when it comes to following Chunming, one of the main subjects, whose journey rivals that of any fictional protagonist. One of the highlights occurs when Chang visits Chunming's family. Growing up in a communal village where privacy is nominal goes a long way towards explaining the initial loneliness the girls experience in an anonymous city like Dongguan, but also the freedom most of them come to appreciate, even when it comes at a high cost.

Ms. Chang's writing is thoroughly engaging, both serious and funny in unexpected ways. A pastiche of slogans, Maoist song lyrics, facts, reportage, sociology and insights, Factory Girls would interest the general reader as well as those particularly interested in Asian affairs.

Reviewed by Karen Rigby

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2008, and has been updated for the September 2009 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Immersion Journalism

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket
    by Jabari Asim
    The captivating historical novel Yonder turns an intimate lens towards the tragedy and survivorship ...
  • Book Jacket: After Sappho
    After Sappho
    by Selby Wynn Schwartz

    "Someone will remember us, I say, even in another time."
    —Sappho, fragment ...

  • Book Jacket: City Under One Roof
    City Under One Roof
    by Iris Yamashita
    When a disembodied arm and leg wash ashore in Point Mettier, Alaska, most residents assume they ...
  • Book Jacket: We Deserve Monuments
    We Deserve Monuments
    by Jas Hammonds
    Jas Hammonds' debut young adult novel We Deserve Monuments provides a fresh look at the coming-of-...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The Mitford Affair
by Marie Benedict
An explosive novel of history's most notorious sisters, one of whom will have to choose: her country or her family?

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Nazi Conspiracy
    by Brad Meltzer & Josh Mensch

    From two bestselling authors, the true story of the plot to kill Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill.

  • Book Jacket

    by Wendell Steavenson

    A young woman struggles to break free of her upper-class upbringing amid the whirlwind years of the sexual revolution.

  • Book Jacket

    Wade in the Water
    by Nyani Nkrumah

    A gripping debut novel of female power and vulnerability, race, and class set in a small Mississippi town in the early 1980s.


Solve this clue:

C To T Q

and be entered to win..

Who Said...

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world...

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.