“Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China” by Leslie T. Chang

Factory Girls

This book is partly about factory girls in China and partly about the author’s own family history. The two parts don’t blend together and the reader often feels the lack of cohesion, although the book is well-researched and well-written. It reveals the inner workings of China’s economic miracle of recent decades – and for this reason alone it’s worth reading.

I really relished the parts where the author carefully tracks the lives of several young girls who leave their homes in rural China in search of a better future and find their way to the factories in large towns and cities. Their dreams and aspirations, successes and disappointments, factory-hopping and dating games make interesting reading.

From Wu Chunming’s diary, the author shares many entries. An entry made on May 24, 1994 reads: “We start work at seven in the evening and get off work at nine at night. Afterward we shower and wash our clothes. At around ten, those with money go out for midnight snacks and those without money go to sleep. We sleep until 6.30 in the morning. No one wants to get out of bed, but we must work at seven.” Another undated entry reads: “RIGHT NOW I HAVE NOTHING. MY ONLY CAPITAL IS THAT I AM STILL YOUNG.” Chunming had migrated to Dongguan from a village in Hunan province two years ago when she was seventeen. The author met her when she was nearly thirty.

The author’s grandfather travelled to the US to study and subsequently returned home only to be killed in Manchuria in 1946. Later he is turned into a martyr, but again the tide turns and his grave is desecrated. The grandmother stoically brings up her five children, moving them to Taiwan in 1948, and sending them to the US one by one. The author herself is born in America and works in Beijing as a WSJ correspondent for several years. She begins a serious investigation that culminates in this book.

Are there any revelations? Well, here are some insights and observations:

  • In traditional Chinese genealogies, a family traces its lineage back to the “first migrating ancestor” who settled in a new location.
  • Widows who remarried after their husbands’ deaths were often omitted from a genealogy, as were childless concubines and sons who became monks.
  • Chinese history museums have grey areas. Ancient civilization is glorified but we are reminded that it was also feudal and backward. Modern China was ravaged by foreigners. China triumphed in 1949 when the communists came to power. But dark events such as the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 were blacked out.
  • Chiang Kai-shek breached the dikes of the Yellow River and unleashed a flood to stem the Japanese invasion. But the flood killed several hundred thousand Chinese farmers as well.
  • Though the government promoted cremation and charged each family a hefty fine for a burial, many villagers simply paid up and proceeded to bury their dead.
  • A fake degree from a vocational college cost around $7.50 while one from a vocational high school could be obtained for half that price.
  • “The mobile phone was the first big purchase of most migrants. Without a phone, it was virtually impossible to keep up with friends or find a new job…….. In a universe of perpetual motion, the mobile phone was magnetic north, the thing that fixed a person in place.”
  • “People referred to themselves in the terminology of mobile phones. I need to recharge. I am upgrading myself.”

The human suffering that triggers migration and the inevitable emotional cost is clearly spelt out. In the author’s own words, “My grandmother pushed her children to leave. She felt that Taiwan was too small; America was the only place for further education. But the journey by ship across the Pacific Ocean was too costly to be taken more than once. Every time she said goodbye to a child, she knew it was for the last time.”

There is pathos, there is humour, and there is some measure of confusion. Three chapters stick out of the book like a sore thumb: “The stele with no name”, “The historian in my family” and “The tomb of the emperor”. They have nothing to do with factory girls.

Overall Assessment: Worth reading despite the complexity.

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
AUTHOR: Leslie T Chang
PUBLISHER: Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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