Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
by Leslie T. Chang
Spiegel & Grau, 2008
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Heather McLellan
Once again, our book review takes us to an exotic, faraway land. This time, instead of le gai Paris, we'll be exploring industrial China. Leslie T. Chang, an intrepid American reporter, writes the best kind of nonfiction in Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China: namely, the kind that has no bias other than "what information will make the best story?" While Chang's book can be both fun and frustrating in equal measure, there is a ton of stuff to learn here, and almost all of it is worthwhile.
Factory Girls, at first blush, is most comparable to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Instead of early 20th-century Chicago, however, Chang's book focuses on modern-day Dongguan, China. Originally an out-of-the-way farmland, Dongguan has transformed into an industrial powerhouse over the last half-century. Powered by the insatiable lust for electronics and clothing in the West, as well as the cheap, inexhaustible supply of migrant workers from the Chinese countryside, Dongguan is now home to millions of young women who are making their own fortunes and dictating their own destinies. Part capitalist exhortation and part exposé, Chang documents these young women as they move from job to job, boyfriend to boyfriend, and city to farm and back again.
First and foremost, Chang's writing style is a nonfiction writer's dream come true, most closely resembling the works of V.S. Naipaul, but channeling her fair share of Sinclair and Orwell, too. Most of Dongguan's fast-paced tribulations come through the eyes of Chunming and Min, two factory girls whom Chang befriends early on to act as her eyes and ears in the factories, schools, ice cream shops, and governmental bureaucracies in the sprawling Chinese city.
Even as the two describe fairly abysmal working conditions - twelve-hour days with little overtime pay and only two days off each month - Factory Girls never devolves into a polemic. In fact, Chang takes time to point out how much these conditions have improved in the last twenty years, how much fun the girls are able to cram in after-hours, and how their newfound relative wealth gives them a considerable amount of social power, both in dealing with their families and potential suitors. Make no mistake - you probably wouldn't want to work in a Dongguan factory, but if you were a young Chinese woman whose only frame of reference was an idle, rural life, this would be the most exciting adventure imaginable.
The book falters, however, when Chang digresses into her own family history, which she intersperses into the narrative with increasing frequency. It's understandable that Chang, a born-and-bred American citizen who has little innate connection to China beyond her racial heritage, would want to learn more about her past. However, the links between Chang's family drama during the Communist revolution and the China's current industrialization are tenuous, at best, and the stories about Min and Chunming are frankly much more interesting. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, these sections take up a good 1/3 - 1/2 of the book.
In spite of a few boring patches, Factory Girls is well worth a read for anyone who's interested in Chinese culture, the power dynamics of women in China, or good reporting in general. At this point, I usually recommend a "better" book, but I'm not sure there really is one here. Both The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell deal with similar situations in the West in the early 20th century, and while both are better written, neither one explores Chang's subject matter. This is a book primarily meant to educate, and unless you are a leading expert on Chinese culture, you'll probably learn a lot.