What a happy coincidence that Factory Girls should be my book review for Women’s Month!
It is an extraordinary book, as engaging as any novel or famous person’s biography.
How much do we really know about China’s Pearl River Delta, source of so many goods in our households? (including, for example, 75% of the world’s toys)
Author Leslie Chang from the Wall Street Journal had heard the stories of woe, which have been known for some time, about the less-than-desirable working conditions in the factories of the PRD. She explains in the endnotes:
[The Western press] had already published stories about the terrible conditions in the factories. They tended to portray migration as a desperate act without much of a payoff for people. I had a suspicion that there must be more to this, that perhaps things were not so black and white. For a teenager from a farming village, the whole experience of going out to the city might appear very different than it does to us as Americans. What’s it like to leave your village at the age of sixteen, to go to a city where you don’t know anyone, to work on an assembly line, to earn money for the first time, to date whoever you want? How does your relationship with your family change? How do your friendships change? How does your world view change?
She answers these and many more questions.
The book, and Chang as an author, have many strengths. One is persisting with the interviewees over a very long time (about three years), long enough to see them change and mature in a critical moment of their lives. Another is her ability to avoid moralising about how terrible the working conditions are. She mentions it in passing once or twice but, as the quote above suggests, she feels enough has already been said on that subject. While she is sometimes taken aback at the way her subjects act, she never opines that they should have acted differently. This empathy carries the book through. The result is a ground-level portrait of life in today’s Guangzhou, the aspirations and daily routines of its untold millions of migrant workers.
These people are, of course, not drones. They are actually quite plucky. It turns out that they buy self improvement books in large quantities – apparently bookstores in the region stock little else. They attend night classes to learn extra skills. They readily sign up for direct marketing schemes. They look for love – mostly online, where potential suitors can be reviewed at a rate of several dozen an hour. They couldn’t give two hoots about Communism or the central government in Beijing. And often, having tasted city life, they have no desire to move back to their rural origins.
Chang goes to lengths to explore all facets of life in the factories. She paints an impressive portrait of the chaotic ‘unplannedness’ of it all. With the PRD’s population nearing 80 million and a neck-breaking pace of change, people can purport to be whoever they want. You can readily find someone who will issue a fake identification card or a fake diploma. ‘Everyone’ lies about their past work experience, because no one ever checks. Moreover, technical training is somewhat pointless given the rate of technological change. As with individuals, so it is with companies that are little more than an office and a box of business cards, striving to make their break by landing a first contract.
One question on my mind was answered: Why don’t the workers of the PRD form unions? The answer: Generally they don’t intend to stay at their current place of employment much longer. They are constantly hopping from one to the next (or at least they were five years ago when this book was being researched), constantly looking for a slightly better job.
Well done to Ms Chang for turning a story of overwhelming numbers into something personal. As I neared the end of the book I found myself wishing a photo of the main interviewees had been included, but then I thought no, theirs could be anyone’s story. Not just anyone in the PRD, but anyone who has ever left home.