FACTORY GIRLS by Leslie T. Chang

Book Quote:

“The [gender] divide implied certain things. Young women enjoyed a more fluid job situation; they could join a factory assembly line and move up to be clerks or salespeople. Young men had a harder time entering a factory, and once in they were often stuck. Women, in the factory or out, came into contact with a wider range of people and quickly adopted the clothes, hairstyles, and accents of the city; men tended to stay locked in their outsider worlds. Women integrated more easily into urban life, and they had more incentive to stay.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett (MAR 4, 2010)

American journalist Chang, who kept her Chinese heritage at arm’s length for many years, explores her family’s past and the country’s history as she follows the lives of migrant workers in the industrial city of Dongguan, where 70 percent of the population is female.

Most of the factory girls are uneducated, age 18 to 25, flocking in from rural villages. “Most migrants associated the place they came from with poverty and backwardness, and some were even reluctant to say the name of their village.”

Chang, former Wall Street Journal Beijing Bureau chief, surveys the scene, interviewing many and getting a sense of their naiveté, hopes and ambitions, before homing in on several stories and following two in particular, Chunming and Min. An engaging storyteller, Chang pulls readers into the girls’ dreams, failures and desires, turning this in-depth social study into a riveting page-turner.

“To me every town looked the same. Construction sites and cheap restaurants. Factories, factories, factories, the metal lattices of their gates drawn shut like nets. Min saw the city through different eyes: Every town was the possibility of a more desirable job than the one she had. Her mental map of Dongguan traced all the bus journeys she had made in search of a better life.”

Chang visits The Talent Market, where young people jockey for jobs, seldom staying put for long, though bosses hold back two months of pay and may try to prevent them from leaving. Mobile phones are lifelines. To lose one is to lose all contact with friends, who have no fixed abode, no relatives to anchor them.

“Women worked as clerks and in human resources and sales, and they held most of the jobs on the assembly line; the bosses felt that young women were more diligent and easy to manage.”

Want ads were often very specific:


As Chang moves from the general to the personal she calls on diaries, e-mails and visits with Chunming and Min, who are more ambitious and single-minded than most, learning first to use their youth and naivety to land a job, and then to scheme and lie and study hard to jump to better jobs, out of the factory and into the office.

Chunming is lured into a brothel and escapes, losing everything but her life, then claws her way back with a stolen ID card, eventually reaching heady heights in sales, only to have the company collapse and land her back on the assembly line. Not that she stays there for long.

Most girls return home to marry after age 25. Min and Chunming, still ambitious, hope to marry, but their attempts at meeting men mostly fizzle. The man is too short, or not ambitious enough, or maybe too violent and dissolute.

Chang visits Min’s family with her and charts the contrasts between village closeness (and lack of privacy), customs and family hierarchy, to the free-for-all life of the factory town. And, too, the family balance of power is changing. Min, sending back money, making home improvements, has more say and more attitude.

Exploring the lives of these girls, Chang makes side trips into her own family history – her landowner grandfather, village life, the family flight to Taiwan, migration to America. The contrast is as sobering as the pace of life in modern China, where nothing stays the same for long and history is to be honored and then smashed up for re-development.

Chang’s well-organized book is an illuminating portrait of a culture in economic and social upheaval and her empathetic portrayal of individuals is moving and engrossing.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 34 readers
PUBLISHER: Spiegel & Grau; Reprint edition (August 4, 2009)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AMAZON PAGE: Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read review of her husband’s book:

Country Driving by Peter Hessler


March 4, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: China, Non-fiction

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