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Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang

April 28, 2009

“May 25, 1994

Since I have come to Guangdong, I have jumped factories four or five times, and each factory was better than the last. More important was that at each instance, I relied on myself. I never begged help from anyone. Although I have a few good friends, not one helped me at the time when I most needed it.

I remember when I fled back from Shenzhen. At that time, I truly had nothing to my name. Other than my own self, I had nothing else. I wandered outside for a month, completely penniless, once even going hungry for two days and no one knew… Although my older cousin and his wife were in Longyan, I did not want to go find them, because they could  not really help me. I often wanted to rely on others, but they cannot be relied on. You can only rely on yourself.

Yes, I can only rely on myself.”

Published just last year by the WSJ’s Beijing correspondent for the last decade, Leslie Chang, this book has really impacted the way I think about the manufacturing industry and doing business in China. More importantly, since the subjects are all young women around my age (or even younger) who are setting off on a professional life of their own the stories ring true and the questions they grapple with bear an uncanny resemblance to issues in my life (complaining about having no time left for themselves in the day, wondering whether to save or to spend on frivolous things, disappointed by boys, working hard to constantly improve themselves).

Leslie Chang follows the lives of village girls who have traveled to the city of Dong Guan in Guang Dong province in Southern China seeking manufacturing jobs. She interviews assembly line workers at cell phone parts factories and the clerks who manage them, and the karaoke bar girls, pyramid schemers and village girls who have given up on the factory life. Often these girls don’t have education beyond middle school and have never left their small farming villages before. Suddenly, they are thrust into a ruthless urban environment where everyone is out to cheat everyone else out of a profit. Besides giving an intimate account of factory life (some of these factories are worlds unto themselves with their own movie theaters, hospitals and kindergartens) and the draining conditions under which these girls work, this book also provides insight into the largest migration in human  history – China has 130 million migrant workers – and this human tide is responsible for China’s transformation from a largely rural, agriculturally based society to a urban industrial one. To understand the life of a migrant worker is to learn how to lift your life up out of middle of no where, no prospects, medieval rural China to a fast paced urban life similar to what we are familiar with (whether it’s a better life is constantly debated in the book, but the poverty and idleness of village life as the author experienced it is enough to make many of the girls say that they could never go back). But besides revealing the ugly side of where your cell phone came from, this book is immensely inspiring. The courage and motivation the girls exhibit in the face of not only repetitive and tiring work but also demeaning bosses, blatant sexism, and little prospects for the future is amazing. One of the author’s subjects (whose diary entries are above and below) started as an assembly line worker and overcame her shy side to work her way up to earning $5,000 a month (granted, in a pyramid scheme selling spaces for cremated ashes in a high rise…) through perseverance and a belief in self promotion. It really gives you perspective on what a person can be capable of if they put their mind to it.

The author also brings a new perspective to this story by telling the history of her family, her grandfather’s trip to study in the US, the idealism that led him back to China, his tragic death at the hands of the Soviets in WWII and her father’s flight to Taiwan and eventually to the US, where she was born. This reminds us that migration has been an integral force that shapes our world and that the country we live in was shaped just as much by people with an identical attitude of self reliance and a motivation to build a better future.

For a blog post by the author on the process of writing the book and the challenges of shifting from journalism to book writing click here.

“April 1, 1994

Yes, I am a person so ordinary that I cannot be more ordinary, so plain I cannot be plainer, a girl like all the other girls. I like to eat snacks, I like to have fun, and I like to look pretty. Don’t imagine that I can be superhuman.

You are just a most ordinary, most plain girl, attracted to anything that is pretty or tasty or fun. So from being ordinary and plain I will make my start.”

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