Sweat and Striving on China's Factory Floor

Young women who flee the hinterlands for the cities find exhausting factory workand social mobility

Editor's Rating:

The Good: A telling portrait of China's migrant industrial workers

The Bad: Chapters on the author's own experiences seem like a digression.

The Bottom Line: A compelling, atmospheric look at seldom-seen China.

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

by Leslie T. ChangSpiegel & Grau -- 420 pp. -- $26

The rise of China as a manufacturing powerhouse has meant mammoth change for the world: lower prices on everything from sneakers to flat-screen TVs, an exodus of manufacturing jobs from the U.S. and Europe, and Beijing's emergence as a strategic adversary. For the mainland itself, one of the most salient shifts has been the rise of a new class of migrant workers. Over the past 30 years tens of millions of people have moved from China's remote rural provinces to burgeoning coastal cities.

Few of those cities have changed as much as Dongguan. Three decades ago it was little more than a collection of villages in the Pearl River Delta, near Hong Kong. Today it's a metropolis of more than 8 million people, with thousands of factories employing young migrant workers who spend 12 or more hours a day toiling on assembly lines.

Most of those workers are women. Factory owners prefer to hire females, believing that they're less likely to cause trouble than men and that their hands are better suited to detail work. The women—often girls as young as 16 or 17—typically have more to gain from leaving the countryside, where boys are first in line to take over their parents' farm plots.

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by former Wall Street Journal correspondent Leslie T. Chang, gives readers a keen sense of where their MP3 players, ski parkas, alarm clocks, boxer shorts, and cell phones come from, and offers a penetrating view into the lives of the people who make them. The Chinese-American Chang—who speaks Mandarin fluently—gained unusual entrée into the migrants' world. She spent weeks at a time in Dongguan, eventually renting an apartment there. She takes readers on a tour of the humble places these young workers inhabit—the hot and smelly dorm rooms they share with as many as a dozen other girls, the noisy factory floors where they spend their days, the karaoke bars and brothels where some end up, and the villages in the hinterland where their parents still live.

What these women lack in age and maturity they make up for in ambition. They earn as little as $40 per month but spend much of that on anything that might help them get off the factory floor: English classes, self-help gurus, orthodontia, dating services, and something called "White-Collar Secretarial Skills Special Training Class." This three-month course includes tips such as: "During the noon rest hour, do not lie horizontally on the chair or desk" and "Do not take home leftovers from a buffet." No action, Chang writes, was "so elementary that it didn't require instructions; the class sometimes felt like a crash course for Martians trying to pass as human beings."

In the latter half of the book, Chang accompanies one of her subjects, Min, to her home village. There, the fault lines of the new China come into sharp relief. This is no longer a Confucian society where age is venerated above all else. Although Min's Dongguan job (her fourth in a year) pays only about $100 a month, that's good money in her village. As a result, at 18 she has become an equal partner with her parents, giving them cash and telling them how to spend it. Min scolds her father for smoking, instructs her mother to shut the windows, and suggests they buy a washing machine and pave part of their courtyard with concrete.

The book's weakest moments come in several lengthy chapters that describe the experiences of Chang's own family, both in China and as emigrants. While some of this is interesting, Chang would have done better to save the material for a memoir. Here, it feels like a digression.

Still, Chang creates compelling portraits of her female subjects. At times, the material is bleak—factory labor in southern China can be grueling, and the lives of those who do it can be difficult. But a spirit of optimism shines through in most of the women. They think nothing of exaggerating their qualifications to get a better job and are always ready to jump from one factory to another to earn just a few more dollars per month: One veteran who worked her way up from the assembly line into various low-level management positions has held more than a dozen jobs in 13 years in Dongguan. It's a hard life, to be sure, but also one in which ambitious young people can—and do—constantly reinvent themselves, just as China itself has in recent decades.

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