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 adventurea 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 townsurviving on their wits, a little suspect of outsiders, and constantly building, moving or selling snake oilit 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 tenuoushe 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-pasliving 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.
This review was originally published in October 2008, and has been updated for the August 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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