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A Conversation with Leslie T. Chang
There's been a lot written in recent years on the sweatshop conditions inside Chinese factories. Yet in Factory Girls, you describe a job on the assembly line in terms of adventure, opportunity, even liberation. Doesn't this contradict the reality of factory life?
Certainly conditions in the factories are tough. Most of the young women I got to know while researching this book worked thirteen hours a day, seven days a week when they first started out. Their wages were often late; many had no idea how much they would be paid from month to month, because the factory charged fees for all sorts of things over which they had no control. But you have to remember that the world looks very different when you're coming from a Chinese farming village. What we think of as miserable living conditions—bad food, tedious labor, living twelve or fifteen to a room—are a given to these workers. Their response is usually not to complain or protest, as a typical American might, but to look for any slight advantage that would lead to an improvement in their situations. I think that's the reason you see a lot less protest in these factories than you might expect. These workers are constantly calculating what is in their own best interest. Usually they decide that talking a boss into giving them a raise or jumping to a different job is a better option than challenging the factory directly.
Early in your book, you meet two young women who had come out from their village twenty days before "and already they were changed." How does going to the city change them?
For most of these young people, working in the factory marks the first time in their lives that they have ever earned cash. That immediately changes their relationship with their parents—having money gives them a lot more leverage in family decisions, for example. It makes them think more carefully about what skills they need to move up, and also what kind of person they might marry, or how they want to raise their children someday. Over time, the experience of working in the city can completely transform their view of the world and their expectations of life. When I first met Min, a young woman who became one of my book's main characters, she told me she would work in the city for seven years and then return home to get married. Over time, as she became more established and more ambitious, those plans went out the window.
Both Min and Chunming, the two young women who are the book's main characters, end up rising from the factory floor into better-paying work. Did you choose them because they were success stories?
Actually, I wasn't looking for any great successes or great failures when I started my reporting. Both Min and Chunming had pretty typical profiles—they came from poor farming families, they had not attended high school or college, and they had come out to the city as teenagers to work in the factories. Beyond that, the main reason I ended up focusing on them was because they were engaging and open and easy to talk to, and they were willing to have me follow them around for what ended up being three years.
This approach—of getting to know a person and watching what happens to them in real time—is very different from more traditional journalism, where you decide to write about someone because you already know his story and then all that's left for you to do is to "back-report" everything that's already happened. But that approach tends to pre-determine your story from the start. If you want to show that it's easy to be successful, choose someone who has already succeeded. If you want to show the opposite, start with someone else.
Is this open-ended reporting easy to do in a place like China?
I think China today is really an ideal place for the kind of reporting that follows someone in real time. Because people's lives are changing so dramatically, if you are willing to spend a year or two with someone, you are basically guaranteed to see change and transformation. That's true all along the economic spectrum, but probably most pronounced in the lives of the rural poor, which is one reason I wanted to write about them.
You were a journalist at the Wall Street Journal in China for ten years. How did this experience shape the research and writing of your book?
Definitely my reporting experience in China helped me. I knew how to find information, I knew which Chinese newspapers were useful, I could locate scholars if I wanted some background on what I was seeing. I find that when people come to China "cold" to report, they tend to have a subconscious sense that a lot of things are unknowable, but that isn't usually true.
At the same time, I found I had to unlearn a fair amount. For starters, I had to throw out the traditional interview technique of writing down a bunch of questions in your notebook beforehand and then running through them in the course of the interview. I found it was best just to arrange to spend a day with someone, to watch and be quiet and see what developed. There's a lot of downtime, and I had to learn to be patient. Journalism is fueled by impatience; you are always being rushed to wrap up your reporting, write your story, get out of town. If I had met either Min or Chunming at certain points—when Min was robbed of her savings and her mobile phone, or when Chunming's first business went bankrupt—and then written about them right away, I would have drawn a pretty dire picture. Because I hung around with them for three years before I wrote anything, I could see the broader trajectory of their lives. It was very different than what you could see at any given moment.
You include your own family story in this book, even though your family background is very different from that of the migrant workers. How did this come about?
It started by chance. In the spring of 2005 while I was doing my factory reporting, I took a book leave from the Wall Street Journal, and because I had more free time I decided to visit my ancestral village in northeastern China. I started piecing together the details of how my grandfather had left this tiny farming village in 1916 to attend school in Beijing, then to go to America and later to return to China, where he was assassinated shortly after the Second World War. My father basically retraced that journey forty years later—from Beijing to Taiwan to America—and then, forty years after that, I made the reverse journey from America back to Beijing. I realized that including my family's history of migration and immigration would make the book more personal but also universal—after all, you could say that the story of people leaving home in search of a better life is really the story of all nations and all people. Bringing in the history of China in the twentieth century, through my own family's experiences, also gave context to what was going on in the factory towns. I don't think a place like Dongguan, with all of its hunger, energy, industry, and pragmatism, could exist without the traumas that China has endured over the last century.
Choosing to include my family story also made sense from a writing point of view. It freed me to write about history, which gave the book a different pacing and rhythm. I hope it also made my own character in the book more interesting—because I was discovering my own family story and meeting relatives, I became more than just a reporter and an observer. I could develop my voice as a writer and bring more of my own emotions into the book, and explore more directly the complicated feelings I had about China.